VA goes on acquisition spree to support its cloud habit

The Veterans Affairs Department’s spending on cloud services and cloud migration has been growing each of the last four years, reaching more than $860 million in 2017.

Now VA wants help in managing the cloud infrastructure, accessing the cloud through mobile devices and applying artificial intelligence to the assorted services and data.

Over the last 30 days, VA has been on a bit of a procurement binge, releasing requests for information, requests for quotes and other solicitations for vendors to provide them with services over the next few years.

John Everett, the executive director for demand management at the VA, said earlier this year during a panel discussion that his agency’s goals with modernization are around enabling the agency’s customers to use services faster and more easily.

Everett said VA has about 621 applications that have the potential to move to the cloud today. Going forward, he said VA is taking the buy-before-build approach to new capabilities, particularly by using software-as-a-service.

VA’s concept of making it easy for veterans to log-in once and get everything done no matter which part of the agency the service is coming from is not a new concept. And one way to achieve the “do once, use many” concept is through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs)

VA released a RFI for an API management platform that would help the agency bring its digital experience on par with commercial companies.

“VA is taking an API-first strategy to deliver the high quality digital experiences our users expect. A single set of APIs will power every VA digital service, and these same APIs will be exposed to approved third parties to build products and applications on top of VA services and data,” the RFI states. “These APIs across every vertical of VA’s business will enable VA users to receive a consistent, high quality experience across all VA communication channels (e.g., digital, phone, mail, in-person, etc.).”

VA said APIs will let Veterans Service Organizations and others reduce the amount of time they spending manually looking in VA systems to check the status of a claim or find out if a rating has been granted to a veteran.

“If VA were instead able to provide APIs to this information, authorized individuals would be able to access it more readily, improving the experience they can provide for Veterans and reducing VA costs,” the RFI states.

VA wants the vendor to provide agile development of APIs and to support its API gateway through an assortment of project management, product management, human-centered design, iterative development, user research and usability testing, automated testing support and automated monitoring and performance reporting.  The agency created the API gateway earlier this year as one of its “lighthouse” micro-purchasing efforts.

The contractor also must ensure all the APIs are deployed or migrated into a VA designated cloud.

At the same time, VA also issued a request for proposals under its T4 Next Generation multiple award contract for enterprise mobility management.

The initial RFI from May wants a vendor to migrate its mobile management system out of its FISMA high internal cloud and into a software-as-a-service in a moderate external cloud.

VA wants the device management system to support between 45,000 and 100,000 devices, and connect back to its Microsoft Office 365 email in the cloud.

Additionally, VA issued a task order against the General Services Administration’s IT schedule for a service-disabled veteran-owned small business to provide cloud solutions and engineering support.

The initial RFI states, the CIO’s office requires “cloud support services to assist VA in reviewing, validating and recommending improvements for planning, assessment, execution support, operations and enhancement of VA cloud computing capabilities.”

Finally, VA wants to enhance all of these cloud efforts through artificial intelligence.

The agency issued another RFI seeking service disabled veteran-owned small firms to provide AI services through a software-as-a-service offering to further improve the veterans’ experience.

“Office of Information and Technology has identified numerous business opportunities that leverage AI to provide veterans, caregivers and survivors with better access to information related to healthcare and benefits through various VA websites and portals. Many of these sites offer the ability to chat with a VA agent or to contact an agent by phone. However, maintaining a large staff of well-trained agents to handle the depth and breadth of questions and issues veterans and caregivers commonly seek assistance with during peak days and times is challenging and many times veterans and caregivers are unable to receive immediate assistance because agents are actively assisting other customers,” the RFI states. “AI can help minimize this issue by improving the speed of information retrieval, and the quality and accuracy of information provided to the end user. AI can be leveraged to assist VA agents and veterans/caregivers using either a chat or voice interface. AI can be trained to answer commonly asked questions, assist users in properly filling out forms, respond to routine issues, and assist VA agents to quickly locate key information relevant to a customer’s specific concern. Initially, AI must be taught using assisted learning, but once it is put into production it can learn over time to both expand and improve its own capabilities.”

VA said in the RFI that it already has begun developing AI epics and user stories related to the White House VA Hotline and various other web-based VA portals including the eBenefits portal, enrollment and eligibility Veterans Choice Program, and Affordable Care Act.

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