The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is already the second-largest federal employer and one of the largest employers in the country, swelling to almost 450,000 workers after a rush of new hiring over the last year.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough thinks it needs to grow even larger.
“I don’t think there’s a risk that all of the sudden we’re too big,” McDonough told Military Times. “There are veterans who need access to health care. There are veterans who need access to mental health care. And we want to make sure that they know we’re here for them and that they can get care with us.”
But bringing in more staff will also mean improving federal hiring processes and ensuring that incentives keep pace with private-sector competitors. It’s a challenge that McDonough said his department has been preparing for since the pandemic upended a host of staffing plans and standards.
In a wide-ranging interview ahead of Veterans Day celebrations this week, McDonough shared his goals for the coming year and the obstacles that could block them.
Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Military Times: How big should VA get? Is there a point where it’s a self-feeding animal, where you’re hiring people for the sake of hiring people?
McDonough: My goal is that we have a relationship with every veteran in the country. There are between 18 and 19 million veterans in the country now. [This administration] has set a simple, straightforward goal that there will be more vets in our care when we leave than when we started.
Now, that’s a challenge, because we have a health care system that is disproportionately weighted to veterans more than 60 years old. And one of the real, tremendous opportunities of the PACT Act just for us to develop relationships with younger veterans who have not had a relationship with VA, and may have been dissuaded from having a relationship with VA because of some of the stories that they’ve heard.
Let’s remember, we’re not metering out how much care goes to the community, how much care stays in house. We’re trying to make determinations based on what’s the highest quality outcome for veterans. What’s the way to ensure the best possible medical and health care outcomes? And then on the benefits side, we’re saying that these are your benefits that you have earned, so it’s our job to get them to you.
VA across the board is aggressively working to ensure that the veteran experience of each individual veteran is positive, the outcomes are positive. [Veterans] feel respected, such that they go and tell their friends that this is a good place to get care or file for your benefits.
Military Times: You’ve been aggressive on hiring. Can you keep that up?
McDonough: Every good hiring strategy starts with retaining the great people you already have and getting rid of the underperformers. We’ve been forthright about both of those things.
On retaining the talent we have, we’ve been aggressively using different tools to give those performing employees incentives bonuses, so that they stay. When employees are not performing, we’re being similarly forthright. But the enforcement actions, the accountability actions that we take must be durable. It doesn’t make any sense to relieve somebody and then have to bring them back five years later with back pay.
Here’s what I worry about right now — I think there’s still a lot of talent that wants to come to work for us. But we’re too slow to hire. Somebody sitting out there, we give them a conditional job. And then we don’t get back to them with the firm start date for months. It is maddening. We have to do better than that.
Military Times: Shortening hiring times has been a VA focus for a while now. Why does the onboarding process still take so long?
McDonough: It’s too many days. There plenty of positions where a 160-day wait would be short, would be on the low end of the median.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a single fix. I had hoped there would be one that would more rapidly get people through the onboarding process. The biggest challenge, though, has been the relative lack of HR professionals and HR experts. We have them on the job now. We had a very good year of hiring HR experts, and we’re retaining them.
Some of new authorities — critical skills incentives, for example — came in very handy in retaining those HR experts. That seems to me to be one of the biggest inputs that can help us bring this number down, then it’s just going to be us staying on top of it.
Military Times: You’ve gotten criticism from Congress for employee discipline and not using firing authorities approved by Congress. How are you making sure that employees who are underperforming are getting pushed away?
McDonough: You teed up the question by saying that this administration says that those authorities aren’t available. That’s not what this administration is saying. It’s what the Merit System Protection Board has said. That’s what the National Labor Relations Board has said. And that’s what federal courts have said.
What I’ve said to members of Congress is the use of these authorities is not allowing us to manage our people. It’s forcing us to appear before administrative boards and federal judges. I want to just be able to manage our people. And so, that’s why we’ve not used those authorities. Basically, a series of rulings from these administrative bodies and from the federal courts have changed that authority.
I’ve been very forthright with Congress about that. So what are we doing? Well, when we have a situation where our managers see a situation that is trouble, we work through the established processes to get a durable, lasting fix that removes low performers. That means not me making a decision. That means their supervisors are making the decision. That means empowering supervisors to keep their eyes open, and they know that how they’re managing is going to be really important to their annual review.
Military Times: VA leaders have reported a series of software glitches and problems of late. None of these seem like they’re major issues. But does this get back to the issue of VA growing too quickly to keep up?
McDonough: We’re not ducking responsibility for this. Congress is getting concerned about a number of things. They’ve been very clear with me both publicly and privately. And so has the White House. They’re not shy about letting us know where we’re coming up short and what they expect us to do.
I think it’s a positive sign when an organization acknowledges that it makes mistakes, learns from those mistakes and gets better as a result.
I’m not going to be casting stones at our organization. But what I will not tolerate is somebody not quickly reporting when there’s a problem. There have been some instances of that, in the last several months. That’s not acceptable, because we know that veterans, caregivers, survivors, family members are impacted by these decisions. If they see us acting with transparency quickly when we find a problem, that’s one thing. If they think we’re hiding it, that’s quite a different one.
Military Times: You’ve been generous to share your thoughts with Military Times ahead of Veterans Day each year. Should we expect you to be in this post next year? Executive branch posts often change ahead of election year.
McDonough: It’s the honor of a lifetime to work for veterans. I can’t guarantee that the president doesn’t fire me. I can’t guarantee that Congress doesn’t get sick of me and pressure the president to get rid of me. But holding those, I will stay here through next year.
It’s the blessing of my professional life to get to work on behalf of veterans. I was involved in making the decisions which sent men and women into combat. I was staff, but I was involved in those decisions. A lot of other decisions resulted in folks going to fight our wars.
The fact that I can come to work every day to try to make good on the promises that we made, I’m going to keep doing that.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.