Challenges Facing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Part 6: Dedicated Servants & Temptations to Go Rogue

This is the sixth 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.

Why have so many dedicated civil servants felt compelled to do things that are clearly inappropriate and perhaps illegal?

I do not know the precise answer to this question. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to interview every individual who acted inappropriately. To find out what his or her motivations were.


Given the legal ramifications facing many of the people who were allegedly involved in the inappropriate practices, it is likely that relatively few will ever explain why they did what they did.

Many people have surmised that the chief motivation behind the data manipulation was that executives wanted to receive performance bonuses. I suspect that this was true for a certain percentage of the individuals.

However, I believe that the chief reason for their actions was deeper than that. My sense is that people were trying to achieve goals that they knew were unattainable. All the while, they felt a high degree of pressure to meet these goals from their superiors, service organizations, Congress and the media.

They also probably thought that:

  1. Others were doing the same thing.
  2. There would be little, if any, oversight from VA Central Office if they fudged the numbers.
  3. Their jobs would be secure if their numbers were good.
  4. They would receive a good appraisal.
  5. They would be rewarded for giving VA the numbers it was asking for.

In essence, it took a perfect storm to cause so many facilities to manipulate so much data.

Framed differently, VA’s systems and processes and ultimately its culture were perfectly designed to produce the results that VA got. So, if VA wants different results, it needs to be clear about its principles going forward. It needs to learn best practices from high-performing organizations and redesign its systems and processes accordingly.

Are VA’s Senior Executives to Blame?

I hope this blog series has given you a deeper, more nuanced understanding of at least some of VA’s problems and how they came about. That’s not to say that VA’s senior executives should not be held accountable. They most certainly should be. Cheating, falsifying documents and misleading VA Central Office and/or Congress are never acceptable. Appropriate action should be taken against the responsible officials.

That being said, while VA senior executives (and others) should be accountable for their actions, the reason why VA is in the mess it’s currently in, is due in large part to years, if not generations, of poor decisions that have been the enablers of the current situation.

As I have explained in earlier post of this series, VA has not received the resources it should have, because it has frequently misled Congress regarding both its performance and the resources it has needed to meet a growing workload.

Moreover, this workload has been in large part driven by decisions made way above the level of VA’s senior executives (e.g. the President, the VA Secretary and Undersecretaries, VA Central Office, etc.).

Finally, many decisions made by VA’s Central Office have been misaligned with VA’s mission. They have caused confusion, stress and frustration among VA’s senior executives and other employees. In the long run, this is where the real changes need to be made.

Should Congress have changed the law, taken away most of VA’s senior executives’ employment protections and made it much easier to fire them?

In a word, “NO.” That is because whenever a scandal and/or debacle hits the federal government, it seems that for every action, there is an equal and opposite overreaction. I believe that is the case when it comes to stripping away the protections of VA’s senior executives.

The law allows the VA to remove or change to a lower grade its senior executives for unacceptable performance and/or misconduct. The affected senior executives then have one week to appeal the action. The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) then decides the case within three weeks.

Now, compare this to the current process for removing a current member of the senior executive service across the federal government:

  • The appointee must be given a written notice at least 30 days before removal from the SES.
  • If eligible, the individual may elect discontinued service retirement.
  •  Performance removals cannot be appealed. But, the individual can request an informal hearing before MSPB.
  • A performance removal is subject to the 120-day moratorium, unless it is based on an unsatisfactory rating given before the appointment of the new agency head or non-career appointee that triggered the moratorium.”[1]

First, it’s a matter of fairness. Why should VA’s senior executives, most of who have had to work with inadequate resources, have fewer protections than their counterparts in other Federal agencies? It doesn’t make sense.

Second, there are relatively few attorneys who are skilled at representing Federal employees, especially senior executives, before the MSPB. With the expected initial rash of VA removals coming, how are many of the affected individuals are going to find within a week an attorney who will become familiar with their cases, interview witnesses, gather evidence, properly file an appeal and represent the employee before the Board?

Moreover, how is the MSPB, which itself has a large backlog (MSPB Chairwoman Susan Tsui Grundmann told Government Executive it has only adjudicated 6,000 of the 33,000 furlough-related appeals it received[2]), going to adjudicate these cases within three weeks?[3]

Third, the VA’s senior executives are generally people who have risen through the ranks to take on and succeed at the toughest assignments within VA. What kind of a message does it send to the rest of VA’s employees when they know that the many of VA’s best and brightest employees will have their employment protections restricted once they reach the senior executive level?

Fourth, VA, as with almost every other Federal agency, has been facing a steady exit of senior executives to retirement and the private sector. A recent study found “a 36 percent increase in managers leaving the SES since 2009.”[4]

With the challenges it will surely be facing in the foreseeable future, how is VA going to attract the best and brightest, when everyone will be aware that VA’s senior executives will be treated as second-class citizens relative to senior executives in every other Federal agency?

Fifth, this legislation violates a basic HRM principle that you don’t penalize everyone for the actions of some. It is akin to an inexperienced supervisor being frustrated with a few employees who frequently arrive late and then calling a meeting to tell everyone that the next time someone comes in late, he will take action. The unintended consequences of this approach are he has angered the entire group, which wonders: “Why is he picking on everyone?,” instead of dealing with the people who are coming in late.

It is well known that I am a proponent of firing more government employees. I have written several books that explained how to do just that, including The Complete Guide to Hiring and Firing a Government Employee.

The most recent statistics indicate that last year only seven senior executives out of more than 7,100 were fired in the Federal government. Two of the seven were from VA, meaning ironically that VA fired 28.6% of the senior executives government-wide.

At a lower level, the Federal government removed its employees at roughly one-sixth the rate that the private sector did (0.46% vs. 3.2% for the private sector.)[5]

At a lower level, the Federal government removed its employees at roughly one-sixth the rate that the private sector did (0.46% vs. 3.2% for the private sector.)

The point is that one narrow piece of legislation that strips most of the protection from senior executives in one of the agencies most in need of a strong cadre of senior executives is not the answer. Unless the government makes a concerted effort to change the system for firing government employees by lowering the burden of proof, providing third parties with less discretion, etc., (highly doubtful), it will need to change its culture so that:

  1. Managers are ready, willing and able to deal with problem employees
  2. There are reliable consequences for people at every level
  3. And officials wishing to do the right thing have access to strong advisors who can help them off-board a poor employee.

Otherwise, accountability will continue to be a major problem government-wide, and not just in VA.

The answer is not to solve VA’s problems on the backs of its senior executives. On the contrary, as I stated before, VA is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets. If VA does not properly design and align all of its design elements, it will continue to get the results that it is getting.

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.


[1] U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Guide to the Senior Executive Service, April 2014
[2] Eric Katz, Federal Appeals Board Has Major Concerns With Firing Provisions in New VA Law, Government Executive, August 7, 2014
[3] For further insight on this paragraph, see Norm Orenstein, Specter of Gilded Age Tarnishes VA Reforms, The National Journal, July 9, 2014
[4] Ryan McDermott, Report: Senior managers leaving government in higher numbers, Fierce Government, June 30, 20145
[5] Feds Fired 0.46 Percent of Government Workers Last Year, The Washington Free Bacon, June 24, 2014