How Trump's management order gives VA 'air cover'

An organizational overhaul is coming to the veterans' agency under the president's executive order on government management.

Shutterstock image: executive connecting individuals to one another.
 

The Department of Veterans Affairs is planning big organizational changes under President Donald Trump's executive order on reforming the executive branch, according to a senior official.

"We were given a gift by the executive order," Scott Blackburn, VA's acting deputy secretary, said at ACT-IAC's April 5 conference on customer experience. "The order gives us the air cover we need to do a lot of the changes we wanted to do."

"We're driving the organization to think differently internally about what are the redundant organizations that we can streamline," Blackburn said, "but also externally -- how can we better serve veterans; what businesses should we be in and not be in?"

The deadline for agencies to submit reorganization plans to the White House is Sept. 9, but Blackburn said he expects the VA to move faster than that. "I think you'll see moves in the next couple of months," he said.

Blackburn, a service-disabled Army veteran who joined VA from McKinsey in late 2014, said he's not ready to do away with the VA's centralized approach to IT.

"Sometimes we need [the Office of Information and Technology] to save the businesses from themselves, on security and scalability," Blackburn told FCW in a brief interview following his presentation. He said he's mindful of why the shift to a centralized IT organization was made in the first place, and that it was more important for OI&T to work collaboratively with the health care delivery and benefits organizations than it was to give each line of business their own IT leadership and budget lines.

Blackburn was originally hired to lead the MyVA effort. In his current role, he's still focused on customer service. He said he hopes to soon have a new VA Digital Service lead in place to replace Marina Martin, who left the agency in January. Blackburn also announced the hiring of Lynda Davis as the new VA chief experience officer.

He is also interviewing candidates for the critical assistant secretary for information and technology post -- one of a handful of Senate-confirmed CIO positions in the federal government. Blackburn said he's "talked to some fantastic folks with great private-sector experience," but he said the process to identify candidates and get them through the confirmation process is long and arduous, and he couldn't speculate on when a permanent CIO would be on the job.

"I don't have a magic ball," he said.

Blackburn also touted the results of efforts to revive VA's reputation in the wake of the 2014 scheduling scandal and other organizational crises. Borrowing from Forrester, VA measures customer satisfaction by asking veterans to rate their experience. The agency asks about the effectiveness of the service delivery, the ease of accessing care and services and whether veterans felt an emotional attachment to the organization. He said that emotional attachment and trust in the VA brand is "trending up, but there's a lot of room for improvement."

Blackburn hopes pending accountability legislation will help move the needle on customer experience.

"You can't have great customer experience if you don't have a great employee experience," he said. Some in Congress are pushing for streamlined firing authority over VA employees, as well as some new limits on the ability of unionized workers to file grievances.

"We need a system where the best employees can get rewarded and recognized," Blackburn said, while also having a way to do deal appropriately with "the absolutely absurd things that do happen in an organization of 360,000 that taint the rest."

"The conversation on accountability has changed quite a bit," he said, adding that he expected to "work with both parties to get something that makes sense for the VA."

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