Government Navigates the Innovation Seas with VA's Lighthouse

Published: April 19, 2019

e-GovernmentInformation TechnologyInnovationIT ConsolidationIT OutsourcingProfessional ServicesVA

The Breakfast with the Govpreneur was held on April 9, 2019 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The event was held for industry to chat with the key IT innovators from Veterans Affairs – or VA's Govpreneurs – to hear how the Office of Information Technology (OIT) is implementing a culture of innovation that allows them to better meet the needs of the Veteran community.

The Panelists were:

  • Michael Hermus -  Moderator, CEO & Managing Partner, Revolution 4 Group, former Chief Technology Officer, US Department of Homeland Security
  • Dominic Cussatt – Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary/Deputy Chief Information Officer, US Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Drew Myklegard – Acting Executive Director, Demand Management OIT, US Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Gary Stevens – Director, Office of Cybersecurity Strategy, US Department of Veterans Affairs

The Panel discussed how the VA is looking at innovating their current technologies so they can provide improved medical care to the more than 6 million veterans. As Dominic Cussatt said, “we can do better,” with leveraging the massive data in the VA to make their veterans lives better. Drew Myklegard stated that “veterans are used to getting a level of service in the commercial sector that is increasingly growing over time,” noting that even slight inconveniences can be extremely frustrating. Myklegard explained “if you want to ship an app quickly on the best technologies to 6 million people, that's a hard problem to solve for a startup or any small business.” Compounding the difficulty, he added, is the importance of keeping the information secure. Gary Stevens tackled the issue by saying that they want security to be an “enabler” of development and ease of service. Cussatt added that the VA is not giving “vendors any veteran’s data.”

The main effort discussed was the new effort called ‘Lighthouse,’ which is an open application programming interface (API) framework that allows mobile applications and programs to communicate with the VA servers. In this, the Department of Veterans Affairs is most notably a pioneer; whereas, other government agencies utilize APIs, Lighthouse is the first in which the government has created a crowd sourced public portal where anyone can create applications and programs for the VA. Currently, the VA has partnerships with the CDC and Apple. Apple has created an application, Health Records, which allows veterans to easily access their information on their iPhone and Apple devices. Myklegard mentioned another application a developer tweeted to him that used Amazon Alexa against the VA’s facilities API to find the closest VA medical centers in the area and schedule appointments. Without the open source nature of Lighthouse, something like this “would have been really hard, if not impossible” for the VA to accomplish.

Drew Myklegard explained that one of the biggest constraint to government innovation is finding the top level developer talent and enticing them to come work for the VA as opposed to Facebook or Google. Another large problem is the current culture in the business sector where there is an expectation of “big bang results in their request for software” as opposed to getting a product that develops slowly over time. “We have to reset that,” Myklegard said.

The panel ended the chat with Cussatt stating that the VA’s goal is “transformation with predictable rigor” to “push the boundaries” and provide their veterans with the most satisfaction possible.