New SES performance management options hiding in Senate VA omnibus

At nearly 400 pages, the omnibus legislation the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee introduced Thursday covers everything from veterans homelessness to more flexible work hours for VA doctors and nurses.

Yet the major focus is on the agency’s senior executives, specifically medical center and Veterans Integrated Service Network directors. The bill suggests reclassifying those medical and health professionals under Title 38, rather than Title 5. With that comes changes in their pay, performance appraisals and discipline and appeals procedures.

VA
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald

But the agency’s broader SES core isn’t completely immune to some of the Senate committee’s proposals.

The Senate calls for the VA Secretary to establish a performance management system specifically for VA senior executives.

That system should ensure that performance ratings for senior executives “meaningfully differentiate extraordinary from satisfactory contributions and substantively reflect organizational achievements over which the employee has responsibility and control,” the legislation said.

The time during which a fired  or convicted senior executive commits misconduct or poor performance would no longer count as credited service for the purpose of calculating the employee’s annuity benefits, the legislation said. SESers in these situations could appeal annuity reductions to the Office of Personnel Management, the omnibus adds.

The omnibus also requires that an outside, non-governmental organization review the VA’s management training program for senior executives. The review will look at the VA’s management training initiatives and compare to that of other agencies, as well as other VA programs and the department’s response to its results in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The organization that conducts these reviews will submit its findings to the department and Congress, the legislation said.

These provisions on SES performance are likely in reaction to the wait time scandals at VA hospitals that came to light in 2014 — and Congress’ overall frustration with the VA’s response.

But Jason Briefel, interim president of the Senior Executives Association, said these proposals miss the mark. The Senate’s proposals on SES performance plans do little to address the agency’s plans to develop future leaders, he said.

“Why are  we restricting this assessment on just the agency’s SES core, less than 500 employees? If you’re only looking at those who are already in the SES, you’re not doing a more holistic assessment of what’s going on with the agency’s strategic workplace plan, the succession plans, these broader human capital topics and themes that are important for getting the entire picture,” Briefel said.

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He also wonders how a VA-specific performance system would impact other agencies.

“[We] fear that granting a single agency its own unique system will just create an incentive for every other agency to ask for their own systems, which will just completely balkanize the SES, and from our perspective, make it impossible for OPM or Congress or HR professionals to understand the rules and regulations in place,” Briefel said. “If people already have enough trouble with Title 5 … I’m not convinced that gets us to a better outcome at the end of the day.”

Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) has indicated he wants a major legislative package to pass Congress this year.

Secretary Bob McDonald said he sees the continued conversations ongoing in the department and Congress as a prime moment to transform the VA.

“We’re trying to use this crisis to take advantage of this great opportunity we have in the history of our department, so we can better deliver outcomes for veterans and families,” he said during a May 4 discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

What’s missing in the omnibus?

Ultimately, McDonald said he’s looking for more flexibility — to move resources more easily from one budget area to another, to institute best practices across the entire department and to hold his employees accountable. But Congress will need to step in and give the department more congressional authorities — all while the deadline to upcoming presidential transition is fast approaching.

“We want to create irreversible momentum,” McDonald said of his current and future transformation initiatives.

McDonald said he appreciated the work Congress, particularly the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has done so far.

But some major elements are missing from the Senate committee’s omnibus, including provisions that would consolidate the seven different ways veterans can access community health care and overhauls to the appeals process, he said.

The Senate omnibus makes little mention of the veterans appeals process. It only includes a temporary extension of the number of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and a requirement that the VA establish a pilot program for benefit appeals.

McDonald again called on Congress to consider a proposal from the department. VA held several “breakthrough meetings” with veterans service organizations last month to find ways to fix the appeals process, he said.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) introduced a bill in the House Veterans Affairs Committee April 27 that contains similar provisions to overhaul the appeals process, McDonald said.