VA Rushing to Institutionalize Change Before Massive Election Turnover

A MESSAGE FROM THE SECRETARY
 
The Road to Veterans Day
 
 With just two months remaining before Veterans Day 2014, it’s time for me to report to you on what we’ve accomplished in our first 30 days together and on what we intend to accomplish in our next 60 days.  Our “Road to Veterans Day” begins with our mission and our immediate objective: 
 
To better serve and care for those who have borne the battle and for their families and survivors.
 
To that end, we are moving quickly and decisively on three fronts:
 
·        Rebuilding trust with Veterans and other Stakeholders
·        Improving service delivery focusing on better Veteran outcomes
·        Setting the course for longer-term excellence and reform
 
We are already making important progress:
 
Rebuilding trust:  We have reaffirmed our commitment to our mission and our “I-CARE” values — Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence — and are working to make reaffirmation an annual requirement.  We’re also connecting with Veterans and VA employees during visits to the field, listening to their concerns and identifying both problems and solutions, and we’re demonstrating accountability by meeting with stakeholders, talking to the press, and taking action in cases of poor performance or wrongdoing.
 
Improving service delivery:  We already have the foundation of a great VA Strategic Plan; now we are preparing to renew and redeploy that plan to set performance requirements that clearly link the mission to individual performance plans.  We are also developing better ways to gauge Veteran satisfaction, instituting the organizational strategy known as “Lean Management” throughout more of VA, and exploring options for reorganizing VA along common regional service boundaries, with integrated organizations focused on service to the Veteran as viewed by the Veteran.  We’re calling the concept “My VA” because that’s how Veterans should

A MESSAGE FROM THE SECRETARY   The Road to Veterans Day    With just two months remaining before Veterans Day 2014, it’s time for me to report to you on what we’ve accomplished in our first 30 days together and on what we intend to accomplish in our next 60 days.  Our “Road to Veterans Day” begins with our mission and our immediate objective:    To better serve and care for those who have borne the battle and for their families and survivors.   To that end, we are moving quickly and decisively on three fronts:   ·        Rebuilding trust with Veterans and other Stakeholders ·        Improving service delivery focusing on better Veteran outcomes ·        Setting the course for longer-term excellence and reform   We are already making important progress:   Rebuilding trust:  We have reaffirmed our commitment to our mission and our “I-CARE” values — Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence — and are working to make reaffirmation an annual requirement.  We’re also connecting with Veterans and VA employees during visits to the field, listening to their concerns and identifying both problems and solutions, and we’re demonstrating accountability by meeting with stakeholders, talking to the press, and taking action in cases of poor performance or wrongdoing.   Improving service delivery:  We already have the foundation of a great VA Strategic Plan; now we are preparing to renew and redeploy that plan to set performance requirements that clearly link the mission to individual performance plans.  We are also developing better ways to gauge Veteran satisfaction, instituting the organizational strategy known as “Lean Management” throughout more of VA, and exploring options for reorganizing VA along common regional service boundaries, with integrated organizations focused on service to the Veteran as viewed by the Veteran.  We’re calling the concept “My VA” because that’s how Veterans should

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been consumed with transformation for the past 21 months, attempting to change from what Secretary Robert McDonald has privately described as a “Kremlinesque” culture to a high performing organization that puts veterans in control of their healthcare.

That transformation effort, known as MyVA, is McDonald’s direct response to the 2014 scheduling manipulation scandal that led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans who had been waiting to receive care. But with six months to go until the November presidential election, senior VA leaders are beginning to express significant concerns that their cultural and technological advancements may not survive into the next administration.

Emails and minutes from senior leadership meetings reviewed by MeriTalk show that although every component of VA has entered into the execution phase of the MyVA strategic plan, much of that effort is focused on preventing regression to the rules-based culture that led to the many scandals that have plagued the agency. As a result, senior officials are seeking plans that contribute to a “sense of irreversible momentum.”

During meetings of the MyVA Advisory Committee in April, senior VA leaders expressed concerns directly to McDonald about the agency’s ability to maintain progress and momentum on MyVA. “They are concerned about maintaining a sense of urgency for the transformation, continued momentum during anticipated senior leadership changes, ensuring that improvements in many areas are cascaded to the front line employees,” according to the meeting minutes.

A critical component to McDonald’s plan to infuse cultural change throughout VA is the Leaders Developing Leaders (LDL) initiative. It is the main element of VA’s overall employee engagement strategy, and has now been made a priority goal for the department. McDonald plans to bring the entire VA leadership team together in September “to commit to strategic agendas for next year.”

Tech Transformation

In response to this plan, VA’s Chief Information Officer, LaVerne Council has tasked each of her direct reports to develop and execute a 100-day program in support of the effort to transform the Office of Information & Technology. But Council is also concerned with what she described as “systemic issues” facing VA’s strategic IT roadmap.

According to Council, “it is hard to work with OIT. As a result, there is a lot of ‘shadow IT’ being put in place by the business lines” throughout VA. Council also said she does not feel VA has a mobile strategy yet, characterizing the agency’s efforts to date as strictly “tactical” in nature.

Senior leadership meeting minutes show that Council is also concerned about VA’s various business units “not making a full commitment to execute” on the agency’s transformation strategy. “Ms. Council is also worried about regression once she leaves,” the MyVA Advisory Committee Meeting minutes state.

Workforce challenges are chief among Council’s concerns when it comes to the potential failure of VA’s transformation strategy. VA’s waiting list scandal has led to a 78 percent reduction in job applicants. There are currently 43,000 job openings to fill at the agency, and many senior officials are concerned about a steep shortage of leadership candidates.

During the April meeting, Council voiced concerns about “the gap between her staff’s skills and those necessary to manage and grow IT in the current environment.” According to Council, VA’s senior director and CIO positions are not competitive with the private sector.

Enshrined In Policy

VA’s strategy for sustaining momentum for the MyVA transformation effort involves documenting progress for endorsement by Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs). Once the election is over, VA transition teams would then visit VSO offices to get input for the next crop of VA leadership candidates.

“The MVAC agreed that third party communication about MyVA and transformation would be extremely effective, and the group agreed to develop a consensus report on what they think about the VA transformation effort,” the meeting minutes state. “They felt that such a report could not be ignored and [would] help mitigate the risk of falling back into old practices.” That report is scheduled to be released in late summer.

Policy changes and updates are another way VA plans to sustain momentum for its transformation efforts. VA is considering integrating the 12 initiatives that make up the MyVA program into policy to help sustain them. “The Secretary agreed, saying that this was a unique moment in time and the VA team needed to take advantage of it.”

Dan Verton
About Dan Verton
MeriTalk Executive Editor Dan Verton is a veteran journalist and winner of the First Place Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for Best News Reporting -- the highest award in the nation for business/trade journalism. Dan earned a Master's Degree in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C., and has spent the last 20 years in the nation's capital reporting on government, enterprise technology, policy and national cybersecurity. He’s also a former intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps, has authored three books on cybersecurity, and has testified on critical infrastructure protection before both House and Senate committees.
22 Comments
  1. Anonymous | - Reply
    just note that, even more so than in the past, the VA OIG always gets its whistleblower!
  2. Anonymous | - Reply
    Ms. Council needs to, at the very least, communicate with her staff and could probably benefit from GEN Reimer's comments about turning the mirror and evaluating one's self in addition to pointing out the shortcomings of all the "other people." More is done behind the curtain now than with past CIOs.
  3. Anonymous | - Reply
    Sad that IT is not told what is going on. I think this is a big money grab for Council and Susan (@baypines). Fired from Johnson and Johnson and Susan is a outsourcing professional. HMMMM how many Vets will be out of work with the contracts that are going to put out.
  4. Anonymous | - Reply
    This transformation of OI&T will greatly impact the service to veterans trying to receive compensation benefits. This will reduce the staff levels at the Regional Offices, creating delays in servicing employees with technical issues, increasing delays in processing veterans claims for benefits. OI&T employees are not being informed of any of this transformation process, creating labor issues.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      When all that matters is your IG audit, who has time for veteran related things?
  5. Anonymous | - Reply
    The hiring craze for docs and nurses has been done without the fore thought on the additional support that would be required with IT Assets. Service Lines have not been fully implemented after stealing the best and brightest IT professionals from the facilities. Now, the newly built orgs can' function well as the orgs they were robbed from. Morale is at a very low point.
  6. Anonymous | - Reply
    Read the headline - "...Before Massive Election Turnover" How many senior IT leaders are left now that know the depth and breadth of corporate VA and its many interrelationships? My way or the highway seems to be the law of survival currently.
  7. Anonymous | - Reply
    VA OI&T Senior Management is at an all time low under Ms. Council (Terminated from Johnson and Johnson) and Susan McHugh-Polley (outsourcing specialist with 10 years IT experience) that is very little experience to fill a job as Deputy Assistant Secretary Service Delivery and Engineering. At one of the Realignment meetings Susan McHugh-Polley made a statement that she used undocumented workers from ICE to move and set up IT equipment. She said she doesn't care where the work comes from. The senior leadership work under cloak and dagger while trying to outsource most of VA IT operations to outside vendors costing the taxpayer billions of dollars. They have created a culture of fear. Rumors if you make any waves you will be black balled and no one in OI&T is going to offer you a job when we realign. Currently 70% of VA IT postilions are filled by veterans. I served 10 years for my country and give every effort to accomplish all that I can every single day. I should not have to come to work worrying about what my senior leadership who are non veterans are trying to do veterans who are employed by the VA. My wife and daughter who are also veterans should not have to worry that the VA has declared war on their veteran IT employees just to outsource jobs and billions of dollars to large corporations. Sad that the VA has little empathy for the veterans that are employed by them. But like the VA says it all about the veterans unless you work there.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      I suspect that's what the administration told her to say.
  8. Anonymous | - Reply
    I've been in VA for over 25 years and it seems like a new era of blame the staff. Why can't you develop faster? They do it on the outside faster! Why can't you get that solution deployed faster? They can do it faster on the outside! Over and over again there is the assumption that OIT staff are a bunch of fools and can't get the work done. I would challenge, it's not the staff, but it's the polices and process that we all have to live by. You really want to change VA, stop focusing on thinking OIT staff are not equipped to do good work; change the policies and never ending process that inhibits us from doing what we need to do. Can they do it faster on the outside, probably, but I've yet to see a contractor, or appointee, come in to VA and do anything spectacular because they suddenly realize that we aren't crazy here.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      It's not just the policies and procedures. It's also the inability of upper management to make decisions and stick to them. We face budget limitations every year, and yet our "leadership" is unable to prioritize the IT needs. They ask us to do everything on the list, funded or unfunded. They also are unable to hold to a coherent IT strategy and evaluate requests against that strategy, so that IT is asked to pursue different and conflicting directions. This is not only wasteful but it also causes technical problems that add to the time and cost of dependent efforts.
  9. Anonymous | - Reply
    Council needs to leave now! She's a fool and McDoanld is a fool to hire her! Neither have improved anything, and in fact Council is making things worse.
  10. Anonymous | - Reply
    The confidence in leadership the VA suffers at this time is rivaled only by the lack of confidence congress has in them. For good reason too. At this point not one VA leader is doing well for what they were hired to do. The secretary and his right hand clown buddy start the circus off. From there you have the CIO doubling down on the freak show. After her there's a long line of unqualified yes-men taking up space hoping to survive another week under the queen of hearts. I wish congress knew how difficult it is for the VA's field level IT workforce to get up in the morning and drag themselves into work to face another day of complete bafoonery. And with the mystery reorganizations that we're told will happen soon it's going to get even harder to suffer through the morning commute. Many are speculating that what we're seeing under this CIO is a planned slow strangulation of the current workforce so we can be replaced with contractors, and it's sad that there's nothing to suggest that's not true. The CIO's lack of open and meaningful communication with her front line workforce does little to ease those concerns so what we're seeing is the typical circling of the wagons at the facility level because of the unknown.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      Hall of fame reply.
  11. Anonymous | - Reply
    Senior leadership is forcing through so much change right now, without the necessary training of workers who must work in the changed environment. Things have been turned upside-down and ground work for assured failure has been laid. And they wonder why we are not all smiling. Yes, we suffer, but it is the veteran who ultimately pays for the failure.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      I think they know exactly what they're doing. It's just not what they're advertising.
  12. Anonymous | - Reply
    “Kremlinesque” culture? What are we now, a mushroom culture? Kept in the dark and fed..... Morale in IT is so low you have to look up to see whale poop. Fill out these forms to do this, wait weeks to get fives signatures to do that. Listen to eight contractors tell you how, when, and where to do something else. I wouldn't wish a VA IT job to my worst enemy. I have one more year in this h3ll hole and I'm out.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      "I have one more year in this h3ll hole and I'm out." That's exactly what they're counting on. That may not change your mind, but it doesn't change the facts.
    2. Anonymous | - Reply
      LaVerne danced a jig when she read that somebody else was leaving.
  13. Anonymous | - Reply
    Unless you're willing to buy the BS published propaganda coming out of the CIO's office, from the people at ground zero, the best way to describe IT's progress would be with a picture. I think the aftermath a strong hurricane would be most accurate.
  14. Anonymous | - Reply
    I have to agree with all the comments. As an IT Manager in VA, and having been in VA OIT for over 22 years (through ALL the transitions), morale IS at an all-time low, we have as many contractors in OIT as we have VA FTEE staff (NEVER a good sign--this typically indicates mismanagement). Council and her underlings have all but destroyed the ability of OIT to perform as required, and there is an overwhelming distrust of the leadership chain (except for Bob...I know everyone appreciates what he's been able to get done, and hopes that he can survive and stay on after the Presidential dance switches partners. Council...was hired DESPITE the fact that she informed VA that she would be leaving upon the arrival of the new President (regardless of party). Speaking for myself, I would never hire someone who gives me an end date. I have applied for the Leadership classes, as, not only am I a proud employee, but, I also am an Army veteran, and I actually USE the VA, and have NEVER had a bad experience, and have direct visibility into issues, and the ability to some degree to fix them, which I strive to do. Hopefully, Bob and Sloan start figuring out that they are NOT getting the straight poop from Council and others, and...venture out into the Field, to observe and listen to the lower-ranking staff. I know that what we have to say is NOT what they are being told, and, if they do that, and stay true to the goals they've set, then, they will be able to change OI&T to a better organization. If they do NOT go out to the Field and listen, learn, and change things...we're pretty much doomed--and THAT is what both disappoints and frustrates those of us who are trying to make things better with all our skills and work.
  15. Anonymous | - Reply
    The entire reorganization seems to be smoke and mirrors. How is this helping the Veterans? How is hiring additional management helping the Veteran? Morale is at an ALL TIME LOW and I have been in VA OI&T for over 14 years both VBA and VHA. Yes, OI&T can do better and we need to re-structure to better server our customers so that they can serve the Veterans, but the way they are doing it appears to be setting up OI&T for failure. The centralization of IT has NOT worked in other civilian companies and government agencies, why are we not looking at their failures to determine what is the best course? We learn more from failures than successes. We should be taking best practices from similar organizations and implementing those, not relying on some audit from an outside agency (which wants our business to hire more of their contractors). I have very little trust in the current leadership in OI&T for the first time in many many years.

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