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Witness Testimony of The Honorable W. Scott Gould, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

INTRODUCTION

Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Filner, and Distinguished Members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs:  thank you for the opportunity to be with you today to discuss VA’s commitment to transparency, oversight, and the training of its employees to deliver the highest quality service to our Nation’s Veterans, family members, and survivors, while ensuring accountability.  I want to thank the Committee for their ongoing partnership in our common commitment to serve our Nation’s Veterans.  

I know that many of you are especially interested in talking about VA training conferences – about the issues identified by the VA Inspector General (IG), and about what our department is doing to ensure that such issues do not occur again.

At a time when the physical, mental, and emotional health needs of our Veterans are so acute, and when the demands on VA health budgets are so great, there is no justification for the spending of public funds outside the legitimate needs and missions of this department.

The IG report on the 2011 Human Resources and Administration (HRA) conferences in Orlando identified several examples of such wasteful expenditures. To call the report findings deeply disappointing would be an understatement.  As Secretary Shinseki said immediately upon the public release of the report, the failures outlined in the report represent abdications of responsibility, failures of judgment, and serious lapses of stewardship.

VA’s mission – to serve our Veterans – must be at the core of our work all the time, including when we are planning,attending, and managing training conferences.

ORLANDO HR CONFERENCES

The VA’s HRA held two training events for VA employees in Orlando during the summer of 2011 featuring nearly 100 classes and workshops.  The training was required to address gaps in the capabilities of HR employees that were identified in 2010.  HR employee performance is important because they make sure that the right people are hired and trained – people who will directly deliver health care and benefits to Veterans. The evidence gathered suggests that these sessions had significant return on investment. One year later, 74 percent of the responding supervisors of conference participants agreed or strongly agreed that the attendees had been more productive on the job following the conference, and 73 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their employees were more motivated at work as a result of participating in the conference.

More significantly, 78 percent of responding supervisors of conference attendees reported that they had seen evidence that their employees had used new skills or knowledge on the job as a result of conference attendance. Seventy percent of supervisors stated that their employees’ job performance had improved after the conferences.  We must factor these results into our assessment of these training conferences and improve on them in the future, even as we redouble our efforts to prevent the kinds of issues described in the IG report.

VA is aggressively addressing the execution and oversight failures outlined in the IG report. This includes taking appropriate action with regard to personnel found to be responsible for those failures, as well as establishing new policies and procedures, which are discussed in more detail below, to help ensure that such failures do not occur again.  Regarding IG recommendations relating to named career employees, to ensure due process, the Secretary has appointed senior officials to review evidence of wrongdoing and to recommend and take appropriate administrative action.  Much of this testimony will be devoted to discussing these new policies and procedures in greater detail.

IMPROVEMENTS IN OVERSIGHT

It is VA policy to determine whether the Department will see a quantifiable improvement in operations for investments in training.  As part of that approval process, offices must prepare a detailed business case analysis.  They must also ensure that the conference or training event is part of a rational strategy to develop VA employees’ skill sets in the optimum way.  The requirement to measure outcomes for training events has enabled us to capture and evaluate performanceperformance data that will lead to more relevant and focused training.

Since January 2009, VA has issued several increasingly restrictive policies regarding the planning and execution of training conferences.  In August 2011, the Department began requiring all offices to submit for approval any training event or conference attended by 50 or more employees.  Additionally, VA issued several memoranda and regulations incorporating Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance on training conference planning and execution.

On September 21, 2011, OMB issued Memorandum 11-35, “Eliminating Excess Conference Spending and Promoting Efficiency in Government,” which instructed all agencies “to conduct a thorough review of the policies and controls associated with conference-related activities and expenses.”  On May 11, 2012, OMB expanded that effort to mitigate the risk of inappropriate spending, issuing Memorandum 12-12 (OMB M-12-12), “Promoting Efficient Spending to Support Agency Operations.”  M-12-12 outlined a series of policies and practices for conference sponsorship, hosting, and attendance to ensure that Federal funds are used appropriately on these activities, and that agencies continue to reduce spending on conferences wherever possible.  VA incorporated this policy in its July 3, 2012 memoranda.

After issues at the 2011 HR National Training Conferences came to light, it was clear that we needed to go further still in order to ensure that we leave a lasting culture of accountability VA. In early August 2012, after being briefed by the VA IG’s office on its investigation of the Orlando conferences, the Secretary immediately ordered a range of strict measures to ensure tougher oversight:

·        full Departmental cooperation with the IG investigation;

·        the removal of purchasing authority from  employees in the unit under investigation;

·        an outside, independent review of all training policies and procedures and the execution of all training conferences;

·        an outside, independent review of conference planning  and execution, and oversight policies and practice;

·        ethics training for all VA personnel involved with the planning or execution of conferences; and

·        an internal examination of existing VA policies as they relate to Administration policy, departmental policy, and Federal law and regulation on conferences.

As a result of this internal examination, on September 16, 2012, VA issued a revised conference planning and oversight policy.  The new policy regarding the approval and planning of  conferences was further developed and communicated in a  revised memorandum on September 26, 2012.  VA conference process now has four phases:  concept, development, execution, and reporting.  Each phase has objectives, metrics, and standards of execution.  Once an organization has a concept for a conference, that concept is to be developed and included in the Concept Authorization Briefing as part of the quarterly Conference Planning and Execution Briefing Cycle.  Starting in December 2012, more detailed briefings on any conferences VA proposes to host or co-host, or Federal or non-Federal hosted conferences VA employees will be conducted on a quarterly basis.  

Conferences estimated to cost between $20,000 and $100,000 require approval by an Under Secretary, Assistant Secretary, or equivalent senior official in the proponent organization.  Conferences estimated to cost over $100,000 but less than $500,000 require approval by the Deputy Secretary. Conferences over $500,000 are generally not permitted under  OMB Memo 12-12 and may only proceed if the Secretary approves a waiver.  To help implement these reforms, VA has established a corporate Training Support Office, which helps coordinate quarterly Conference Planning and Execution Briefings. 

Conferences that receive conceptual approval proceed to the development stage.  To provide better oversight and single points of accountability from the event’s planning through its execution, the Department now requires each Administration and Staff Office to designate a Conference Certifying Official (CCO), who must be a Senior Executive or SES-equivalent.  The CCO, who must be familiar with all VA and Executive Branch training conference policies and procedures, will certify that the proposed event complies with all regulations and policies.  The CCO also certifies that the proposal, which includes all anticipated costs, provides a detailed business analysis for the planned conference and travel investment.

If a conference is approved, and planning commences, each conference estimated to cost VA over $20,000 will require the appointment of a second official, the Responsible Conference Executive (RCE).  The RCE will ensure the conference is executed according to the plan approved by the CCO and adheres to all applicable regulations and policies.  The RCE’s responsibilities continue through and after the event.  The RCE must certify, within 15 days of the completion the conference, that due diligence was exercised in the execution of the training conference and ensure the conference was executed within 5 percent of the planned budget. 

“Due diligence” includes: prior approvals of any conference-related spending; bans on entertainment and promotional item spending; and restrictions on spending in accordance with OMB Memo M-12-12 and VA’s financial policies and procedures.  To further assist in executing future conferences in a more efficient manner, the Responsible Conference Executive must also submit an After-Action Review Report. 

The designation of a Conference Certifying Official and a Responsible Conference Executive for  every large conference will clearly identify the specific individuals responsible for ensuring appropriate conference planning and overseeing  conference management and execution.

Additionally, the Department currently has a central conference tracking repository and is developing an electronic portal that will contain materials to help Administrations and Staff Offices develop their conference business case and associated planning documents.  This portal will also help track information for the Department to report training conference spending in accordance with OMB Memo M-12-12 and Public Law 112-154, the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012’’.  This law requires VA to track and report to Congress quarterly conferences that are sponsored or co-sponsored by VA and attended by at least one VA employee, or estimated to cost VA at least $20,000 – and to provide estimates for the next quarter. 

The Department has instituted sound policies and has provided clear guidance to individuals within VA responsible for the approval, planning, and execution of conferences.  We recognize that insufficient oversight has resulted in the misuse of some taxpayer dollars.  This is unacceptable.  We will continuously review our policies and procedures to ensure we are using our resources effectively and appropriately while providing the training that is so critically necessary for VA employees..

VALUE OF TRAINING FOR VA’S MISSION

While we must address the specific issues by the Inspector General and the systemic problems they implicate, we must also be very conscious of the continued value of VA training conferences.

As this Committee is well aware, this is a time of rapidly growing challenges for VA.  To meet those challenges across the vast network of VA hospitals, clinics, benefits offices and national cemeteries, it is necessary  that our personnel train and consult with VA colleagues and outside authorities on new and best practices across an enormous spectrum of subjects, ranging from electronic-records administration to suicide prevention.  The progress we have made in the last few years to transform the Department into a 21st century organization would not have been possible without a highly trained workforce.  Our employees need to be trained to ensure they stay current to deliver on our mission.   We will make maximum use of technology to meet most efficiently meet those training needs,  however conferences will remain essential  to  VA’s efforts to meet the rapidly evolving needs of our Veteran population.

In 2009, VA recognized that the changing needs of Veterans required improving and enhancing the training of its employees.  At that time, VA training programs were scattered, siloed, and underutilized.  The need for improved performance was clear in the midst of increased demand due to ongoing combat operations and the expected retirement of a high proportion of the VA workforce in the near future.  If VA did not invest substantially in its employee training, the Nation faced the prospect of an underprepared, undertrained VA at precisely the moment when the needs of our Veteran community were greatest.

One of VA’s four strategic goals requires us to invest in our employees so that they can improve service and customer satisfaction for Veterans and their families. Consequently, the Department identified transformation of our human-capital management as a main element in our Strategic Plan.   We have been working for the past three years on providing our employees with the training they need.

Training requirements are based on identified competencies for each employee.  We have worked to define management and technical competencies for all our key service areas.  At the forefront of these efforts is the policy requiring that there be “line-of-sight” from the Department’s strategic goals and capabilities, through organizational missions and functions, to the individual employee’s personal performance and development plans.  Through this “line-of-sight” approach, we can identify the employee-level competencies needed to achieve the Department’s strategic goals.  We can then identify gaps in these competencies, and develop training programs to fill them.

VA’s training programs – including, but not limited to, our training conferences – follow a cyclical model.  The cycle begins by identifying the critical knowledge, skills, and behaviors an employee requires to better serve our Veterans.  These defined competencies and our organizational values are linked to training.  Training needs are then compared to available resources and a final plan developed to correct gaps across the entire organization on a priority basis.  Through this process the course offerings in our training programs, including training conferences, are identified. As training courses are developed, we give strong consideration to ensuring that courses are available to the largest population of employees, and are carried out in a cost-effective manner – with a preference for using available technology to provide virtual training where feasible. 

Once conducted, courses are rigorously evaluated to assess participant satisfaction, on-the-job behavior change, and organizational impact.  The feedback from this evaluation is used to inform future course-development and to continually improve our training methods.

To facilitate high quality, cost-effective continuous learning, VA established VA Learning University (VALU) in 2003.  Further, VA created centralized training centers for specific fields, such as the VA Acquisition Academy and the Veterans Benefits Academy.

VA’s Human Capital Investment Programs (HCIP), have demonstrated a positive return on investment (ROI).  HCIP initiatives are designed to build a healthy and engaged VA organization where employees deliver high-quality services.  VALU applied industry best practices to analyze the ROI for HCIP initiatives, yielding a positive 5%.  These findings are being used as the foundation for deeper insights into new initiatives with the ultimate goal of demonstrating the future value of HCIP as well as driving investment decisions moving forward.

Advances in technology have made distance learning a more feasible option for many kinds of training.   VA has already made extensive use of technology to provide training nationwide, and we are aggressively looking into new ways in which we  leverage it even further.  However, as a result of the Department’s diverse and complex missions, there are occasions, which are outlined below, when travel to conduct face-to-face meetings for training is most effective and efficient. 

We must avoid falling into a mindset that reflexively denies the value of in-person meetings.  Such meetings certainly have their place.  But we clearly have to do a better job of monitoring our costs and improving oversight.  In accordance with Administration directives and internal policies, VA has instituted a multi-tiered approval process for all training conferences that cost VA over $20,000.  Recognizing that resources are limited and that further efficiencies can be found in our operations, VA continues to find ways to implement the Administration’s guidance to reduce spending while continuing to provide high quality training. 

Our Administrations and Staff Offices have adapted their training programs to better improve employees’ ability to provide high quality service for Veterans. I would now like to turn to some of the individual administrations and staff offices within VA, to talk about how these programs – including, where necessary, in-person conferences – are resulting in better support for America’s Veterans:

VETERANS HEALTH ADMINISTRATION

In perhaps no part of VA is personnel training of greater significance than in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which must not only contend with the complex health care challenges facing the Veteran community, but must also do so while competing with private-sector companies for health care and administrative talent. 

VHA is the Nation’s largest integrated health care system, providing quality clinical care to more than 8.4 million enrolled Veterans at more than 1,400 points of care across the country.  VHA’s mission is to honor America’s Veterans by providing exceptional care that improves their health and well-being.  To do this effectively, training and competency development is critical as we work to maintain statutory, regulatory or VA-required licensure, certification and qualifications. 

Providing these opportunities for clinical skills development is essential to recruitment and retention as we work daily to address the emerging issues unique to the large and diverse Veteran population including: Polytrauma from multiple war related injuries; disease positively associated with exposure to various chemicals during conflict; traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder; suicide prevention and other mental health diagnoses; women’s health and military sexual trauma; cancer and other age-related diseases of Korean-era and Vietnam-era Veterans; and elimination of Veteran homelessness.

Consider our increasing investment in telehealth training.   Telehealth is and continues to be a key driver in maximizing access to primary and specialty services for all Veterans, including those in rural or remote areas.  The implementation of this telehealth infrastructure requires training for an overall understanding behind the vision of how this program can change care and delivery to Veterans as well as providing skills and competency for utilizing the necessary equipment and technology. 

In 2011, 160 participants acquired the knowledge and skills to manage telehealth programs and facilities.  Students participated in hands-on training and evaluation of technology support for over 380,865 patients who used telehealth services last year alone.

Another example of the direct and tangible results of training programs throughout VHA is the Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) Collaborative and Learning Center. PACT is central to VHA’s strategy to implement a medical home model and team-based care.  1,233 VHA participants utilized this collaborative to better equip the VHA health care teams to provide coordinated and holistic care with streamlined delivery of services. After completing the training, participants reported a 27% increase in Veterans contacted within 48 days and visited within 7 days of transition from the hospital.

VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION

Now let’s turn to the Veterans Benefit Administration, or VBA.  One of the most significant areas in which VA’s commitment to training has shown results is the Challenge training program utilized by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to train its Veterans Service Representatives (VSR) and Rating Veterans Service Representatives (RVSR).  VBA seeks to eliminate the disability claims backlog and process all claims at a 98% accuracy level. 

Central to meeting this goal is investing in the training of VBA’s personnel.  Under its comprehensive Transformation Campaign Plan, VBA redesigned and enhanced the Challenge training program in July 2011.  Redesign of the centralized Challenge program grew out of VBA’s need to make new claims processors more proficient and productive at the start of their careers, while minimizing the impact on experienced staff called on to provide follow-on training at the local regional offices.  A July 2012 report examined the updated training’s impact after nearly a year of use.  This report is a prime example of VA’s thorough examination of the return on training investments.  The training, centralized at VA’s Benefits Academy in Baltimore, creates efficiencies in training delivery by collocating the new employees at one site.  On balance, the expenditure of sending new VBA employees to Baltimore for an eight-week period of training is outweighed by the gains in accuracy and productivity those employees receive from being assembled to receive training from knowledgeable and effective instructors delivering a long, complex curriculum.   Further, the shared learning experience enables employees with diverse backgrounds who work in different regional offices across the country to develop a shared sense of mission.  Finally, common training standards and methods lower variance in quality and productivity around the nation.

The new model demonstrated success in 90 days.  Under the legacy model, at the end of the six-month training period trainees averaged one-half case per day and 60% accuracy prior to review. In contrast, by the end of just over three months under the revised Challenge model, graduates were able to  complete more than a case per day with greater than 95% accuracy.  When employees returned to their home stations, they continue to learn through additional on-the-job training.  This focus on training helped VA complete a record- breaking 1 million claims per year the last two fiscal years, delivering faster, better decisions for Veterans.

As VA continues to receive more disability claims, deploying highly trained and competent VSRs and RVSRs to the Regional Offices is a main focus in the Department’s goal of eliminating the claims backlog by 2015.

 OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT

Training is focused not only on the ever changing technical aspects of the medical and benefits offered to Veterans and their families but the rapidly changing management environment, as well.  VA continues its transformation by creating a highly skilled workforce that supports all operational and management functions.  That’s where VA’s Office of Management comes in.

For example, the Office of Finance was tasked with training approximately 6,800 VA employees in financial management positions within VA.  The FM Training Conference is the principal platform by which all VA employees who perform financial management related duties come together to share knowledge and learn essential skills in the areas of auditing, accounting, budget  analysis, and financial management.

These  conferences offered 27 courses including Appropriations Law, Federal Financial Management Overview and Federal Accounting Fundamentals. With other improvements we have made, VA achieved a 75% reduction in material weaknesses in our FY 2011 annual financial audit. 

OFFICE OF INFORMATION AND TECHNOLOGY

The VA Office of Information and Technology (OIT) delivers available, adaptable, secure, and cost effective technology services to the VA and acts as a steward for all VA's IT assets and resources. 

To ensure exemplary execution of this mission, it is vital that IT staff at all of the VA facilities are aware of policy changes and how to implement and communicate changes to the customer base of over 300,000 VA employees.

For example, OIT has used the Project Management Training Summit to convene IT project managers to ensure that they are all aligned on the profound changes in the way OIT delivers its services to the VA workforce.   Summit facilitators were able to evaluate the training summit and capture significant metrics regarding the validity and usefulness of the training:  76% of participants felt better informed about system processes; 72% reported a better understanding of budget execution; and 81% had a better understanding of operations and maintenance planning.

Through this training summit and other training conferences that OIT has held since 2009, OIT has been able to ensure that our highly dispersed, nationwide  IT staff is  consistently provided the training and information IT need to ensure high-quality customer service to Veterans as technology continues to advance.

As VA moves forward to implement the Secretary’s vision for a highly skilled workforce, training remains a vital and important way for VA employees to continually improve their service to Veterans. 

Training conferences featuring face-to-face education and practical, hands-on instruction help to develop a robust workforce in all sectors of business.  They are necessary to stay on the leading edge of processes and technology, so VA can continue to provide Veterans with exemplary service.  As we continue to harness technological advancements, VA will critically reexamine training opportunities with a commitment to implementing further efficiencies by reducing, where appropriate, administrative spending – while also  providing excellent training to keep our employees certified in their field and equipped with the tools necessary to serve those who have already given so much in serving us.

QUALITY AND TIMELINESS OF INFORMATION TO CONGRESS

VA values the oversight of our Congressional committees and Members.  Partnering with Congressional offices to provide information to better serve our Nation’s Veterans is a goal of the Department.  In this spirit, Secretary Shinseki notified Congressional leaders of the investigation into the Orlando HR training conferences after the Secretary was notified of the investigation by IG personnel. 

VA provided detailed information to this Committee and other committees after we learned of the IG investigation into the Orlando HR training conferences.  In August, the Department, provided multiple Congressional committees with thousands of pages covering VA’s department-wide policies and procedures relative to training conferences generally; Orlando-specific contract and acquisition documents;  Orlando conferences specific documents, including agendas, activities, training course evaluations, and speeches; and over 33 hours of video produced for and during the conferences on DVDs.  Since August, VA has received approximately 125 inquiries spanning a range of issues related to training conferences.  Many of these inquiries have required customized data collection efforts involving all Administrations and Staff Offices.  In order to provide consistent and accurate information, thousands of man hours have been spent processing these requests. 

VA believes that greater transparency and partnership can be improved by providing thorough, accurate information.  Providing complete, verifiable information is contingent upon gathering and circulating the requested data among a number of stakeholder offices in VA.  This is especially the case when the requested data comes from every Administration and Staff Office.  This process, while detailed and lengthy, helps ensure that there is consistent and accurate information provided to Congress.

VA employees regularly interact with and provide information to committee and member staffs on VA programs and policies.  During the last two fiscal years, VA senior leaders participated in 118 hearings, conducted over 1,142 briefings to Members of Congress and staff; responded to 3,204 questions for the record and processed approximately 40,000 constituent casework inquiries.  Additionally, VA responded to over 6,000 specific policy-related requests for information.

VA also supports the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in its investigative mission to Congress.  During last fiscal year, VA participated in 43 entrance conferences and 41 exit conferences. VA provided information during the conduct of each of these GAO reviews. VA also gave information on 65 draft GAO reports and 72 final GAO reports, representing a 35 percent and 52 percent increase respectfully over the previous fiscal year’s numbers.

As these figures indicate, VA is committed to supporting Congress in its oversight mission and I assure you, VA will continue to provide Congress with accurate and complete information.

CONCLUSION

Our Department’s mission is to honor and serve the Nation’s Veterans; this is a sacred obligation for both the Department and the Nation.  Incumbent in serving Veterans, their dependents, and survivors is the need for us to manage our resources carefully and ensure there is appropriate oversight of and accountability for our acts.  We look forward to working with our partners in Congress to help ensure that our new policies on training conference planning, approval, and execution effectively address the issues identified by the IG, our internal review, and pending third-party reviews, while preserving the ability to train our personnel to deliver high quality benefits and services in a rapidly changing environment. 

Mr. Chairman, I will be glad to answer any questions you or the other Members of the Committee have.