Senior executives at Veterans Affairs are worried that a proposal from the department’s leadership to ease SES hiring and firing will further batter recruitment and retention of top career officials to VA, according to a new survey.
“A lot of folks are feeling that they think this is much more about accountability than pay,” said Jason Briefel, interim president of the Senior Executives Association, referring to VA’s proposal to move its roughly 350 career senior executives from Title 5 to Title 38. SEA is soliciting feedback from the department’s senior executives about the idea, and plans to release the survey results later this week. So far, “we’re not really seeing a lot of folks interested in what’s being offered here,” Briefel said in an interview on Monday with Government Executive.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald and his top deputies have said that moving the SES corps into Title 38 will give them more authority to expedite hiring and offer higher pay to better compete with the private sector for top talent. But it also gives them more leeway to fire top career officials accused of wrongdoing. If senior executives are taken out of Title 5 and moved into Title 38 under the VA’s proposal, they would lose their rights to appeal disciplinary actions against them, such as removal, to the independent Merit Systems Protection Board. Instead, their appeals would be handled internally at the VA.
A new pay band would be created for the department’s career senior executive positions that would establish an annual salary range of between $205,000 and $235,000 for 20 SES jobs, according to the VA proposal, which lawmakers are currently reviewing. But SEA and VA senior executives who responded to the group’s survey believe the pay component of the proposal is “window dressing” to simply remove VA senior executives without due process and would create a management culture of fear. Briefel said that survey respondents said they would not encourage other senior executives to work at the VA. As of Friday, about 45 VA senior executives had provided feedback to SEA. The survey will close on Tuesday at midnight, and SEA likely will release the results on Thursday, Briefel said.
“If approved, SEA believes this proposal will only serve to exacerbate the VA’s career leadership challenges, as the VA will become an employer of last resort for talented government executives,” said SEA’s formal response to VA’s proposal to move senior executives out of Title 5 into Title 38. “It also does nothing to put the agency on even footing with industry in the war for top executive talent.” The VA proposal also said a decrease in pay is a possibility, depending on the new job. Mobility is a key component to being part of the SES, and under Title 5, senior executives’ pay cannot be reduced if they move to an assignment with a lower-profile or fewer responsibilities.
“This is a politically expedient solution for an administration that will be done in less than a year, and whatever happens will be someone else’s problem,” Briefel said. The VA on Monday did not immediately respond to questions about the proposal or SEA’s survey.
Some SESers who responded to SEA’s survey about the VA’s proposal said it was “demoralizing,” that they felt “betrayed,” and there was “no interest in buy-in from employees.” One commenter offered this: “Who would want to work at VHA [Veterans Health Administration] with Jeff Miller on your back every day?” Miller is the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He helped shepherd the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which expedited the department’s authority to demote and fire senior executives. The House last summer passed another Miller bill that would extend the same authority to the entire VA workforce.
“Congressional oversight is absolutely warranted and justified,” said Briefel. “But it has to be constructive. The point of congressional oversight isn’t always to point out the flaws in agencies, it’s also to start opening a dialogue so we can work towards solutions. And it seems like we’ve really just been focusing on the first element so far the past couple of years.”
Since the beginning of the year, three separate administrative judges have reversed the VA’s decisions to demote or fire senior executives accused of wrongdoing – and the VA is not happy about it. In a Feb. 18 email to VA senior executives, McDonald said that “running VA like a business requires more flexibility than we currently have in the way we appoint, onboard, assign, develop, appraise, pay, and—if necessary—discipline executives,” adding that one way to do that could include shifting those employees from Title 5 to Title 38.
He also acknowledged the “questions and concerns” the idea has generated among VA senior executives. “Media reports have focused solely on the disciplinary appeals aspect of this proposal,” McDonald wrote in the email. “Some reports have tied it to recent MSPB decisions that reversed disciplinary actions taken against VA executives. While Deputy Secretary Gibson and I are disappointed in those MSPB decisions, our interest in converting VA executives to a Title 38 employment system pre-dates those decisions and addresses a much broader range of concerns.”
Briefel said that while he understands that “political pressure can get pretty intense,” he questioned whether the leadership really wanted the pressure shifted to the workforce. The data that SEA is seeing from its survey isn’t going to help improve the challenges VA is facing right now, because, Briefel said, “no one” is going to want to take a senior executive job at the department under the circumstances.
The VA already is having a hard time recruiting and retaining top employees in hard-to-fill jobs. According to the draft Title 38 proposal, as of late January, nearly 30 percent of the department’s SES slots were vacant, while 70 percent of the current corps is “eligible to retire immediately or will become eligible this year.”
Right now, roughly 190,000 of the department’s 300,000-plus workforce falls under Title 38, including doctors, nurses and other categories of health care workers. Between 60,000 and 70,000 of those employees are considered “pure” Title 38, meaning they do not have the same standard MSPB appeal rights that Title 5 employees have. Hybrid Title 38 employees, including social workers, pharmacists and psychologists at the Veterans Health Administration, have the same rights to appeal adverse actions to MSPB as Title 5 employees have.
The separate title and the two tracks within it emerged as a way to help the VA secretary fill certain jobs faster through the federal hiring process. But according to SEA, it makes “no sense” to move non-medical senior executives out of Title 5 into Title 38, because senior executives “are already the easiest type of career federal employees to terminate or discipline” and that “Title 5 is not broken, but there are failures in implementing its authorities.”
At a February Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said lawmakers would “try and and take action by the end of March, and have a consolidation of bills put together that give the secretary the flexibility he needs to have accountability within the VA.” Lauren Gaydos, press secretary for the Republicans on the VA committee, said at the time that the panel was currently reviewing the department's proposal to move SES employees out of Title 5 and into Title 38, “but we do not know yet if that will be included in the final bill.”