Answering the billion-dollar question

Building budgets for VA’s construction program


Imagine if you had to budget an entire year in advance – estimate every bill, expense, shopping trip, and travel plan in a written request used to determine your salary. Oh, and whatever you don’t use by year’s end disappears from your bank account. This is the challenge that government organizations face, and its difficulty only grows in proportion to the budget. More money, indeed, leads to more problems – especially when funds are intended to support our nation’s heroes.

Tasked to manage some of the government’s largest construction projects, the Department of Veterans Affairs’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management (CFM) must plan a multi-billion-dollar budget every year. It’s a tough job made even tougher by the growing number of Veterans as well as increased scrutiny, criticism, and budget cuts by Congress. In short, CFM must plan funds with unprecedented levels of accountability. From hospital construction to office supplies, spending must be estimated and prioritized while meeting strategic goals and reporting requirements. So, how does one plan billions of dollars easily and effectively?

In the world of money management, we’d be lost without apps and automation (When’s the last time you balanced your checkbook?). And so, CFM tasked Vergys to design a user-friendly tool to support budget activities. Guided by the principles of design thinking, we set out to understand the challenges of financial staff through one-on-one interviews, facilitated sessions, shadowing, and secondary research. Our findings generated an initial prototype within weeks. Beginning with rudimentary Excel workbooks, we iterated our way to a solution meeting CFM’s budget needs.

The final product, the CFM Executive Spend Planner (or Xplan, for short), offers cross-team collaboration, budget tracking, executive dashboards, and reporting all from a website-like interface powered by SharePoint. During its inaugural year, the Xplan enabled CFM to build its discretionary budget from the bottom up for the very first time. And thanks to the Xplan’s collection of strategic data, leadership can not only make better funding decisions but can justify those decisions to Congress and others. It’s a sizable first step toward better financial management. Even on a billion-dollar scale, budgeting becomes easier with the right tools and support.


Photo: VA Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson (left) meets with Roger Makowski, Chief, Engineering Service, Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, during construction of the mental health addition at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center.

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