By Max Stier In a rush to assist poorly served veterans, many in Congress are supporting legislation to quickly fire the “bad apples” at the Department of Veterans Affairs. These lawmakers have the right intention — improved care for veterans — but their remedy will do far more harm than good.
There is no question the VA and our government as a whole should deal more effectively and swiftly with employees who are failing in their jobs or violating the public trust, but it is not a choice of either standing with veterans or with VA employees — a third of whom are veterans themselves — as stated in a Roll Call commentary by Pete Hegseth (Congress Can Stand With Veterans by Supporting the VA Accountability Act , Roll Call, June 24, 2015), the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.
Firing feds faster is a poor proxy for the fundamental management reforms needed at the VA. And while rushing to help veterans, the bills proposed in the Senate and House will unfairly stack the deck against all VA employees, guilty or innocent, and have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers who want to expose wrongdoing and who care deeply about those who have served their country. It will also deter much needed top talent from joining the VA and driving the changes needed to improve services.
The measures, (S 1082), (S 1117) and (HR 1994), would allow for the removal of VA employees for virtually any reason and deny them fair notice and adequate time to defend themselves, returning to a period in history when political appointees could fire civil servants at will based on cronyism and political persuasion.
Congress took the first step in this direction last year in response to a scandal involving phony wait times for veterans to receive health services, giving the VA secretary authority to summarily fire career senior executives, and creating a truncated process for employee appeals and adjudication of their cases. The early returns suggest some of the best candidates are bypassing opportunities to seek promotions for executive positions as a result of this law, and there is no evidence that VA management has been improved.
Susan Tsui Grundmann, chairwoman of the Merit System Protection Board, the small agency that handles many federal workplace disputes, succinctly framed the issue about the dangers of denying basic rights to employees in a recent report.
“Due process is there for the whistleblower, the employee who belongs to the ‘wrong’ political party, the reservist whose periods of military service are inconvenient to the boss, the scapegoat, and the person who has been misjudged based on faulty information,” she wrote. “Due process is a constitutional requirement and a small price to pay to ensure the American people receive a merit based civil service rather than a corrupt spoils system.”
Instead of expanding powers to arbitrarily fire federal employees faster, there are constructive ways to drive change at the VA and across government, and help veterans.
For starters, agencies need to apply existing powers to remove errant employees that now is used ineffectively or not at all. Much also can be done administratively to expedite the process, but agency managers must understand the system and be held accountable for exercising their authority.
A recent example involves the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who said she lacked the ability to quickly discipline agents involved in misconduct, when the major obstacle was an internal review process that she had the authority to change.
A legislative solution should involve modifying the current appeals process for demotions or firings, but not to the extreme enacted for VA career executives and that is now being considered for all VA employees and separately being discussed as a possibility for the entire federal workforce.
Under current rules, federal employees can appeal disciplinary actions to multiple forums, a process that can take months or even years, and that places an excessive burden on managers. Congress should create and properly fund a one-stop-shop for employee complaints, preserving due process rights while setting reasonable time frames for making decisions.
Attention should be given to the quality of the political leadership, individuals typically chosen for their policy expertise rather than their management capability. Rarely are political leaders judged on how they handle the workforce. They should be.
There also must be better training for career managers and supervisors to deal with poor performers and cases of misconduct. They should be held responsible for taking action, but they need support from their superiors as well as from their human resources and general counsel offices.
Few managers make sufficient use of the probationary period to assess the fitness of new employees, and instead allow them to become permanent employees by default. If we flipped the presumption — new employees and new supervisors don’t continue unless they can demonstrate their value — we would have many fewer employees who need removal.
Congress needs to hold the VA leadership accountable for improving services and creating a high-performing workforce. Permitting the arbitrary firing of employees will not solve the VA’s problems, but it will be a disservice to the veterans who fought in wars and served our country to defend the longstanding rights that Congress now risks taking away.
Max Stier is president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.