House and Senate VA bills put senior execs on notice

man planning layoffs

Congressional momentum is building for management changes inside the Department of Veterans Affairs in the wake of a scandal in which schedulers at a Phoenix medical center allegedly kept two sets of books to avoid entering data into a computer system designed to track maximum wait times for veterans seeking care.

Former Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned on May 30 as a result of the outcry over the situation. Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said 1,700 veterans were put on wait lists, 18 of whom died before they were seen by physicians.

Congress, understandably, is looking for people to blame. Two bills, one of which passed the House and another that is taking shape in the Senate, are designed to deliver them. A House bill from Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) would give the VA secretary unfettered authority to remove Senior Executive Service members or demote them to General Schedule grades as a result of poor performance. The bill passed in the House overwhelmingly, driven by a sense that the VA's culture rewards poor SES performers with bonuses and that the organization lacks accountability to Congress.

"While the vast majority of the department's more than 300,000 employees and executives are dedicated and hardworking, VA's well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for negligence and mismanagement is tarnishing the reputation of the organization and may actually be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it," Miller said when the bill passed in late May.

A more sweeping VA reform bill in the Senate also expands firing authority over SES employees but provides for an expedited review of firings and demotions by the Merit Systems Protection Board. The Senate measure, crafted by Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also contains funding for more facilities and medical personnel to meet the growing demand from veterans seeking care and provide avenues for veterans to turn to private-sector and military facilities when the VA cannot quickly accommodate them.

Sanders said in an MSNBC appearance that the protections were designed to guard against politically motivated firings or the targeting of whistleblowers. "I worry very much that if you have a new president coming in and a new secretary, they could fire hundreds and hundreds of high-level supervisors for political reasons," Sanders said. "I don't want to see the VA becoming a politically oriented agency."

But advocates for SES members worry that the bills, even the more moderate Senate measure, will do just that.

"This is a response that not only fails to address the real problem but is likely to have substantial unintended negative consequences," Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, told FCW. "There's a political imperative to move quickly, but that political imperative doesn't align with getting the best outcome."

Stier is also concerned that despite the MSPB review in the Senate bill, the new authority could be used to target whistleblowers. The brief 21-day window for determinations on appeals by fired SES employees is not enough time to conduct an investigation. In addition, the MSPB is a small agency that is digging out from under a pile of furlough cases. It's not clear the organization has the resources to handle the consequences of a purge of the senior VA ranks.

"What they're proposing to do, which we refer to as parading SES heads on a stick, is not going to accomplish anything," said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. She said that with morale deteriorating at the VA, senior executives who are qualified to manage hospitals will be looking to the private sector for jobs. And in the event of an exodus of SES personnel from VA, either through firing or resignation, the proposed legislation will make it difficult to attract new employees.

"Who in their right mind is going to take this job in this atmosphere?" Bonosaro asked in an interview with FCW.

She said she is also concerned that the erosion of protections for SES employees at VA could augur problems for people outside the hospital administration area, which has been the focus of the scheduling scandal probe. The firing authority would give Congress a new venue to call for the dismissal of officials throughout VA.

"What it does is put these executives not just at the mercy of the secretary, but at the mercy of the media and Congress," Bonosaro said. She said the VA-specific legislation could also open the door to changes at other agencies. "Senior executives in other departments don't realize the threat this poses for them."

Stier said the VA needs reforms that involve instituting a culture of responsibility and accountability in which individuals at all levels are free to bring bad news to leaders. "This is not an issue of who to blame, who should take it on the chin," he said. "The issue is how do we create a government institution that will better serve its customers."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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