The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced the completion of all IT initiatives for the implementation of the Forever GI Bill – also known as the Colmery Act – and the full deployment of associated software and systems, finishing the implementation of a policy initiative that initially put VA’s IT in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
The full roll-out of the Forever GI Bill, completed on October 30 and announced in a news release on December 7, closes the book on an initiative that started poorly and in the public eye but has since been an example of how VA plans to modernize its systems.
In October 2018, the VA found its IT and agency leadership sitting in front of Congress, receiving a tongue-lashing for errors in implementing the Forever GI Bill that affected payments for veterans attending college. Members of Congress questioned why VA had struggled and where IT funding was being allocated at the department.
“We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on IT solutions. Why are those (systems) still problematic? If we’ve given the resources to the VA to implement IT solutions that work so that we can get these good, bipartisan reform fixes and solutions to help our veterans, what do you need, if it’s not the hundreds of millions of dollars that the taxpayers have so generously given you to serve the veterans?” asked Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, in the October 2018 hearing.
The bill’s requirements put too much strain on a 40-year old legacy system and required the VA to start from scratch with a new vendor and new approach.
“Redesigning the way VA calculates Post 9/11 GI Bill housing rates during a busy academic season was like flying a plane while building it, and that was unfair and frustrating to Veterans and taxpayers,” said Robert Wilkie, Secretary of Veterans Affairs in November 2018.
Partnering with MITRE and Accenture Federal Services, the VA started over with an agile approach to modernizing the software and underlying systems. VA highlighted the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) approach in its news release, noting that it resulted in “improved engagement, quality, and efficiency.”
VA made significant progress by the end of 2019, getting a solution in place for public use by its self-imposed December 1, 2019 deadline to change housing payment rates, one of the main problems that VA ran into during its initial deployment.
“The Forever GI Bill solutions we supported really focused on aligning the immediate needs of the program with longer-term modernization efforts that the VA is undertaking,” said Shawn Roman, managing director at Accenture Federal Services, in a December 2019 interview with MeriTalk.
The department continued to implement the Forever GI Bill’s requirements, and completed the full go-live of the needed IT updates, drawing senior leadership praise for the IT systems that had brought them before an angry congressional hearing two years prior.
“These IT changes improve our ability to deliver education benefits to GI Bill students,” said Wilkie. “As VA works to modernize processes, this milestone is an important step in our digital transformation journey – merging people, procedures and technology.”