Too hard to reward federal employees? VBA says it’s found a way

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After a busy 2019, the Veterans Benefits Administration isn’t sitting still.

Continuous improvement is the goal for 2020, and VBA leadership said it’s on a mission to tell the public about when it meets the mark — and when it doesn’t.

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“It is perplexing that government leaders talk about transparency and accountability, but it’s often hard to see anybody actually do it,” Paul Lawrence, undersecretary for benefits at the Veterans Benefits Administration, said last week at a National Academy of Public Administration event in Washington. “You can look and see there’s an annual report written by departments, but they’re glossy and the information seems self-selected. I never saw anybody report anything negative, yet you know things would happen.”

Lawrence wanted to change that. When he arrived at VBA, the benefits administration began to hold quarterly live broadcasts, where Lawrence and other leaders describe how many claims, appeals and other benefits employees have completed over the past three months.

The video sessions describe, for example, how many claims VBA actually completed, how many it wanted to process and the average time it took to handle them. Lawrence will host the next performance update Thursday afternoon.

The updates are live-streamed on VBA’s YouTube channel, and they’re modeled after the annual calls publicly-traded companies typically hold for their stakeholders, Lawrence said.

VBA’s most recent performance webcast from October shows several, if not most, performance targets were met.

But VBA’s earlier video performance webcasts weren’t quite as positive. Lawrence initiated weekly meetings back in 2019 with business line leaders to review VBA performance metrics. The team used red, yellow and green indicators to measure and track performance.

Areas where performance fell well below the goal were denoted with a red indicator. Performance that met or exceeded the goal were marked with a green indicator.

When the performance metrics were poor or middling, the meetings were direct, Lawrence said. But once the performance metrics trended and reached the “green,” Lawrence began to cancel the meetings.

Now, VBA is raising its performance standards for 2020. The goal, Lawrence said, is for VBA teams to exceed the weeks where they historically processed a record number of claims or appeals.

They’re using a hashtag, #BestYearEver, as motivating slogan for their work in 2020.

The motivational slogan, Lawrence said, helps unite employees around a set of common goals and performance targets.

Additional time-off grants also sweeten the deal.

Last spring, Lawrence challenged the VBA employees who handle compensation claims to complete 255,000 matters within an eight-week period, a goal that typically took nine weeks to accomplish, he said.

If the team met the goal, employees would get the Friday off after the July 4th federal holiday, Lawrence said.

The compensation claims team exceeded expectations and handled 269,000 during the eight-week goal.

Lawrence then set another challenge: complete 402,000 claims from July 8th through Sept. 30, 2019.

“That would be more than they’d ever done in the history of this period of time,” he said. “They produced 444,000 claims. For that, they got the Friday before the Columbus Day weekend [off].”

Lawrence said he’ll continue to use days off as a motivation for VBA business lines to exceed previously met goals.

“It’s been very well-received. When I would go out to the offices and do town halls [employees would ask], ‘When are we going to do more of that?'” he said. “That’s exciting. It binds them all together. The really innovative offices have sub-challenges, and they get pretty excited about it. What I realized is people are competitive; they’re very proud of their work.”

Beyond the slogans and the extra days off, VBA leadership is experimenting with small bonuses to reward employees for their work.

In addition, Lawrence asked VBA’s roughly 100 senior executives to nominate their peers to a “VBA all-star team.” The honorees were recognized at a VBA-wide conference later that year.

“It is really a challenge to figure out how to reward top government leaders,” Lawrence said. “We know they could make more money elsewhere, and yet they work at VBA. They could go take easier jobs in government, and yet they work at VBA. It isn’t just enough to say, ‘well, you don’t want to be the subject of the hearing.’ We need to somehow recognize and acknowledge their performance, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Lawrence acknowledged the risk that placing too much emphasis on continuous performance improvements might have on VBA employees.

Shortly after the rollout of the Trump administration’s signature VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, VBA employees described the pressure they felt under the law’s new performance standards. They said the new accountability law gave them little chance to improve their performance outputs.

The work for VBA claims representatives and others is notoriously complex and changes often with updates to law and regulations.

“I’m not ignoring it, but in terms of what we’re focusing in on it’s really the delivery of benefits and services,” Lawrence said of the possibility for burnout among his employees. “Look, this is a factory. We have to do stuff every day. I can make it as nice and as attractive as possible, but the vast majority of the people enjoy the work.”

VBA employees have several opportunities for training, Lawrence said, especially on the new legislation Congress has passed in recent years. The benefits administration is also retraining employees who previously spent the bulk of their work hours on official time for their unions, he told reporters.

“Veterans have strong demands on us,” Lawrence said. “It is therefore appropriate for us, and for me as the leader, to have strong demands on our team. We can’t apologize for that.”