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VA CIO is Creating a ‘Shared Team’ with Contractors

The tech chief is stressing the importance of a shared, integrated team between government and industry on contracting opportunities.

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VA CIO is Creating a ‘Shared Team’ with Contractors
Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Kurt DelBene speaks on a panel at GovCIO Media & Research's CyberScape: Zero Trust event Sept. 29, 2022 in Tyson's Corner, Virginia. Photo Credit: GovCIO Media & Research

The Department of Veterans Affairs is emphasizing the importance of close collaboration between government and contractors to effectively deliver on the mission and drive continuous improvement as a unified front.

VA has over a half million desktops, approximately 2,000 locations and more than 1,000 systems. In many cases, development teams are outsourced to contractors, and VA CIO Kurt DelBene said he’s prioritizing making contracting teams an “integral part” of its modernization projects, operating as a “shared team.”

“Outsourcing can work well, especially in a world where it’s going to take us a while to ramp up to getting more full-time, highly technical individuals,” he said during a press conference. “We’re going to live in an environment where contractors are a key part of getting the work done. One of the things that we’ve observed, and I’ve noted in particular as I joined, is that there’s an arm’s length too often between the contractor and the full-time teams.”

The agency also conducts root cause analysis where contractors are not performing well, and VA documents it to remediate against it.

“I think that’s really key to kind of upping the game for contractors generally speaking,” DelBene said.

DelBene told GovCIO Media & Research that VA has objectives and key results (OKRs), both at the VA’s Office of Information and Technology (OIT) overall level and within each of the individual teams and reviews broken up in six-month semesters. Following each semester, VA will outline areas of improvement to make progress.

VA also has a resiliency dashboard, which tracks systems for uptime, resiliency and key criteria for engineering excellence.

“We have an engineering excellence initiative, which says we get together as a group, and we find out where we have chinks in the armor of our engineering processes. What do we want to drive for improvement there?” DelBene told GovCIO Media & Research. “It’s all about figuring out where our gaps are, figuring out what do we want to measure differently in the next semester than we are in this semester, and just iteratively turning the crank over and over and over again.”

Additionally, VA is moving away from “big bang” development projects, which DelBene said “are the ones that often we talk about as failures.”

“We’re moving into a world where if we do an RFP, for instance, we will define that first nugget, that minimum viable product (MVP) and, say, the first milestone,” he added. “The first thing you will deliver to us is that MVP, and then we’ll see that it meets the actual need. We’ll then iterate and make sure we get it to that point where it is set, and then we’ll scale it out from there.”

For the additional task options following the MVP, DelBene added VA won’t commit those dollars until the system fits the need of the agency.

VA also wants to bring in more small business contractors, but to do so they need to present proven capabilities to the agency. To help small businesses contractors develop these proven solutions, VA is giving them small pieces of work to deliver on, which can then be scaled up.

“The gist is thinking very differently about contractors, thinking of them as integral parts of our team that are peers of ours, but then keeping that evaluation going and having those engagements, particularly with their leadership to make sure that they’re doing the right thing for us,” DelBene said. “Then, changing the kind of projects we drive so that there’s less of this big bang, more of that build success upon success. If you take those things collectively, it’ll increase our success.”

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