How the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017 may drive civil service reform

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

On Aug. 12, the president signed the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017. Readers who do not work in the Veterans Affairs Department may be wondering why they should care about a new law that applies only to the VA. This bill, the latest in a series of department-specific reforms, provides a good look at both the approach and the substance of reforms we should expect to see in the rest of the federal government.

Much like the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, and the Defense Authorization Act of 2017, the new law provides targeted reforms that are tailored to meet the requirements of a single department. In this case, the emphasis is on the hiring process. The law provides for:

  • Expanded authority to declare shortage category positions.
  • An Executive Management Fellowship Program to enable training of VA employees in the private sector and employees from the private sector to train in VA.
  • Annual performance plans for political appointees.
  • Reappointment of former VA career and career conditional employees in a position one grade higher than they last held.
  • A technical expert career track that would allow advancement without the need to move to a supervisory position.
  • Excepted service appointments of students and recent graduates, leading to conversion to a career or career conditional appointment.
  • Establishment of a recruiting database covering every vacancy in the department, with the ability to select applicants for positions other than the one for which they originally applied.
  • Training for human resources professionals of the Veterans Health Administration on how to best recruit and retain employees of the Veterans Health Administration, including with respect to any recruitment and retention matters that are unique to the Veterans Health Administration under Chapter 74 of title 38, United States Code, or other provisions of law.
  • Standardized exit surveys to be voluntarily completed by career and noncareer employees and executives of the department who voluntarily separate.
  • Expansion of direct hire authority for positions where there is a shortage of highly qualified candidates.

A couple of these are particularly interesting. The ability to rehire employees one grade level higher than the position they left is something that many HR leaders have advocated. It provides the department with more flexibility, eliminates the need for competition for many rehires, and could encourage former employees to return to the department, bringing new skills they obtained in other jobs. There is likely to be some complaining that it allows managers to skirt competition, but the overall outcome is likely to be more flexibility to hire people into positions they would eventually have been selected for anyway.

Another provision that is excellent is the flexibility to hire students and recent graduates. The entire government is struggling to hire new employees under age 30, so this flexibility is essential to enable real college recruiting that has a chance of working.

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I was also pleased to see the requirement for training for HR professionals. Too often we forget about the people who are actually doing the work and fail to provide them with the training they need to be successful.

There is nothing in this law that could not apply to every other department and agency in government. I would be surprised if that is not what eventually happens. As we see these changes implemented in VA and the DoD-specific changes that are taking hold, other departments are going to ask for the same flexibility. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in civil service reform. Knowing how difficult it is to obtain bipartisan agreement on anything, the path that is likely to succeed is considering the DoD and VA bills to be “proof of concept” acts that allow big departments to take reforms for a test drive. If they work (and they most likely will), getting bipartisan majorities to support expansion to the rest of the government becomes the path to reform.


Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.