Bush names VA chief information officer
Acting Veterans Affairs Department chief information officer Robert Howard will be nominated to fill the agency's top technology position on a permanent basis, the White House announced Tuesday.
President Bush's nomination of Howard, who also serves as a senior adviser to Deputy VA Secretary Gordon Mansfield, will be subject to Senate confirmation. As acting CIO during a data breach in May that compromised personal information for 26.5 million people, Howard faced congressional investigators on multiple occasions. He has managed VA's Office of Information and Technology since the department's previous CIO, Robert McFarland, left in April.
If confirmed, Howard will be responsible for improving VA's IT security and managing the ongoing centralization of its IT resources under the Information and Technology Office.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee spokesman Jeff Schrade said he expects that the committee will move quickly on Howard's nomination once it is officially received. But he said it may be difficult to process the mandatory FBI background check by the end of September, which is the Senate's target date for adjournment.
Prior to joining VA in May 2005, Howard was vice president and general manager of the analysis and learning technologies division at Cubic Corp. He served as an Army major general and received his bachelor's degree from Northeastern University and his master's from Texas A&M.
McFarland told Government Executive that the announcement surprised him because he thought the department would look elsewhere within government or industry for a new CIO. But the nomination shows that VA Secretary James Nicholson has confidence in Howard and has been pleased with his performance as the acting CIO, McFarland said.
Nicholson has said he intends to make VA's IT security a model for the rest of the government. On Aug. 11, the department announced that it will be begin encrypting all agency laptop computers.
When he left the department, McFarland said that his relationship with senior and career department officials was not positive because of his attempts to shake up the status quo. But with the departure of some VA officials during the summer, including General Counsel Tim McClain and Jonathan Perlin, VA's undersecretary for health, McFarland said resistance against IT centralization has been weakened.
Through a series of directives, Nicholson has given the CIO additional authorities that McFarland and others believe are necessary to improve the department's IT security.
Howard "has been given that authority. Now does he use that authority? That remains to be seen," McFarland said.
While the management of the department's IT operations has been centralized under the Office of Information and Technology, the development of IT applications will remain under VA's three separate administrations.
McFarland's predecessor, John Gauss, said while he does not know Howard, he believes changes at the department will be possible only if legislation (H.R. 5835) proposed by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steven Buyer, R-Va., is passed into law. The bill would elevate VA's CIO to the level of undersecretary, among other provisions.