A top Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) official said this week that the VA is driving forward the idea that when it comes to technology and innovation, Federal contractors need to become an integral part of the government team.

Kurt DelBene, VA’s chief information officer (CIO), said during a media roundtable on June 6, “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 typically too often between the contractor and the full-time teams.”

“If you think about it, in a lot of cases, that big dev team that we have as part of the triad is just an outsourced team. And we’re driving towards having that team be an integral part of every single one of the projects we run,” DelBene said.

The CIO explained that many people don’t understand the magnitude of the VA, noting that the agency’s tech umbrella extends about a half million-plus desktops, about 2,000 locations, and over 1,000 IT systems.

The other factor that people don’t quite recognize, DelBene said, is the ratio of work completed by contractors. The CIO said that the large majority of projects within the VA are done via contractors.

“We live in sync together, so we’ve got to think of ourselves as a shared team and operate that way,” DelBene said.

The VA official also explained that while they’re attempting to integrate contractors into their team more and more, the agency is also trying to make sure that they hold contractors accountable.

“FITARA is one way to do that,” DelBene said, referring to the requirements of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. “But we also do root cause analysis on every issue. We identify places where contractors are not actually performing well, and we make sure that we document that for future years and remediate against it,” he said.

He added, “That’s really key to upping the game for contractors.”

DelBene also explained that the VA is moving away from “Big Bang” development projects –when government staff spend years gathering requirements, awarding a large contract to a single systems integrator to build to exact requirements, and then testing extensively against them. This type of approach typically leads to modernization projects being over budget and behind schedule.

“Those are the ones that often we talk about as failures,” DelBene said. The CIO said his team is moving to a world where they work on projects bit-by-bit, and asking contractors to first deliver a minimum viable product and seeing if that meets the actual need. Then, DelBene said, VA will ask the contractors to iterate that product and make sure it can get to a place where it can scale. That way the VA is “not actually committing those dollars until we actually see that the system is the system that we think is right.”

DelBene said that leaving behind the “Big Bang” product development approach in the past has allowed the VA to change the way it engages with smaller contractors.

“We want to bring more and more of them into the ecosystem of VA OIT,” he said. “There’s a lot of innovation that goes on with smaller contractors, but then if they can prove themselves and then scale up and do more and more with us overtime.”

The CIO said that his team is also implementing software factories to standardize innovation with contractors, and the VA wants to bring more contractors in to build software in the VA’s infrastructure versus their own.

DelBene concluded, saying that the VA 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.”

The agency, he said, is “changing the kind of projects we drive so that there’s less of this big bang, more of that build success upon success. And we think if you take those things collectively it’ll increase our success with projects in the VA.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.