Thursday, October 07, 2010







Back to the US, Friday, September 24th FBI raids took place on at least seven homes of peace activists -- the FBI admits to raiding seven homes -- and the FBI raided the offices of Anti-War Committee. Just as that news was breaking, the National Lawyers Guild issued a new report, Heidi Boghosian's [PDF format warning] "The Policing of Political Speech: Constraints on Mass Dissent in the US." Heidi co-hosts WBAI's Law and Disorder Radio (9:00 a.m. EST Mondays -- also plays on other stations around the country throughout the week) with fellow attorneys Michael Ratner and Michael Smith and Monday the program explores the raids with guest Jim Fennerty. You can stream the broadcast at Law and Disorder Radio online and, for the next 89 days only, at the WBAI archives. (There are excerpts in Monday's snapshot and in Tuesday's snapshot of the broadcast.) Stephanie Weiner and Joe Ioskaber's home was among the ones raided. Andy Grim (Chicago Tribune) reports that they say "they will refuse to answer questions before a grand jury". Today Democracy Now! featured the news in headlines and showed Stephanie Weiner stating:
We believe we have been targeted because of what we believe, what we say, who we know. The grand jury process is an intent to violate the inalienable rights under the Constitution and international law to freedom of political speech, association and the right to advocate for change. Those with grand jury dates for October 5th and those whose subpoenas are pending have declared that we intend to exercise our right not to participate in this fishing expedition.
The statement was from a press conference yesterday. Fight Back! News reports Pastor Dan Dale spoke at the conference noting an interfaith statement people were signing on to: "We are people of faigh and conscience who condemn the recent FBI raids in Chicago as a violation of the constitional rights of the people organizations raided. They are a dangerous step to further criminalize dissent. The FBI raids chisel away and byprass fundamental constitutional rights by hauling activists before grand juries under the guise of national security."
This morning the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing held a hearing on the VA's IT program. Senator Daniel Akaka is the Chair of the Committee and his office notes:
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, held an oversight hearing today on the status and future of VA's Information Technology (IT).
"Information technology plays a critical role in all that VA does, from delivering benefits to veterans' health care records," said Chairman Akaka. "VA's use of information technology has been marked by successes and failures. When it was first created VA's electronic health record was on the cutting edge, and I have faight that under the current leadership, VA's use of technology will continue to progress."
The hearing related to both health and claims processing information technology systems, and looked specifically at how aspects of IT have impacted GI Bill recipients. Witnesses at the hearing included top VA IT officials, a VA computer specialist, and a private sector authority on IT and electronic health records.
More information about the hearing, including statements, testimony and the webcast, is available here:
Kawika Riley
Communications Director and Legislative Assistant
U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs
Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman
Ranking Member Richard Burr noted early in the hearing, "Mr Chairman, I thank you for your willingness to schedule this hearing even though the Senate is out of session. I want to thank my colleagues Mr.[Mike] Johanns and Mr. [Scott] Brown, for being here." And if you're Senator was present, you should be thankful as well because the IT problems include the notorious lack of tuition payments to veterans that began in the fall of 2009 and continued well into the spring of 2010 (to be clear, waiting for their fall 2009 education benefit checks -- to cover tuition, books, lodging -- through the spring of 2010.) This is a serious problem and Burr, Brown and Johanns didn't have to be there and not only did Chair Akaka not have to be there, he's the one who had the say-so in whether or not the hearing would take place. He made the call to hold the hearing and deserves strong credit for that. In his opening remarks, Johanns noted that when he was US Secretary of Agriculture (2005-2007), "IT systems were the bane of my existence" so the current problems were not shocking to him.
Burr noted that failed programs and discontinued ones by IT have costs tax payers "millions" of dollars. He noted what he saw as a "genuine effort" on the part of VA Assistant Secretary for IT Roger W. Baker who was confirmed to that position 15 months ago. Baker was one of the witnesses appearing before the Committee. The others were Belinda J. Finn from the VA's Inspector General Office, Tom Munnecke who was a VA IT official, Edward Francis Meagher who chairs VisA Moderinzation Committee of the American Council and Glen Tullman who is CEO of Allscripts. We'll note this from Finn's opening remarks but LTS refers to the "fully automated claims processing system that utilizes a rules-based engine to process Post 9/11 GI Bill Chapter 33 veterans' education benefits."
Belinda Finn: Finally, our audit of the GI Bill Long Term Solution reported that OI&T developed and deployed both LTS Releases 1 and 2 on time; however these releases did not always meet the functionality that was expected for those releases. We concluded that the program still needed more management and disciplines and processes to ensure the project meets both the performance and the cost goals required.
We'll note this exchange from the hearing.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Mr. Baker, what can you point out that would help persuade the Committee that VA has learned from its past and that will not experience expensive IT failures in the future?
Roger Baker: Thank you, Senator, I will keep this answer brief because I'd love to give you ten minutes on that one. I think the biggest lesson that we took from the failure of the Replacement Scheduling Application was that we have to make certain that the hard decisions are faced and made. From there, I think you've seen a series of hard decisions made at the VA relative to other projects. Stopping 45 projects in July of last year was frankly a hard decision for our customers -- based on that those projects were not delivering. Stopping some of those projects and saying 'We're not going to be successful at those,' has been a series of hard -- of hard decisions. Frankly, reforming a few of them was not -- was not viewed positively but we recognized that they were not going to deliver if we didn't change them to an incremental delivery. Even some of the more notable ones that I think that we get criticized for -- for example, stopping the FLITE program [Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise], they're hard decisions. They're not decisions that we take lightly. And they're not decisions that we view from only one aspect. But in the end, we have to determine: Can we be successful? And if we believe we can't be, if we believe it's an overreach, we need to not do the program. So I would -- I would point you to not just some of the things we've done, some of the programs we've instituted but the results of those programs. And, most importantly, we don't allow a project to move forward today if they don't have a customer facing deliverable within the next six months. What that means is they're not going to go a long time like Replacement Scheduling did. Replacement Scheduling went years without delivering anything before they finally figured out it couldn't deliver anything. We now are implementing a technique we're calling "Fail Fast." If it's going to fail, figure it out quickly and stop spending money on it. That has generated a lot of facing up to those hard decisions again inside the organization. So I would give you those two things. Again, in many ways, that's my life inside the VA, is making certain we don't replicate those things from the past and we don't have anymore replacement scheduling. One thing I would add I've also promised Secretary [Eric] Shinseki that we will not have another replacement scheduling while he and I are at the VA.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Well let me give the other witnesses a chance, if you want to add anything to that about how to avoid these high profile failures. Mr. Munnecke?
Tom Munneck: Yes, as a software architect faced with these demands on the technical side, I often find that the users -- and this might come from Senate and Congressional committees, by the way -- want to have the penthouse suite on the skyscraper but they don't want to pay for the lower 22 floors and the foundation of the building. And so they say, "I want this thing up at the top, give it to me tomorrow or yesterday." And everybody else just scrambles to build the rest of the skyscraper -- the building. And, as an architect, you say, "First of all, I have to dig a hole in the ground to build a foundation.' They say, 'No, no, I want this skyscraper. I want this penthouse suite.' So I think Mr. Baker's approach, which I wholly endorse, should also include the requirements that people are building and not make gold plated penthouse suites but maybe even the 10th floor of an existing building and scale it down and allow it to evolve over time rather than go for the big push and the big bang that may not be possible. So it should be a process of discovery and working forward gracefully rather than expecting the gold-plated requirement to be met immediately.
Edward Francis Meagher: One thing I would add to this answer is this notion of accountability, personal accountability. When you have the projects broken up into small pieces, where you make sure all the parts are in place before you begin, that there's agreed upon business requirements, there's a business owner, there's competent, experienced program managers and then you hold people accountable for their deliverables and for meeting their milestones. That's a culture change that is taking place, I would suggest over the last 18 months that's very dramatic and is probably one of the main pillars as to why I think you're seeing the turnaround now that some of you have recognized and I really believe is there.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Mr. Tullman?
Glen Tullman: Yes, I'd again compliment Assistant Secretary Baker on the progress and what I heard today. You know, we believe that the private sector should play an increasingly large role in developing these systems. We're developing very similar systems for the civilian health care system and increasingly what we're seeing is these two are meshing together so people are moving back and forth in and out of the military and other services and the government as well. So we'd like to make sure that, number one, that the government is looking at what the private sector has to offer. And two, we believe that there are much better systems to form the community that my counter-part here talked about: A community of the VA, they're out there, they're social networking systems, their open platforms, their Microsoft-based systems. They're not based on what is essentially a 25-year-old transaction processing language called MUMPS. So we'd like to see the new system based on newer, broader standards and have the government in the role of setting the standards for what they want and let the private sector compete to deliver and get the and be punished if they don't.
Kat will cover more of the hearing at her site tonight.

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