VA prioritizes commercial products to modernize services

The VA is taking a "buy first" approach to modernize its legacy systems in order to meet the needs of a new generation of veterans.
Surafeal Asgedom, CMO, Department of Veterans Affairs
Surafeal Asgedom speaks March 11, 2020, at the IT Modernization Summit presented by FedScoop. (Scoop News Group)

The Department of Veterans Affairs is focused on buying ready-made solutions from the private sector to modernize its services and better reach younger veterans, top IT officials said Wednesday.

The VA’s “buy first” approach is driven by a generation of veterans who expect the department to deliver benefits similar to companies they encounter in the private sector, Surafeal Asgedom, the VA’s chief modernizing officer, said at the IT Modernization Summit presented by FedScoop.

“Our demographics have changed, as well as expectations,” Asgedom said. “There is a higher level of expectations in terms of the service they get from us.”

To support its modernization efforts, the VA recently asked for a 12 percent funding increase for its Office of Information and Technology. Much of that money will go to furnishing IT infrastructure upgrades.


But to modernize services, the extra cash will go to buying commercial products to bring veterans’ experiences into the 21st century.

“We don’t want to invent that stuff on our own,” Dominic Cussatt, deputy VA CIO, said during a separate panel Wednesday. “We want to leverage the innovation out there.”

Prioritizing what is referred to as commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products and services instead of acquiring in-house or custom-developed technologies tends to be cheaper and faster and leads to better experiences for veterans, Asgedom said.

“Our approach is really commercial off-the-shelf for all of our products,” he said. “It really requires industry partnerships.”

One example of a digital modernization success Asgedom touted Wednesday is the VA’s website. It used to be a “fragmented,” typical .gov website. But following the model of online banking, the VA consolidated its online services into a single log-in portal so veterans can track services.


“The expectation is that veterans will have the same type of experience when they interact with us as well as when they interact with the private sector,” Asgedom said.

The VA aspires to acquire a variety of COTS products, including customer management systems, high-powered computing technology and data capacity to centrally locate veterans’ data, Paul Lawrence, undersecretary for benefits, told lawmakers during a budget request hearing in February.

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