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Witness Testimony of Jimmy F. Sims, Jr., Rating Veterans Service Representative, Veterans Benefits Administration Regional Office, Winston-Salem, NC, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and AFGE Local 1738 Steward, American Federation of Government Emp

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

AFGE supports the goal of H.R. 2349 to improve the VBA training process by focusing on the skills of managers as well as employees.  Managers are in great need of more subject matter expertise and hands-on experience to carry out their supervisory, quality assurance, and teaching roles.   We also support individualized training plans that would give each employee a meaningful opportunity to improve the quality of his or her work and provide management with a valuable feedback loop for identifying deficiencies in training, supervision and information technology.

When employees and managers fail to make performance improvements after attempts at remediation, the appropriate response is a personnel action (e.g. reassignments, demotions, and terminations), not a disciplinary action.  

We strongly urge the creation of a Joint AFGE-VSO Advisory Group that would consult regularly with VA officials on training, skills certification, performance standards and other aspects of the claims process.

The proposed assessment and remediation processes should leave less discretion to local managers to ensure consistency across ROs and reduce the risk of continued misuse of Performance Improvement Plans.

VBA’s current training capability will not support this legislation. A stronger centralized training program and greater expertise among trainers and supervisors are essential first steps to effective implementation of H.R. 2349. To increase training consistency, the Subcommittee may also wish to consider centralized video training.

Annual assessments (Sec. 7732B(a)(1)), using skills certification tests, would be helpful for identifying both individual employee deficiencies as well as RO-wide and/or national deficiencies.  

The proposed Individualized Training Plans (Section 7732B(a)(2)) will only be effective if VBA addresses existing weaknesses in its training programs. Local managers under intense production pressures have full discretion to design training for 40 of the 85 hours, and too often, fixed hours of classroom training with significantly less “excluded time” to learn complex concepts online.

For remediation of deficient skills (Section 7732B(b)(1), AFGE urges a clearer and more consistent use of “Performance Improvement Plans” (PIP) governed by 5 U.S.C. Section 4302, to ensure that PIPs are used to employees with meaningful opportunities to overcome deficiencies, not as a tool to target disliked employees.  


Dear Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on H.R. 2349 on behalf of the American Federation of Government Employees and the AFGE National VA Council (hereinafter “AFGE”).  AFGE is the exclusive representative of Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employees who process disability claims. 

AFGE commends the Chairman for introducing legislation that would improve the VBA training process by focusing on the skills of managers as well as employees. Given the growing complexity of VBA claims, any effort to improve the claims process must tackle the problem of managers who lack sufficient expertise and experience to carry out their supervisory, quality assurance, and teaching roles.    

We also support the concept of individualized training plans that target deficiencies in specific skills.  This approach would give each employee a meaningful opportunity to improve the quality of his or her work. Equally important, it would give management a valuable feedback loop for identifying deficiencies in training, supervision, information technology and other factors that are adversely impacting the workforce as a whole.

We have several general comments on the bill:

  • We urge elimination of the proposal for disciplinary actions for employees and managers who fail to improve their performances.  Rather, federal employers use personnel actions (e.g. reassignments, demotions, and terminations) to address performance after attempts at remediation.
  • We strongly support the creation of a Joint AFGE-VSO Advisory Group that would consult regularly with VA officials on training, skills certification, performance standards and other aspects of the claims process.
  • We are concerned about the lack of specific details in the proposed assessment and remediation processes; too much local discretion will lead to great inconsistencies across regional offices (RO), and continued misuse of the performance improvement process, at the cost of workplace morale and missed opportunities for quality improvement.
  • Currently, VBA lacks the training capability and sufficient subject matter experts to carry out the mandates of this bill.  A stronger centralized training program and greater expertise among trainers and supervisors are essential first steps to effective implementation of H.R. 2349.

Section-by-Section Comments (referring to 38 USC 7732)

Sec. 7732B(a)(1): Annual Assessment

Annual assessments would be helpful for identifying both individual employee deficiencies as well as RO-wide and national weaknesses in training, supervision, information technology and other factors that impact quality and production.

We urge the Subcommittee to use the existing skills certification tests as an assessment tool rather than develop a new assessment tool. VBA already administers certification tests for VSRs, RVSRs and DROs. However, these certification tests have been plagued by longstanding problems with test design, test administration and test preparation curriculum.

Section 225 of P.L. 110-389 requires VBA to develop certification exams for “appropriate employees and managers” in consultation with stakeholders and employee representatives.  Again, AFGE strongly supports the creation of the Joint AFGE-VSO Advisory Group to carry out these functions. With the regular input of front line employees and veterans service officers, who have critical expertise in both process and subject matter, the VSR, RVSR and DRO tests can better assess the skills that are actually needed to get the claims processed correctly the first time.  Our members report that too often, these tests measure test taking skills rather than needed job skills, or that they are too basic and fail to assess skills needed to handle more complex issues.

H.R. 2389 requires that “appropriate employees and managers” undergo annual assessments.  We urge the Subcommittee to include all managers involved in supervision, training, mentoring and quality assurance.  We find it very troubling that VBA new supervisor training currently states in very specific terms that supervisors do not need to know the job of the employees they supervise!.

AFGE was troubled to learn from the last consultant team working on skills certification tests that their goal was to develop strong test questions, rather than test knowledge.  We are concerned that the current contractor (Camber) will continue to take this approach. Employees must be able to rely on these tests to maintain their jobs. It is both unfair to the workforce and poor policy to judge employees based on the number of times they take an exam that does not adequately test knowledge.

Finally, VBA has still not implemented the manager skills certification test.  Public Law 110-389 required that that this test be developed by October 2009 and administered within 90 days after development (January 2010).  If managers had been subject to a reliable skills certification test for the past year and a half, we would already be seeing improvements in the quality of claims, VBA training programs and production levels.

Sec. 7732B(a)(2): Individualized Training Plan

The proposed Individualized Training Plan will only be effective if VBA addresses existing weaknesses in its training programs. AFGE has longstanding concerns about the consistency and quality of training provided to meet the 85 hour yearly training mandate.  Currently, only 45 of the 85 hours of training are designed centrally.

Consequently, local managers under intense production pressures who often lack training expertise have full discretion to design training for the remaining 40 hours. Our members report that managers regularly substitute fixed hours of classroom training on complex concepts with significantly less “excluded time” to learn this information online without any instruction.

Individualized training plans will only be effective if they are designed with the input of front line employees and their representatives and VSOs working with managers who possess adequate skills in claims processing and training.   In some offices, simply being promoted to a Decision Review Officer or Super Senior VSR automatically qualifies the employee as a trainer who is immediately thrust into an instructor role.

VBA also needs to develop and update training curriculum on a timelier basis. Employees are forced to process complex new claims (e.g. in response to a court case or legislation) for months and sometimes years before receiving pertinent training and guidance.

Section 7732B(b)(1): Remediation of Deficient Skills

This bill provision generally describes a process similar to the “Performance Improvement Plan” (PIP) for federal employees that is governed by 5 U.S.C. Section 4302.  Our members experience widely inconsistent uses of PIPs in their ROs, and far too often, managers use PIPs to get rid of employees they do not like, rather than provide employees with meaningful opportunities to receive training and assistance to overcome deficiencies.  Abuse of the PIP process lowers morale, results in unnecessary terminations, and wastes VA human resource dollars.

Therefore, a remediation process must be clear and consistent regarding timeframes and number of times that remediation is provided. Also, the manager assessing the deficient employee’s progress during remediation must have sufficient expertise and be impartial.  If not, RO managers will continue to let favored employees (and managers) succeed while depriving others of a fair chance to improve their skills and retain their jobs, leading to more errors and delays in the claims process.

Section 7732B(b)(2): Disciplinary actions for unsatisfactory performance

As noted, AFGE strongly objects to the use of disciplinary actions to address unsatisfactory performance. This approach is inconsistent with federal personnel law and practice. Rather, after remediation efforts have failed, employees should be subject to personnel actions, e.g. reassignment, demotion or termination as a last resort. 

Across the country, our members report that front line employees are working in good faith under intense pressure to meet production standards.  They work through lunch, breaks, evenings and weekends to work claims and learn new skills.  If they try, but fail to improve their skills in their current position, the proper and efficient response is to first attempt reassignment to a different position.  These employees have already received training and have useful experience that can be put to use in another position at VBA.

Greater Oversight of VBA Training Is Critical

In the fall of 2010 I served as a member of a special Site Team that looked at the implementation of the final phase of new employee initial training. We found that this training phase was not being implemented consistently across the nation. We also found that many employees were not receiving the training designed by the Central Training Staff. This report was provided to the Under Secretary for Benefits, yet to this date, no action has been taken to correct these discrepancies.  

We also fear that efforts to improve VBA training will continue in the same path as the Systematic Technical Accuracy Review (STAR) program. In March 2009 the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) identified numerous problems with the training and monitoring of the STAR staff. It was more than one year before VBA took steps to act upon the OIG findings.  A 2010 Government Accountability Office investigation revealed that STAR continued to be plagued by significant problems that were directly linked to the issues identified in the 2009 OIG report.

Given VBA’s poor track record at implementing needed changes, AFGE strongly encourages the creation of the Joint AFGE-VSO Advisory Group previously discussed that will regularly report back to Congress on the progress of VBA reforms.

American Federation of Government Employees
Washington, DC.
July 7, 2011

The Honorable Jon Runyan, Chairman
Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and
    Memorial Affairs
335 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC  20515

Dear Chairman Runyan:

The American Federation of Government Employees has not received any federal grants or contracts, during this year or in the last two years, from any agency or program relevant to the subject of the July 7, 2011 Legislative Hearing of the  Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.

Sincerely,

Beth Moten
Legislative and Political Director