The Veterans Affairs Department says it has cut positions at its central office in Washington DC by 10% while also consolidating mental health, primary care and geriatrics policy, and operations functions. This comes as part of the departments’ efforts to eliminate bureaucracy and streamline decision making and remove itself from the Government of Accountability Offices’ biennial High-Risk List.
The agency recently submitted a comprehensive plan to GAO outlining the VA’s efforts to address 5 specific risk areas highlighted on the High-Risk List.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin kept a hiring freeze in place for sr. positions at the department’s central office and required undersecretary approval for administrative positions at the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Veterans Health Administration.
They also closed the central office’s human resources function last year to move more customer-facing positions out of Washington and to consolidated filed offices.
In addition to VA’s efforts to cut unnecessary positions and functions from the central office, the department said its High-Risk removal plan includes 4 other broad areas:
- Reducing ambiguity and red tape
- Strengthening internal oversight and accountability
- Modernizing information tech support
- Clarifying resource needs and priorities
VHA also implemented a new Office of Integrity to improve accountability. This new office is consolidating its compliance, ethics, and oversight programs into 1 and it will lead a governance committee to advise the VHA undersecretary on best practices for evaluating current operations. Many of VA’s efforts to address its High-Risk challenges stem from its reorganization plan.
Paul Lawrence, the president’s nominee to lead the VBA, helped the department design its response last year to the administration’s reorganization executive order. “This [experience] helped me enhance my perspective on driving change and collaborating with the Office of Management and Budget,” Lawrence told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “What is differentiating about my experience as a consultant to the federal government is I’ve conducted extensive research into how the government is managed by Sr. leaders.”
He said he’s collected best management practices from his interviews with sr. agency leaders and he plans to apply those lessons to the job at VBA. He also plans to manage his workforce by identifying the root cause and a solution spread that message to many employees, and reinforce that message with training.
“Leading the VBA can be a challenge, even for those who have the best skill set for managing a complex administration,” Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont) said. “Challenges such as leading the more than 23,000 personnel in the critically important division of the VA where morale has been a concern and firing folks cannot be one of the first instincts when dealing with employee matters.”
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents about 250,000 VA employees, is concerned about these challenges. It wrote that the VBA has “unreasonable and counterproductive performance standards” which is seriously impacting employee morale.
“These standards harm veterans by grossly valuing quantity over quality and do not accurately measure employee performance,” Thomas Kahn, AFGE director of legislative affairs wrote in a letter. “These standards force employees to treat veterans like widgets instead of the warriors they are.”
The Senate Committee is scheduled to vote on Lawrence’s’ nomination Wednesday, April 18th.