The Color Of Money When Deploying APIs At The Department Of Veterans Affairs

I haven’t written much about my experience last summer as a Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). I have lots of thoughts about experience at the VA, as well as participating in the PIF program, and I choose to trickle these thoughts out, as I continue to make sense of them, and bring them into alignment with my overall mission as the API Evangelist.

I just wrote a piece on replacing legacy systems at the VA using APIs, where one of the systemic constraints in place that restricts the modernizzation VA systems using API is purely about money, and more specifically the color of money. I won’t bore you with the detail of the topic, but in short the color of money is: Money appropriated for one purpose cannot be used for a different purpose, according to the Purpose Act (31 U.S.C. § 1301).

In short, if $50M was given to sustain an existing legacy system, and that money cannot be re-appropriated, and applied to the newer system, what incentive is there to ever get rid of legacy VA systems, or modernize any government system for that matter? Whether it is usng APIs, or anything else. Newer approaches to using technology are difficult to accept when you are working hard to accomplished your job each day, but if you already have $50M in budget to a specific job, and that job won’t go away, unless you choose to make it go away, guess what happens? Nothing changes…hmmm?

As I said before, I don’t give a shit if you deploy APIs from the ground up, or excite via a presidential mandates from the top down, if you have incentives in place for employees to do the opposite, based upon how money is allocated, you won’t be changing any behavior or culture—you are wasting your energy. I don’t care how excited I get any one individual, team or department about the potential of APIs bundled with new systems, if it means their job is going away—too bad, nobody will give a shit.

Think about this scenario, then consider that $1,810M of the 3,323M overall VA budget (54%) is sustainment. Granted this isn't all IT system sustainment, but still over half of the budget is allocated to keep shit the same as it is. Imagine what environment this creates for the acceptance of modernization efforts at VA.

This is a pretty fundamental flaw in how large government agencies operate, that are in conflict with the solutions API can bring to the table. I don’t give a shit how well designed your API is, in this environment you will fail. Period. I do not think I will ever fully understand what I saw at the VA, while a PIF in Washington DC, but I feel like I’m finally reaching a point where I can at least talk about things publicly, put my thoughts out there, and begin my experiences as a PIF at the VA into my overall API Evangelist message.