August 1, 2001The Veterans Affairs Department met most of the goals set out in its fiscal 2000 performance plan, and had clear strategies for achieving them, according to a General Accounting Office review. In its report, "Veterans Affairs: Status of Achieving Key Outcomes and Addressing Major Management Challenges" ( GAO-07-752), the GAO critiqued VA's most recent performance report as well as its fiscal 2002 performance plan. Under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, agencies must write strategic plans, as well as prepare annual performance plans and performance reports. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., asked GAO to assess the largest federal agencies' fiscal 2000 performance reports and determine how well agencies were achieving their key goals. According to Thompson, this second round of performance reports still does not provide an adequate picture of agencies' performance. "The Results Act is intended to shift the focus of accountability from process to results," Thompson said at a House hearing in June. "Setting results-oriented performance goals and then using them to track progress, make resource decisions and manage day-to-day operations should come as second nature." The VA's performance goals for fiscal 2000 were to provide high-quality health care at a reasonable cost to the government, to process veterans' benefit claims quickly and accurately, and to help disabled veterans get and keep jobs. While the department said it lowered its average cost-per-patient by 2 percent, and increased by 12 percent the number of disabled veterans for whom it found employment, the agency made little progress with benefit claims, the GAO found. The VA could have better explained in its performance report why some key goals weren't met, such as having 75 percent of patients with scheduled appointments see a provider within 20 minutes, the report found. However, the VA did detail the extent to which it met each of its goals, providing baseline and performance information to compare and contrast its performance over several fiscal years. "VA's performance report generally provides clear and reasonable descriptions of its strategies for correcting performance deficiencies and improving future performance on its key performance measures, even in those areas where VA met its fiscal 2000 performance goal," the GAO found. The VA also tweaked its performance plan and performance report by adding a section to specifically address issues identified by the GAO and the VA's inspector general. These issues included describing goals and actions for solving problems. "VA made significant changes to the way it will assess its progress," the report said. "VA added a new measure on patient safety focused on identifying the root causes of medical errors, which, in turn, could lead to appropriate corrective actions." In a written response, VA Secretary Anthony Principi disagreed with the GAO's demand that specific performance goals and measures be listed for every major management challenge. "It appears that GAO believes anything short of this standard is considered inadequate," Principi wrote. "The primary objective is to resolve each challenge, however, each is not strategic in nature. For those deemed strategic, VA will address them in its planning documents." In May, the VA received the highest score for the quality of its report from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. Mercatus evaluated the 23 major agencies' fiscal 2000 performance reports on clarity and accessibility, demonstration of agency results and leadership in identifying problems and offering solutions to them.
August 1, 2001