VA secretary wants to remake department's culture

Three months out from Veterans Day, the new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a slate of actions aimed at improving service, laying a long-term foundation for reform, and restoring trust in the department.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald announced the initiative—dubbed The Road to Veterans Day 2014—at a Sept. 8 press conference at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"We're looking at every service we provide, every customer interaction we have, every single thing we do through the eyes of the veteran," McDonald said. "We want to look at everything we do through the lens of the veteran. That perspective makes every decision, every right decision absolutely clear."

To accomplish the first of three goals outlined at the conference—rebuilding trust with veterans and the public—McDonald said the department must "reinforce Veterans Affairs' core values and mission and reset VA's culture to be consistent with them." As an example, he said, VA has performed a leadership exercise with all its employees to stress VA's mission and core values, and asked all employees to reconfirm their commitment to those values. McDonald said the department would repeat the process every year.

McDonald called the second goal, improving service delivery, "the crux of everything we do."

"It's about improving effectiveness and efficiency and focusing on veteran outcomes," he said. "We would like every employee in the Veterans Affairs Department to be able to know what they do every single day and how it ties back to our mission and how it's consistent with our values. So we're going to go through the process of that."

The third goal is to partner with others in federal, state and private sectors, and adopt best practices, he said. McDonald pointed to members of Congress, veteran service organizations, military service organizations, state governments and private-sector organizations as necessary partners.

McDonald also hit on a number of key actions he said the department is pursuing to reach its goals.

Among other things, the secretary said, VA is reviewing and validating its programs, organizations and business practices to make sure that the current track is consistent with the department's mission. McDonald said VA is also is renewing its strategic plan to ensure it is properly implemented and integrated with the department's organizational operating plans and employee performance plans.

In another move, McDonald said, VA will recruit and hire "the nation's top technologists" to form a new digital services team to build and deliver digital services to veterans.

In answering reporters' questions, McDonald also said that his meetings with employees left him with the impression that they felt VA was organized as a pyramid, with the secretary at the top and the veterans on the bottom.

As a result, McDonald said, he has resolved to "open up the culture" by creating "a non-hierarchal organization, one where the veteran is on top."

As part of that, McDonald said, he is asking everyone in the department to call him by his first name, and making himself available by answering his own email and releasing his cell phone number.

"We need to open up the lines of communication in this organization and get rid of some of the hierarchy and bureaucracy, flatten the organization and all focus [on] that veteran," he said.

Reader comments

Tue, Jul 27, 2021

You will never improve VA’s mission or care when you have unions that degrade any rules or supervision including mistreatment of our veterans. The union workers set their own workload and attitudes while union presidents degrade management. One cannot fire an incompetent worker.

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