The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is often spotlighted for its veteran-facing modernization efforts aimed at better service delivery, but as Undersecretary for Veterans Benefits Paul Lawrence explained, the agency is also making numerous internal changes to speed its transformation.
At a Jan. 24 National Academy of Public Administration event, Lawrence spoke about sustaining performance improvements at VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). He said the agency was overwhelmed with the backlog of veteran claims, and that it lacked efficient business procedures when he first came into his role in 2018.
“I spent a lot of time figuring out what goes on in each business line that veterans care about,” Lawrence said. “Each one of those business lines has metrics around it of delivering benefits to veterans. Everybody who processes claims has performance standards every day. Underneath this is tremendous thinking as to what goes on.”
VBA codified business line information into “essentially a spreadsheet” that leaders discussed each week and analyzed ways to improve performance. Lawrence said this process worked to get all business lines up to par, and now they managers haven’t had to have these meetings in a “long time.”
As VBA streamlined its processes, it was also important to the undersecretary to find ways to reward employees for their hard work.
“One of my big surprises when I came to government was how limited I am to be able to reward people,” Lawrence said, “But what I observed was the one superpower I do have is time off grants to give you a day off.”
Before Independence Day last year, which fell on a Thursday, Lawrence’s office challenged the claims branch of the agency to process 255,000 claims in eight weeks to earn Friday off as well. At 269,000 claims completed, the team exceeded expectations and was rewarded with a four-day weekend to celebrate the holiday.
Seeing this success, other teams across VBA wanted the same opportunity to earn time off. Lawrence’s office implemented a Columbus Day challenge, with similar stretch goals, and VA ultimately smashed its personal record for work completed in that time frame.
“[Veterans] want speed and they want certainty,” Lawrence said. “We’re delivering more of that.”
Lawrence acknowledged that sustaining this pace can be difficult, but he also said that serving veterans is far too important a task to slow down.
“I’m not apologetic for the pace we’re under,” Lawrence said. “The military culture is one where people understand what we got to do … There’s a phrase we have, ‘it doesn’t get easier, we get stronger.’ That’s what I think about it.”