What government reorganization means to the VA, where change is already moving fast

The president might call it "reorganization." Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin might call it "modernization." But the general principles are the same.

The Veterans Affairs Department says it’s always had plans to reorganize and restructure its workforce — executive order or not.

So when the president and the Office of Management and Budget charged agencies to develop comprehensive reform plans to reorganize, the VA already had the basics in mind.

VA Secretary David Shulkin laid out his own priorities and charged his leadership to make aggressive and ambitious plans to start fulfilling them even before President Donald Trump signed a reorganization executive order and OMB issued subsequent guidance for federal agencies.

“The secretary was very focused on, ‘We need to make change now,'” Greg Giddens, executive director of VA’s Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We made sure that we also focused on things that we could implement and do within the VA.”

Shulkin asked Giddens to lead the VA’s effort to comply with the Trump administration’s initiative to reorganize government and restructure the federal workforce.

Giddens said the planning effort involved many VA stakeholders, including veterans service organizations, members of Congress, federal unions and the department’s employees.

“If modernization just involves a couple of handfuls of people in Washington, we’re not going to make the difference that [we] need to make,” he said. “That’s why [it’s about] reaching out and engaging with our employees [and] getting their ideas, and they had some ideas for us to do in Washington, let me tell you. Actually, some of those we’re taking on. But they also had ideas on what they can start doing at the local level. Sometimes when we start driving change, we look for something that somebody else can do, instead of looking at what we can do. What we’re asking everybody to do is to start where you are and do what you can to move forward.”

While the VA encourages its employees at all levels to think about modernization, the biggest and perhaps most noticeable effects of reorganization may start at the top, at the department’s headquarters.

“[It’s] probably no surprise that headquarters, any headquarters, has some bureaucracy in it,” Giddens said. “But that’s certainly one of the things that we’ve taken on and the secretary has really asked us to move forward on. How do we reduce that bureaucracy at headquarters and streamline ourselves first, before we go out and look to the field and take some streamlining actions?”

Shortly after OMB lifted the president’s temporary hiring freeze, Shulkin elected to leave a version of the freeze in place for some senior positions and others at the VA central office in Washington. New hires at VA headquarters or for administrative positions in the department’s benefits or health administrations need approval from the chief of staff or the appropriate acting secretary.

“We do think there will be some people who might have some other opportunities and ways to serve, and some of their jobs may improve and they may shift,” Giddens said. “But there’s plenty of work to do. There’s a lot of progress we’ve made, but when we look forward to the work at hand and how we want to drive ourselves to be more and more competitive, there’s a lot that we have to do. There’s no shortage of work in front of us.”

Giddens didn’t specify exactly which positions may change as the department implements the pieces of its own agency reform plan and streamlines the VA central office. But the department is beginning to think how it may need to repurpose and retrain current employees as their job responsibilities shift.

“Through this change we want to make sure we’re supporting our employees so that they continue to feel and to know that they are valuable contributors to the mission,” Giddens said. “As we think through that, we want to involve them in these discussions. Who better to look at a job and how it can best be done or where they think they’re adding value than the employees who are actually doing it?”

The department sees the administration’s reorganization initiative and its own modernization efforts as an opportunity to better engage with VA employees, Giddens said.

“Part of this is really us being able to empower and engage employees in a meaningful way and have the right kind of discussions with them, so they can bring these ideas up, and then they know that we still have their best interests at heart as well,” he said. “Really how we serve veterans is largely dependent upon the employee experience. If we want the veteran experience to really be great, we need to have a great employee experience. We want to be complete partners with them on that as we move forward. This is not at all about setting anybody up for anything except absolute success.”

VA conducted town halls and webinars with its employees across the country to gather their ideas as it prepared its initial agency reform plans. The department also used an online tool to solicit additional feedback.

Giddens said VA received thousands of comments from those stakeholders, in addition to the comments OMB collected on veterans topics. From there, the department started noticing some common themes as it sorted through stakeholder feedback.

One major theme centered on the role of VA headquarters and how it makes decisions that impact VA medical facilities, cemeteries and benefits offices in the field.

“Sometimes we at headquarters start to think we know better about what’s happening in the field,” Giddens said. “We’ll take our 1,000 mile screwdriver and try to make an adjustment somewhere out in the field. That usually does not turn out very well. On the flip side of that, sometimes in the field, we’ll take a decision that needs to be a local decision and they’ll push it up to headquarters, and we don’t always make the right decision when it comes up here.”

VA wants to change that mentality.

Streamlining the VA central office will allow the department to focus on better supporting field operations, Giddens said. In some cases, that may mean rethinking the way the department makes its decisions and how it delegates them in an understandable, actionable way to the local offices that directly interact and serve veterans.

Giddens said his office is also looking internally at its own procedures. The Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction is beginning a complete revamp of its internal acquisition regulations.

“How do we think about the regulations we have, and do they prohibit or do they help us move forward?” Giddens said. “In some cases, we developed regulations almost in a complete compliance mode, where we’re getting so restrictive that it’s hard for people to still do the right thing. We become more concerned about not doing a wrong procurement versus … making sure we’re doing timely procurements that meets a veteran’s needs and provides value to taxpayers.”

The department’s current acquisition regulation is a massive document with hundreds and hundreds of pages. Giddens said he plans to  release new chapters and issues incrementally in “meaningful bites.” When the regulations are finished, it’ll be a much smaller document than the current version, he added.

“This is another case where we’re engaging with our employees,” Giddens said. “We’ve gone out, we’ve gotten feedback about what’s confusing, what needs to be cleared up. It’s not just the leadership in procurement but the employees and teams that are working on this to help us know how to modify this.”

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