Challenges Facing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Part 5: VA’s Culture

This is the fifth post of a seven-part blog series that chronicles and attempts to dissect and explain the recent and growing issues and challenges negatively affecting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In a report to the White House, Rob Nabors and acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson stated among other things that: “A corrosive culture has led to personnel problems across the Department that are seriously impacting morale, and by extension the timeliness of health care (Note: I believe claims processing, too.) The problems inherent within an agency with an extensive field structure are exacerbated by poor management and communications structures, a corrosive culture of distrust between some VA employees and management, and a history of retaliation toward employees and a lack of accountability.”

Other key points from the report about the culture were it:

• Encourages discontent and backlash.
• Has led to personnel problems across the department that is seriously impacting morale.
• Results in transferring problems rather than solving them.
• Minimizes problems or refuses to acknowledge them.

imgresThe report also noted that the: “VA has demonstrated an inability to clearly articulate its budgetary needs and to tie budgetary needs to specific outcomes.”

I agree with all of the above comments. However, I believe they do not tell the full picture about the VA’s culture.

For example, I most certainly agree that VA tends to transfer personnel problems rather than solve them. VA’s employees generally support that view, too. In the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, only 29% of VA’s employees agreed with the following statement: “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve.”

However, it is misleading to conclude that this is a problem that is unique to VA. Government-wide, only 30.4% of the respondents agreed with that same statement. That then begs the obvious question: “Why does the Federal government fail to do a good job of dealing with its poor employees?”

There are several reasons why. I believe the biggest ones are the following:

• With all of the protections that government employees have, many government managers have concluded that it is not worth the time, energy and resources required to terminate a poor employee.
• Many government officials have neither the will nor the skill to deal with problem employees.
• In the mid-1990s, with the advent of the Reinventing Government initiative, Personnel (aka Human Resources Management or HRM) activities were centralized in many agencies in order to save thousands of Full-time Equivalent Employees (FTE). While it accomplished just that, it seriously weakened the Federal government’s personnel expertise as many professionals concluded that the field was no longer valued, and, as a result, left Federal personnel. Twenty years later, that is still a significant problem. Well-meaning Federal managers often struggle to find a good personnel advisor to help them deal with a problem employee.

Unless the entire Federal government makes a concerted effort to change the mindset of its supervisors, while rebuilding its Human Resources Management expertise, this will continue to be a problem, not only in VA, but also across government.

Another area for potential improvement area is supervisory development. Let’s look at some of VA’s employee responses on the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to statements about their supervisors and upper level managers:

• In my organization, leaders generate a high level of motivation and commitment in the workforce: 40.8% agree.
• Overall, how good a job do you feel is being done by the manager directly above your immediate supervisor/team leader?: 53.7% responded positively.
• I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders: 50.3% agree.

As you can see, these numbers are very troubling, but not surprising. Moreover, they are not significantly different from the rest of the government’s scores in these areas.

If VA (and the rest of the Federal government) wants a better culture and higher employee morale and commitment, it needs to dramatically improve the way it develops its supervisors at all levels so that they motivate their employees, build an open and honest relationship with them, and ensure that there are reliable consequences for every level of performance.

That is, regardless of whether management likes an employee or not, outstanding employees can expect to be promoted, rewarded and recognized. Average employees can expect to retain their jobs and receive the appropriate step increases. And poor employees can expect that action will be taken to either change them or to change them.

To accomplish this requires a massive undertaking because the supervisors would not only have to be able to perform the technical parts of their jobs (workload management, quality control, budgeting, understanding the organization’s systems, etc.), they also would need to develop the tacit skills (i.e. the “art of the job). This includes learning how to manage and work with people, how to communicate, how to deal with difficult situations, how to work with unions, etc. The tacit skills are the harder ones to learn, but they are the ones that will produce the largest returns.

There is another more radical approach to improving VA’s culture. It does not require a massive supervisory development program. It would pay even more dividends in the long run.

That is building high-performing teams of leaders whereby everyone is engaged and committed. They are involved, well-developed and accountable. They step up and provide leadership to the team. All without the day-to-day involvement of a supervisor.

Why would this be a big step forward? Just look at the responses by VA employees in the 2013 Employee Viewpoint Survey to the following statements:

• Employees have a feeling of personal empowerment with respect to the work processes: only 41.4% agree.
• Creativity and innovation are rewarded: only 34.3% agree.
• Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?: only 55.2% responded positively.

The point is that VA’s culture and work design is producing a large number of employees who feel disengaged. They are either unable or unwilling to propose innovations. They are less than satisfied with their organization.

Now imagine how much more effective and productive VA would be if it could unleash its employees rather than merely control them?

Let’s look at the way work is typically designed in VA, and through almost all of government and much of the private sector.

Screenshot 2014-09-18 14.13.27

Under this design, known as a Stage One Team, the supervisor makes the decisions, interacts individually with employees, and deals with difficult people. By the way, he frequently feels overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the employees follow orders, are frozen out of key decisions, and have little authority or autonomy. Many of them feel disengaged.

To get to a Team of Leaders (a Stage Five Team), teams must evolve through stages that require nurturing and support. Below is an illustration showing the changing roles of an evolving team. The red dot represents the role of the supervisor. The blue dot shows the team members. And the green dot indicates the members once they assume leadership responsibilities.

Screenshot 2014-09-18 14.13.42

The supervisor’s role slowly shifts until she becomes an advisor. Meanwhile, the members evolve from being followers to becoming leaders. That is the objective because the team produces its best results at Stage Five.

Here is another illustration of a Stage Five Team:
Screenshot 2014-09-18 14.13.56

This design is being used in many industries with great success. It addresses the traditional structure’s design flaws. It no longer has one “all-knowing” boss and everyone is involved in all phases of the team.

Moreover, when employees work together in such a work design, it is far less likely that they will engage in data manipulation. After all, they will be working together, united around a sense of purpose. They will be in a much better position to find strategies that work and offset resource shortages, rather than resort to cheating.

It will take time, energy, resources and planning to get to this point. But, in the long run, operating under such a design will help fundamentally improve VA’s culture, its performance, and the way it operates.

Moreover, it will offset many of VA’s resource shortfalls because people are far more productive when they are part of a high-performing team of leaders.

I recommend that VA test this concept in a few facilities that are experiencing problems with employee involvement and engagement, as well as overall performance. If, as expected, it works well, the VA should consider expanding the concept to other facilities.

The point of this rather lengthy discussion about VA’s culture is that unless it changes, similar problems will manifest themselves in different places. The good news is that VA’s culture can be changed. But, it will require the concerted efforts of its leaders and managers, along with some significant changes in its systems and the way it performs its work.

About Stewart Liff

Stewart Liff is an HR and visual performance management expert and leading author on managing and transforming government agencies, as well as president of Stewart Liff & Associates. He is also the author of a new book 98 Opportunities for Improving Management in Government, as well as Managing Government Employees and co-author of A Team of Leader and Seeing is Believing.

Go now to download a free chapter from my book A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results. Get a deeper knowledge today about how you can put into play a better way to get your business on the path to success.