Q&A With U.S. Veteran’s Affairs CTO Dr. Peter Levin: Embracing Risk To Bring Innovation And Change

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WashingtonExec recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Peter Levin, Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA); a position he competed for three years ago thanks to a conversation with U.S. Veteran’s Affairs Chief Information Officer Roger Baker. Dr. Levin cited the elevation of VA  culture to one that “embraces the inherent risk that comes with change” as well as launching mental health services online as top career achievements. Drawing along the lines of “taking risks,” Dr. Levin explained why he has embraced social media at the VA to connect with its employees and constituents. The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs is now one of the “friendliest” agencies in the government…at least according to Facebook.

Dr. Levin also gave WashingtonExec updates on the VA’s open source initiatives, focusing on VisTA and OSEHRA. WashingtonExec asked Dr. Levin what the VA believes is the best course of action for the government contracting sector in the wake of future budget tightening.

WashingtonExec:  Could you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to the the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs?

Dr. Peter Levin: I am a classically trained electrical engineer who focused on applied math, applied physics and computer science.  I spent about half of my career in engineering academics.  I have spent the other half of my career in business.  I worked for a Munich based venture capital company for many years and then started my own company which was in the semi-conductor software space. Like many Americans, I feel a morally transcendent commitment to veterans.  These are the people who stood in harm’s way in my name.  I’ve always wanted to find a way to give back to them.  When President Obama was elected in 2008 that opportunity presented itself. A friend became the Deputy Secretary here and the two of us started a conversation – that soon included Roger Baker –  which led to me becoming the Chief Technology Officer.

The beautiful thing about my job – and the beautiful thing about innovation – is that you always know where it starts but you don’t always know where it is going to end.

WashingtonExec:  What you hope to achieve or what have you achieved since you were appointed in 2008?

Dr. Peter Levin: I think that the biggest achievement is the culture change. Many times you will run into folks who, for good career reasons or personal reasons, become very, very risk averse.  What we are trying to do is show that transformation is fundamentally rooted in the ability to focus on outcomes, to focus on people and to embrace the inherent risk that comes with any change that you make.

A more operational example is the first project that I worked on. In our mental health services division we created an Internet-based outreach service for suicide prevention as an alternative channel to a large and growing demographic that feels uncomfortable about using a telephone to connect to us. The beautiful thing about my job – and the beautiful thing about innovation – is that you always know where it starts but you don’t always know where it is going to end.  Even in web-enabled mental health services we’ve discovered some fabulous opportunities that are helping tens of thousands of our veterans deal and cope with the PTSD.

WashingtonExec:  Drawing off of the positives of “taking risks” in the name of innovation; how does social media tie in to the VA agenda?

Dr. Peter Levin: That’s a great question. When it comes to social media, it’s always easy to find a reason not to do something. Fifty or sixty years ago I’m sure that our predecessors where having conversations about whether it was necessary to put a telephone on every desk.  At some point the technology infrastructure – just like the physical infrastructure – is something that we take for granted as a part of our daily lives and it makes us more productive, more open, more customer-oriented.  It also makes us more vulnerable. Part of the art of public service and part of the art of leadership is finding the right balance. So we made a deliberate and affirmative decision to trust our employees to use these new kinds of social media tools responsibly.  That bet has paid off handsomely.  We are one of the most “friended” agencies in the Federal government, and our stakeholders rely on social media to get fast, reliable, and authoritative information.

WashingtonExec: How has Veterans Affairs been using open source technology?

Dr. Peter Levin: It’s really focused on VisTA, Veterans Affairs’ world leading electronic medical record EMR. EMRs contain what our clinicians know about our patients. They are comprehensive and they are clinically valid. It was one of the ways the VA moved itself from being sort of a middling provider of health services to arguably one of the nation’s best. The issue is that because it was built from proprietary components that were tightly integrated together, it was difficult to fix, and difficult to extend.  It has begun slowing under its own weight. What most people don’t realize or recognize is that you could always get a copy of VistA, that wasn’t the hard part.  The hard part was getting private sector innovations back into the VA, for free or for cash..  It was very, very difficult for us to absorb those innovations back into our enterprise and back into our infrastructure.  That’s the first win. The second and just as important benefit is that under the auspices of OSEHRA we are moving VISTA from this closed, proprietary, and integrated platform to one that is openly architected, standards based and modular. We’ve started the projects that convert VISTA into something that is going to be more usable for the community and much more usable for VA.  It is going to be easier for us to maintain, scale, fix and extend.

WashingtonExec:  You mentioned that you used to work in the private sector for a long time.  What do you hope to see from the private sector in the future?  How can contractors help you?

Dr. Peter Levin: What we really need from our private sector partners is a conversation that allows us to create modular, scalable, plug-replaceable systems. If you do it this new way, if we do it in a way where government is responsible for the data, government is responsible for the platform, then the private sector is going to have a flatter, broader playing field for competition to provide the services, utilities and commodities that we need to deliver government services, and in many cases services that only government can perform.  It’s a win-win for everybody.

*Featured in the 10/29 edition of Collaborative Government Today, a CGI Initiative for Collaborative Government online publication.

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