IT to the rescue: Unraveling bureaucracy at the VA, one project at a time

What's the cure for big, BIG bureaucracy? A small, fast SWAT team of technologists.

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In person, it's hard to think of David Paschane as small -- he's 6 feet 5 inches tall. But when you consider his position within the vast U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), it's clear he's playing the role of a little guy tackling a big, big bureaucracy.

Paschane, 44, is director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a small, SWAT-like team within the VA's Office of Information & Technology (OI&T). The group consists of Paschane, two junior staffers and two contractors.

A performance engineer by training, Paschane's motivating vision is to transform heavy bureaucracies -- where organizational structure controls the people -- into what he calls "light enterprises," where structure is there to serve the people.

If he was looking for heavy bureaucracy, Paschane came to the right place. The OI&T operation at the VA Central Office (VACO) in Washington, with an annual budget of $48 million, employs some 200 IT workers who provide tech support services to 10,000 customers, including 400 members of the Senior Executive Service. Nationwide, the VA employs about 327,000 people (not counting contractors), runs 152 hospitals, 821 outpatient clinics and 300 vet centers, and commands an annual budget of $187 billion. The IT budget alone was $3.1 billion in 2012.

To its critics, the department is bureaucracy at its worst. And indeed, the VA has come in for blistering criticism from all corners in recent weeks for a staggering backlog in the processing of benefits claims that has some veterans waiting as long as a year and a half for resolution. The problems are widely viewed as being partly political and partly regulatory, but also partly the responsibility of a top-heavy, slow-moving IT organization.

In a chat with Computerworld's Tracy Mayor, David Paschane from the Department of Veteran's Affairs talks about his vision of using information technology to make work "more human."

To Paschane, it's the perfect place to start asking the big questions. As he gives an impromptu tour through the maze of cubicles that make up the VACO IT operation, he asks, "How do people affect the performance of an organization? What is this thing called bureaucracy?" And, most pressing, "How do we learn to get better at what we do?"

Paschane has a Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Seattle, where he developed an organizational discipline -- Performance Architectural Science Systems (PASS) -- that aims to answer some of those questions.

PASS is built around the assumption that "unexamined, undisciplined work structures restrict employee growth and lead to inflexible, stagnant operations," says Paschane. On the flip side, he explains, light enterprises are able to respond dynamically to customer demands because their structure is adapted to fit their mission and goals.

Organizations move from A to B, from heavy to light, by tapping both information value and people value, Paschane says. In particular, he is interested in "collegial work" -- that is, optimizing the value of people and information acting together to improve the performance of an organization.

At least, that's the theory.

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