Nearly 80 percent of senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department received above average ratings on their performance evaluations in fiscal 2013, making them eligible for bonuses, according to VA data.
None of the 470 senior executives at the department received a rating of “less than fully successful” on their fiscal 2013 performance review, the data showed: 21 percent were judged “outstanding”—the highest rating—while 57 percent received a rating of “exceeds fully successful” and 19 percent were “fully successful.” The statistics, presented as part of a VA official’s testimony during a Friday House hearing on senior executive bonuses at the department, drew ire and puzzlement from lawmakers.
VA paid out $2.7 million in performance awards to senior executives in fiscal 2013, down from $3.4 million in fiscal 2012, $3.7 million in fiscal 2011 and $4.7 million in fiscal 2010. Shortly before his resignation, former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced no Veterans Health Administration senior executives would receive bonuses in 2014. The House earlier this month passed a bill that would ban bonuses for all VA employees through 2016.
“It should not be the practice of any federal agency to issue taxpayer dollars in addition to paying six-figure salaries to failing senior managers just because the current [Office of Personnel Management] statute for members of the [Senior Executive Service] allows that to occur,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who presided over the mostly tense hearing. “Bonuses are not an entitlement; they are a reward for exceptional work.”
VA does not call “performance awards” bonuses, but rather considers the incentives part of the federal government’s complicated pay-for-performance system for senior executives. In fact, Title 5, U.S.C. 5384 directs federal agencies to pay senior executives performance-based awards at their discretion, and in keeping with certain criteria. Senior executives rated less than fully successful are not eligible for performance awards.
VA has gotten flak over the years from lawmakers, the Government Accountability Office and the department’s inspector general for what many believe is an excessive bonus culture at the department. The issue has moved to the spotlight now because of the growing controversy over long delays for vets seeking medical care and allegations of officials directing employees to cook the books to indicate the department was meeting goals when it was not.
Senior executives at VA fall into two categories, which determine the amount of compensation they can receive. VA can hire senior executives under two separate authorities under the U.S. Code to help them fill jobs: Title 5 and Title 38. According to Gina Farrisee, assistant secretary for human resources and administration at VA, the department uses “a single senior executive performance management and appraisal system” for both groups, but the pay structure and incentive system is different for each. For example, Title 38 senior executives—who include physicians and dentists at the Veterans Health Administration—are eligible for market pay and performance pay to help the department recruit for those jobs and compete with the private sector. Title 5 senior executives -- the majority of the career Senior Executive Service -- are not eligible for those types of incentive compensation.
Many of the largest senior executive bonuses reported by media outlets have been given to Title 38 employees, the Senior Executives Association pointed out in a June 19 letter to Miller and the committee’s Ranking Member Michael Michaud, D-Maine. SEA President Carol Bonosaro also said it makes sense that so many SESers would receive ratings of at least fully successful, considering the rigorous vetting process for entree into the elite service.
"Before making changes to the SES system or banning performance awards, SEA urges the committee to ensure it fully understands the system and which employees are within it," Bonosaro wrote.
Friday’s hearing toggled between technical questions about VA’s performance evaluation system and specific monetary incentives for employees, and the typical grandstanding from lawmakers that occurs amid crisis.
At one point, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., personally attacked Farrisee, who was the lone witness from the VA. Farrisee has been at the VA since September 2013; before that, she spent 34 years with the Army. Coffman, who also served in the military, told Farrisee:
That is amazing that you would serve this country in uniform, and yet you would be so tolerant to how this department treats our veterans. I think it is just absolutely extraordinary. How can somebody go from the United States Army to this environment, and yet not take the values from the United States Army into serving our nation’s veterans?....
You ought to be outraged at the manner that these veterans are treated. Based on your own background, you ought to be outraged, but you’re not. It’s all status quo to you. It’s all ‘things are good, maybe they could be a little bit better, but things are good.’ Things aren’t good. This is the most mismanaged agency in the federal government, and it is entrusted with honoring our commitment to the men and women who made extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of this country. And I gotta tell you, I think we were being better served as a nation when you were working outside of the Veterans Administration, and not inside the Veterans Administration.
Farrisee described the VA’s performance appraisal system, saying it is “more rigorous and goes beyond the minimum standards set by OPM [in the statute] for planning, monitoring, evaluating and rewarding executive performance.” The department added a reviewing official to the process in 2011, which is not required as part of the rating process for most senior executives. Still, she acknowledged that VA needs to better train senior executives and officials who review performance evaluations on creating and assessing metrics, and ensuring employees meet the mission of the department.
“Performance management has many challenges,” Farrisee noted, in what perhaps could be considered the understatement of the hearing. “By its nature, it is very subjective and complex.”