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Submission For The Record of Senior Executive Association

March 24, 2014

The Honorable William Flores
Chairman
Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity
335 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Mark Takano
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity
333 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Flores and Ranking Member Takano:

The Senior Executives Association (SEA) represents the interests of career federal executives in the Senior Executive Service (SES), and those in Senior Level (SL), Scientific and Professional (ST), and equivalent positions. On behalf of the Association, and of SEA members who serve at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I am writing to oppose H.R. 4031, the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014. This proposal not only sets the dangerous precedent of politicizing the career executive corps, it will not achieve the goal we all share – to provide the Nation’s veterans with the highest quality care.

The stated purpose of H.R. 4031 is to hold senior level employees accountable by allowing the Secretary of the VA to terminate Senior Executives “in the same manner as the removal of a professional staff member employed by a Member of Congress.” SEA questions the necessity of this bill since Senior Executives can already be removed for poor performance.

We will appreciate your considering the following points since they speak to both the lack of justification for the bill, but also the danger of enacting this legislation.  

Annually, VA Senior Executives are subjected to a multi-step approval process before being granted their final performance rating for the year. They are given initial ratings by their direct supervisors which are then reviewed by Performance Review Boards at the subcomponent (VBA/VHA/NCA) level, and subsequently go to a VA-wide Performance Review Board. At each level the Performance Review Board has the option to increase, lower, or maintain the rating level based on a review of the Senior Executive's performance. Senior Executives are rated on a wide variety of categories based of their individual performance plans and organizational performance. Finally, the rating goes to the agency head for review- in this case, Secretary Shinseki - who makes a final decision whether to raise, maintain or lower the rating.  According to Secretary Shinseki (in a letter to Chairman Miller, 1/31/14), "Results, or lack thereof, for which employees and executives are responsible and accountable, are factors when evaluating performance. This includes levels and outcomes of patient care, results of relevant investigations and audits, as well as individual and organizational performance and results."

Should poor performance be evident based on the rating process, an agency can take action to remove the Senior Executive.  By law, Senior Executives must be removed from the SES if they receive two unsatisfactory ratings within five consecutive years or two less than fully successful ratings within three consecutive years.

In a hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee in February, Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel stated that in the past year 3,000 employees at the VA had been removed, including fourteen Senior Executives over the past two years. In the letter to Chairman Miller, Secretary Shinseki stated: "I believe VA has sufficient authority to take swift action and hold employees and executives accountable for performance." 

Instead of ensuring strong performance (by which Senior Executives can already be held accountable through consistent, fair and transparent application of the existing performance management system), this legislation could well have the unintended effect of politicizing the career SES.  Allowing the Secretary to terminate Senior Executives would place the Executives at the mercy of media and Congressional pressure, rather than providing an honest assessment of performance and accountability

In the 19th century the federal service was professionalized under the Pendleton Act to put an end to the patronage system that had allowed the civil service to become an arm of whichever political party held power at the time. To guarantee fair treatment of employees and preserve the integrity of the civil service, protections were put in place to provide due process for federal employees and a barrier to undue political influence so that federal employees could fairly carry out the laws passed by Congress without fear of political retribution.

As it currently stands, career Senior Executives enjoy far fewer protections than other federal employees. The unfortunate reality of the past few years has been that the rhetoric surrounding federal employees is largely driven by optics rather than the policy needs of the American people. SEA is concerned that H.R. 4031 would allow Senior Executives to be subjected to a trial by media that pressures political appointees to remove them without cause. With fear of retribution by an agency head, the career SES could well become a politicized corps that bends with the political winds, rather than serving the American people free from political influence.  SEA strongly supports holding employees accountable for their performance. Should an employee need to be removed, then an agency already has the means to do so. Federal employees are routinely fired and red tape is not the problem.

SEA has become aware of some Veterans Service Organizations that are advocating for providing the Secretary of VA the same firing authority as the Defense Secretary. This is based on a quote by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates where he talked about firing people at the top to change the culture during the Walter Reed scandal.  However, the people that former Secretary Gates fired in order to change the culture were political appointees.  Further, there appears to be confusion between career Senior Executives and political appointees generally. Across the government, and at the VA, there are non-career Senior Executives who are political appointees, and, like all political appointees, they serve at the pleasure of the agency head. It is unclear to SEA that this distinction between career and political appointees is being accurately applied in the case of the VA.

In discussing this legislation with many Congressional offices, it appears that the underlying concern has more to do with the SES performance appraisal process than the accountability process. SEA has long advocated for stronger transparency and fairness for the SES performance management system and stands ready to work with you to strengthen the system, rather than unfairly punishing Senior Executives through a measure that will do nothing to truly improve the quality of care and service given to the Nation’s veterans.

I look forward to answering any questions about the SES system that you may have.

Sincerely,

CAROL A. BONOSARO
President