The new Acting Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a military lifer, a fact he was keen to reinforce during his first address to VA’s sprawling workforce. Robert Wilkie joins VA from the Department of Defense–DoD–and spoke about how his service background will inform the way he’ll lead the agency.
“At my Pentagon swearing in, I was proud when the officiating officer noted that I had been born in khaki diapers,” Wilkie said. “I have been privileged to see this military life from many angles, as a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier; as an officer in two services, the Navy and the Air Force; and as a senior leader in the Pentagon.”
Wilkie previously served as DoD’s Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, a post where he advised on morale, welfare, and quality of life issues for active duty personnel and their families. Those issues will play at the center of his new role, this time for those who have transitioned out of service.
Still, Wilkie acknowledged that prior experience isn’t the panacea for all of VA’s woes.
“Anyone who sits in this chair and tells you he has the answers is in the wrong business,” he said.
Outlining his philosophy for the organization, Wilkie declared that VA employees on the frontlines of veteran care must lead the charge in agency transformation.
“We must have a bottom-up organization,” he said. “The energy must flow from you who are closest to those we are sworn to serve. It is from you that the ideas we carry to the Congress, the VSOs, and to America’s veterans will come.”
Wilkie stressed that cross-compartmental dialogue is the key to achieving the goal he deemed most important–improved customer service. “If we don’t listen to each other, we won’t be able to listen to our veterans and their families,” Wilkie said.
That focus seems to be echoed by the agency’s IT department, which has been taking veterans’ grievances into account and pushing programs aimed at better customer outcomes.
VA released a new web tool for veterans to track their benefits appeals, giving veterans visibility into a process that has often left many in the dark. VA’s new Open API platform allows developers to innovate by creating applications for all of VA’s care and service areas. VA says this focus on customer service is improving veteran trust considerably.
Wilkie conceded he doesn’t know how long his tenure will be, with White House physician Ronny Jackson awaiting confirmation for the full-time Secretary role. But clearly, Wilkie knows there’s no quick fix.