The Situation Report: VA’s Culture War and CCX Brainstorm Takes Washington

On Tuesday, May 5, 2015, the United States Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs held hearings on pending nominations of Dr. David J. Shulkin, Nominee to be Under Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and LaVerne H. Council, Nominee to be Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Information and Technology, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (VA Photo/Robert Turtil)

This is a special Tuesday Situation Report, as your humble correspondent will be traveling for the rest of the week. So for those of you who are used to reading your inside baseball on Thursdays, I apologize. But this is not one you would want to miss.

Brainstorm–June 15

The November election may be playing havoc with agency appointments and senior leadership positions, but there are two things that aren’t going away any time soon: cloud computing and the Federal Information 2016-CCX-Brainstorm-Website-Header_800x450Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA).

That’s not to say that things related to cloud and FITARA aren’t changing–because changing they are, and fast! But MeriTalk is hosting some of the biggest names in government IT on June 15 at the annual Cloud Computing Brainstorm. Even better, we’re opening the day with a FITARA breakfast session featuring OMB, members of Congress, and a keynote presentation from U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott.

We’ll be exploring everything from cloud migration strategies and security, to agency cloud collaboration and the value of open source, and open standards.

Register Here

VA’s Culture War

It’s fair to say that you have to give Bob McDonald credit for trying to turn those lemons at the Department of Veterans Affairs into lemonade. Sure, he’s had his missteps along the way, but McDonald has surely tried and has made some solid progress in reforming one of the most broken of all government bureaucracies.

But my reporting during the last two weeks has uncovered a disturbing trend–even after the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and the many early retirements of more than a few bad apples (retirements that should not have been allowed), there remains a major undercurrent of distrust and genuine dislike for many senior VA leaders. VA is losing the people battle. This has been particularly true in the Office of Information & Technology.

When LaVerne Council replaced Stephen Warren as VA chief information officer last July, technology newsrooms around Washington, D.C., filled with a sense of hope–an outsider was coming in to replace a career Federal employee whose management style had not won many hearts and minds.

Council squandered the opportunity. Upon her arrival, the mentality at OI&T quickly shifted in the wrong direction. “Transparency has a different meaning there. The prevailing attitude there now is that what is good for the assistant secretary is what’s good for the organization, not the other way around,” said a longtime OI&T insider, known to The Situation Report.

Those who knew Steph Warren almost long for the days when they would be left trying to figure out his social awkwardness. People just “didn’t get Steph,” said one of his former close advisers. “He has a unique personality that if you don’t know him can seem aggressive or condescending. But that was more social awkwardness. I actually thought he was an incredibly good leader and he had the best of the organization at heart. He was a good person and he worked with the best intentions.”

What about Council? The situation there is less clear. Even as recently as April, the MyVA Advisory Committee–a group of about a dozen of the most senior officials in VA, as well as Secretary McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson–made a point to advise Council to “embed sustainability” within her own organization rather than to complain about her staff’s lack of skills or the tendency of components to deploy “shadow IT.”

“Council is all about Council,” said a former VA official who worked for both Warren and Council. “She was personally very nice to me. But her style is management by territory building and aggressive behavior that borders on bullying. She surrounds herself with sycophants and is not open to debate.”

Some also have serious questions about the technical qualifications that Council and others, like Brian Burns—the former VA chief information security officer that The Situation Report believes may be only days away from becoming the first Federal CISO. According to some, neither Council nor Burns have an in-depth grasp of the technological aspects of their jobs.

The bottom line is this: VA’s reputation has been destroyed. It can’t fill the 43,000 job vacancies it currently has, and it can’t find senior leaders willing to join from outside the government. This has happened not because government is inept, but because this one agency allowed itself to become the place where third stringers could get ahead by jumping from one gig to the next, and where kingdom builders can get away with it as long as they have cover from the top.

McDonald can’t change this by November. After that, it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take to win the VA culture war.

See you next week.

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  1. Anonymous | - Reply
    Couldn't agree more. Ms. Council built a wall around herself and only certain people get an audience. Mr. Warren, although a bit difficult sometimes, had an open door. Ms. Council is rightly suspect of her subordinates but at the same time makes sweeping ill-informed decisions based presumably upon their input. We all wonder. But this is not new news. Googling Ms. Council prior employ shows that she has left a wake of broken IT organizations on her path to the VA. Good thing she went into IT vs becoming a neurosurgeon (
  2. Anonymous | - Reply
    Enterprise Operations is what is wrong with OI&T. Get rid of this organization and IT will improve. Quoting our office a million dollars for a single website tells me the EO folks in Austin do not understand IT or business.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      One of the biggest issues at EO is the price for service, I have heard this complaint across VA from many different folks who Need EO services. 250K to 500K for a simply website is crazy!. not to mention if you try to bring in a large project for hosting(millions). Most of the pricing includes VERY excessive price pile on by all sections of EO with no real justification for the cost. If anyone did the same in the private sector they would be out of business even before they started. fro example one project was quoted over 100 million to host and this could be done in the private sector for 10 to 20% of that cost.
      1. Anonymous | - Reply
        No one "NEEDS" EO. If anything that whole EO AITC organization could go away and the VA would actually benefit. 4 months to build a server and these AITC folks are "Professionals?"
  3. Anonymous | - Reply
    There are good people and groups in EO. Lack of qualified leadership like the rest of the VA plagues EO.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      Good will never not equal qualified. By this "good" standard a starfish would be just as effective in AITC as the "good" people. We need qualified people in AITC not a bunch of the starfish that we have now. Many of these GS-14 and 15s all they do is lay around and attempt to look good. They hire "good" unqualified people so they can remain looking smarter and better. Scrap AITC and their starfish leadership in AITC and OIT will improve... Hey AITC how is that Cloud project working out?...You know the one you started 4 years ago'm so glad I left......
      1. Anonymous | - Reply
        I just looked around at the OIT home page and spotlight employees. This is a DISGRACE!!! Someone tell me why is Angela Rust was a spotlight? All spotlight employees actually accomplished something. Cloud strategy? Is this the same Cloud that Austin wasted millions of dollars on only to end up with a basic VM environment? Oh the service Catalog - yeah I remember hearing about that in 2009..she is still working on that? LEAN - this is a joke. The only thing LEAN about the processes she implemented in Austin, well nothing.... We all see..this was just another self promoting article for OIT leadership. Once again these directors in Austin sound more important on paper than they really are. In the 10 years what has she actually accomplished other than a new assignment? Its been 6 months name one thing she (not someone else where she will take credit) accomplished that benefited the VA in this new role? Remove Austin from the picture - put OIT into an external cloud and dump all the pat myself on the back directors, starting with Austin.
        1. Anonymous | - Reply
          Don't be cruel...The dysfunctional system was in place long before she started with the VA. We could all accomplish a lot if our hands were not tied down to nonsense policies.
  4. Anonymous | - Reply
    Glad to see Stan Lowe back in the news, if not quoted by name!
  5. Anonymous | - Reply
    Steph = Sadaam Hussein. LaVerne = ISIS
  6. Anonymous | - Reply
    When OI&T took over VBA, VHA and AAC (EO) years ago they added so much overhead that they broke EO. Paperwork, lenghty approvals, data calls, dog and pony shows, budget exercises, non-stop planning leading to nowhere, and hundreds of confusing and worthless processes became much more important than IT services and customer satisfaction. IT moved from results-based performance to CYA reporting. OI&T and VA leadership forgot that HR, Budgeting, IT Business Offices, Contracting, and other support groups were there to enable IT to perform their core mission, not the other way around. If the military worked the same way as OIT, the combat troops would be responsible for supporting the mission of the logistical command, instead of the other way around. In the case of EO, the result of this is that they are now bloated with non-IT staff who outnumber the technical staff 3 to 1. Costs increase and service declines and the same thing is happening throughout SDE. Nobody should wonder why sustainment costs eat up so much of the budget. At least 50% of the expenses are probably not core IT functions. Leadership knows this and are making some changes. MyVA, VIP, reorganization and other initiatives are taking place but I hope they know that it's not just an IT staff problem, nor can IT staff alone fix it. The real problem is that these IT staff and IT leaders are now responsible and accountable for work outside of their core competencies. Let IT people do IT work and hold those accountable who are not supporting them adequately. If Ms. Council is going to "embed sustainability", she needs to ensure these support groups pull in the same direction as the front line IT staff or they will never be successful. And if they think that outsourcing is the answer, it may work for a little while but eventually the layers of bureaucracy will embed themselves in those services and the same problems will impact them as well. IT staff and leadership have problems just like any other IT group that's ever existed, but they've been beat up enough for things that are outside their control. You can't beat up an Army that has no logistical or intelligence support. The greatest Field Commanders in the world aren't going to be successful in that scenario.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      AAC/AITC created their own muck. Have you tried to get a server recently? It takes over a year and will cost you $$$$$. OIT did not do this. AAC/AITC did this by pretending to understand how to run a business.
  7. Anonymous | - Reply
    LaVerne Council is hands down one of the most destructive and incompetent executives I have ever seen. Remarkable the White House seems to have forgotten to Google her before the nomination, because it isn't hard to find a history of destruction and bullying behavior that is clearly being repeated. She has done more damage than could have possibly been imagined in 9 months, with 6 more to go. It will take years to recover. Steph is sorely missed. He absolutely had the best interests of people and the VA at heart.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      No, it's not the least bit remarkable, it was planned and executed perfectly. As for Steph, no he's not missed.
  8. Anonymous | - Reply
    All they had to do was come to J&J and ask people. They would have told the truth...
  9. Anonymous | - Reply
    I commend the author in exposing the truth around the leadership of Laverne Council. She leads by intimidation and bullying. Senior management is fearful of speaking up. One can only hope that the next administration does not renew this relationship.
  10. Anonymous | - Reply
    Maybe someone should think about hiring someone with a good IT technical background and that also knows something about EHR's and medical informatics. Q-tip management is not the same as medical records, where semantics, interoperability, security all have come together in a cohesive manner. 14 documents to buy a computer, software or storage device and a 6 month lead time will never work. Have 30 people on software committee - 75% of which have no interest in the activity wastes times and money and even worse causes distraction for those actually trying to get work done.
  11. Anonymous | - Reply
    Wow! I work in VA's OI&T org. I swear to god that reading all of these [negative] comments, that I had blacked out and written most of them myself and simply had no memory of doing it! Signed, a ~30-year military+Fed IT professional.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      30+ years? You are probably also part of the problem as to why the VA is working in the dark ages.
    2. Anonymous | - Reply
      Amen brother. Words can't describe how hard it it to come to work anymore. It's the worst part of my life, unfortunately I need the money. The drive into the office is like walking the green mile. Unfortunately everybody in my facility has come to understand that we really are the only ones to ICARE; heaven knows nobody who works in VACO gives a s*** about veterans or those of us on the front lines who work to deliver their care. When the Secretary accepted LaVerne and now allows her to do the things she's doing to IT, he's just as much to blame as her. Please God get rid of both of them, they are exactly what's wrong with the VA.
  12. Anonymous | - Reply
    Ditto every other comment here. Also an IT employee. This CIO is self centered and cares about herself only. She has the respect of no one. Fear - yes but absolutely no respect. Think about it, the same people who created the mess have been moved into other positions with the premise that good managers can manage anywhere. Two big issues with that concept, one is the assumption that there are any good managers and two is that she has no wisdom to see that. She surrounds herself with males that have no self worth and females that go along with whatever she says to get moved up. Go ahead, take a look at who has been promoted. It is not anyone who has a mind of their own. She also has brought in past colleagues through back doors as well as promoting side kicks to SES that would be lucky to be at GS13 levels if their talents mattered. I gotta believe the IG is looking into her contracting, hiring and personnel tactics. When it is all said and done, she will leave a wake of destruction in what is already a dysfunctional organization that will further distance us from our mission. Lord help us if the next administration looks to keep this monstrosity on .
  13. Anonymous | - Reply
    Thirty year plus VA IT employee here. I can barely stand to get up in the morning and face the daily crap at work. Most (like 95%) of my peers plan to leave the instant they can afford to. IT has been broken since around 2007 when the first IT reorg was implemented. It has only gone downhill since then. The problem? Wow, where to start? First the culture of trust and the feeling that we were on the same team and valued went out the window. Then communication became a one way street. You can guess the direction. Then all the overhead was added, the policies and procedures, the chain of command, all the minutia that regulates how an IT employee will do anything. The management staff in IT outnumbers the worker bees by a good 5 to one. It’s all about centralization and control these days. The VA use to be an innovator. IT put an end to that. Innovation only exists at the VHA level and IT does it’s absolute best to make sure it never sees the light of day. The VHA (and others) actively try to work around OIT in order to get things done. This certainly causes more problems in the long run but departments are desperate to get what they think is important accomplished. IT has it’s “processes”, hundreds of them. In IT the process is much more important than the product. In fact by the time something is through the process the product may well be obsolete or the customer has moved on to something else. If you are an IT employee at a facility you are basically a serf, a peon, and of absolutely no consequence. The worst possible job in the VA is that of the Facility CIO. The regional service lines are constantly beating on you to do more with less and the facility people are constantly mad at you because you can’t do what they want you to do. This is where the rubber meets the road and it’s the least appreciated and most understaffed area in the VA. It is starting to populate this level with contractors. Most IT staff believe this is where the VA is headed, to outsource the workforce. If you're a regional service line employee you work from home and never darken the VA's door. I mean, hey that's beneath you and you might have to see one of the serfs, or God forbid, actually speak to one. There are rumors that the regional service lines will be merge in national service lines. Maybe some of the petty tyrants will fall. There are some national IT folks. Some are good, some aren't. Mostly paperwork wonks. The most interesting group here is the new ePMO office. In one day 1400+ people were moved under this new office. Apparently it was a power/money grab. It appears they haven’t a clue as to what they are going to do with half of the employees they grabbed. Then there are the contractors. Contractors are used in the DC area to do the actually work. The typical IT organization in DC has just enough VA IT employees to exercise "management" over the mass of contractors. I have little faith or trust of anything that occurs in DC. Booze, Allen, Hamilton has a massive presence in the VA. If all the Booze, Allen, Hamilton employees left the VA we would have a massive budget surplus and maybe, just maybe a semi-intelligent decision or two might accidently fall out of Central Office. Most IT folks consider BAH a parasitic infestation. We have many other contractors too. The latest are the hatchet men for OIG. Then we have our senior IT non-SES management. The non-SES management people are almost all in an acting capacity, detailed to the position after that person left the VA. They are the leaders in the VA and what is keeping the VA running. They were mostly promoted from the field and have real VA experience. Most try, many are burnt out, some are counting down to 12/31/2016. Then there is the IT SES crowd. I don't get to breath that rarified air and don't interact with any of them either. Almost all are new though and that's a good thing. The previous group, collectively, couldn't find water while walking neck deep in the Atlantic. The one standout is Susan McHugh-Polly, she appears competent. She must have been an accidental hiring on the VAs part. The new SES’ers are entirely Ms. Councils handpicked crew. They will do as she says, after all when your job depends upon your bosses whim independent thought is so inconvenient.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      Get real man, Sue's a total clown too. Beyond saving her own job by being LaVerne's axe-woman, and making under-informed knee-jerk reactions to appear to be tough, she's done nothing to make life in the field any better. But I agree with the rest of what you said.
  14. Anonymous | - Reply
    I am a Senior Engineer working in OI&T and will most likely leave my position and move to Microsoft and the reason is simple. I am tired of not being listened to regarding technical issues, instead folks with no technical experience are making decisions that are essential killing off all progress and making the entire VA’s OI&T work force look stupid. It’s time to draw a line in the sand, here now and today and move forward.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      I'll see you there!
  15. Anonymous | - Reply
    C'mon, It not only her fault. I worked in Private as well as other federal agency as a IT person and agreed that VA need some improvement. It seems like, senior leadership more concentrate on paper work, more cumbersome project management documentations, it just nothing but cut/paste of same materials with different heading (waste of time & Materials). Every month new proPath version with adding more useless documentations and bigger mess rather than reducing paper work and improving work environment. Also six month deliverables which should aligned by 6 month contracts, agile management is really big big mess, mismanagement of project and make job tougher for Project Manager than its really is. PMO support with 6 month increment is also a mess, contract award, then on-boarding process take 1-2 months, then 2 month for learning & familiarize with project and barely get hold on to the project with 2 month left on contract, which they use for activities related to transfer material to new team & close out their contract without accomplished any thing and cycle start all over again.... And here we go.. Flushing away... , PMAS, VIP, JAZZ, Primavera, TSPR and tons of other Acquisition related applications and processes, EPMO all those big acronyms with all confusing process make life at work place harder than enjoyable. It is easier to Manage 10 projects outside than 1 project at VA as Project Manager.. List will goes on and on and on.. but I will stop right here, with hope someday our VA and OIT will improve.
  16. Anonymous | - Reply
    No worries, Ms. Council is doing what all the other OI&T executives are/have doing. Work in OI&T long enough to make direction changes that benefit themselves, quit the VA, and immediately become consultants for vendors that capitalize on the executives empire they had created. Quite a list of impressive names, huh?
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      Create a problem that only you will have a solution for...brilliant!
  17. Anonymous | - Reply
    Ms. Council is not the problem. Rusty Baumgardner is the problem. The Guy thinks he knows IT and basically is an Idiot. I do know all the details. But 50 million dollars down the toilet from one of his latest projects is a call to the OIG for sure. Give me a break.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      So, did you call the IG?
  18. Anonymous | - Reply
    Please understand from the inside looking out...Its all about Ms Council, specifically her next awards and magazine cover, period! Sec McDonald made a poor choice.
  19. Anonymous | - Reply
    The biggest problem, no chain of command. There is no clear decision tree on anything. Even strategic decisions made by high level managers are flat out ignored and there is no accountability at all. The lack of the chain of command is apparent as most of the time people don't even know who could would or has the authority to make a decision.
  20. Anonymous | - Reply
    To all the 'federal employees' on this thread, with all the negative comments about Laverne, if you don't realize the VA/IT organization is in trouble, and blame Laverne, then YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM! Get a clue, one person didn't bring the VA-house to this state; it's the federal employees.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      You are the problem. Wasting time on this article when you should be working. My guess - you work in Austin or DC.
    2. Anonymous | - Reply
      Well there were flames, even a raging fire perhaps, but throwing LaVerne onto the flames was little more than throwing gas onto the fire. Face it, the Secretary is as big a blowhard as LaVerne. So we all knew, we were just hoping that, for once, the Secretary wouldn't hire a mouth breathing moron. With LaVerne banking on something as silly as the EPMO one can only wonder how much of a vacuum he skull is pulling. I can't wait to be part of that group of bureaucratic rat's nest.
  21. Anonymous | - Reply
    ***FLASHBACK 2013*** What's wrong with IT at Veterans Affairs? Just replace the names...
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      The sad part is that nobody who can fix things believes them when they read them. Either that or they simply can't - they're stuck with bottom-of-the-barrel leaders like we suffer today.
  22. Dan Verton | - Reply
    Amazing volume of feedback - very much appreciated. As always, you can reach me in confidence at or at 703-883-9000 ext. 157
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
  23. Anonymous | - Reply
    Things in VA OI&T were not good before but now the situation is much, much worse. Mass confusion reins, morale could not be lower, and veteran services are facing serious risks. The entire plan seems to be a dog-and-pony show which is designed to boost the profile of the CIO. For EPMO, an org chart was created but that about covers the planning. Nobody inside EPMO has any idea what they are supposed to be doing. Large numbers of employees get reassigned and the only communication which is provided is an automatic email from the personnel system. Enterprise Operations has basically been destroyed and fault lies with the CIO and the OI&T CFO. Decisions are made without an understanding of the ramifications or the field-level concerns. The people making these decisions will be gone when the audits and findings start coming in.
  24. Anonymous | - Reply
    VA OI&T is so corrupt it's actually criminal. The wasting of taxpayers money to buy IT Equipment so that OI&T employees position themselves for jobs after they "retire" from the VA happens over and over again. Network Engineers are more worried about keeping their Certifications up to date for their resume than actually doing Industry research on available technology.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      Completely agree! Everyone at the VA has their own agenda preparing for life after the VA. I spent 8yrs at the VA and would be ridiculed when I brought up looking at other technology vendors even though we were paying twice as much as I spent while I worked for another agency.
    2. Anonymous | - Reply
      The Network Certs did not seem to help this week when the AITC Network "Engineers" took down the VA for the whole day. Yes VA had an Enterprise Outage the whole day impacting millions of Vets - Thanks EO/AITC!
  25. Anonymous | - Reply
    To give credit where credit is due, Ms. Council came to the VA with a plan, a timeline and the best of intentions. Unfortunately, she and her team of newbies didn't know what they didn't know, and have made a mess of things. To get fast results, she anointed and then pushed special detail teams to produce something that would enable her to quickly declare that a goal was accomplished. The result of those special detail teams is nothing more than lipstick on a pig. One of the earlier posters commented on the fiasco we call EPMO. The complexity of that change was grossly underestimated. Lift and Shift sounds good in theory, but in practice is has been a disaster. The resulting organization is big, unwieldy and disorganized. Too many disparate groups were thrown into one group without a clear understanding of how each group would serve the mission of the EPMO. The new organization has no clear escalation path for problems and decision-making. The process for approving new hiring has collapsed. Budgets are in disarray. The formal networks and relationships that at existed to get things done have evaporated. Policies are published, then rescinded. Groups don't know what they should be responsible for and therefore avoid any responsibility. The situation today is the worst I've even seen it. Ms. Council's public statements suggest that everything is going great. It isn't. The accomplishments that are claimed would not bear close scrutiny. Scratch the surface and you get nothing but unfinished, poorly executed stop-gaps that create more process duplication. What Ms. Council and her team has done is genuinely destructive and an excellent case study in how not to implement change. It will be very hard to recover.
  26. Anonymous | - Reply
    Thank you to the writers who supported Laverne Council and the fact that there are, in fact, a lot of people that are taking the spirit and idea of her objectives and looking for how they can provide support in their areas. The CIO had an idea, has done numerous presentations, offered upward communication paths, traveled with and sent her staff leadership across the country to meet with employees. She has had open employee engagement calls where she talks openly to OIT and takes all questions at the end; even the ridiculous ones. Ultimately, the old way wasn't working so she is pushing us to try something new. Let's work together and continue to try to make positive changes and continually seek improvement. Based on the demonstrated openness of Ms. Council, she will probably listen to your ideas or get you to the team that is working the problem. For the naysayers that always seem to flock to the comments, you suck. Your negativity, failure to see opportunity, slamming parts of the organization, and worst of all, talking directly and naming people that you have no clue for which you speak demonstrate the biggest failure of OIT: you. Take the training available; read and review the OIT website; join discussions; ask questions. Look at how you do your work and see how you can align with Ms. Council's strategy and culture. If you can't find any way you can be a part of the solution, work on your resume because you are obsolete and part of the problem.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      ~Signed with Love, Laverne

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