This story has been updated.
Most senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department don’t support moving the corps out of Title 5, even if it means better pay, according to a new survey.
Sixty-four percent of respondents to a survey by the Senior Executives Association said they don’t agree with the VA’s proposal to move the department's roughly 350 career senior executives from Title 5 to Title 38 as a way to ease SES hiring and firing.
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.
“I went into public service to make a difference in my country, not to make [money],” said one respondent. “The trade-off of $50k in salary is outweighed by the certainty that the VA's proposal will lead to destruction of our nation's civil service and will put us on par with third-world countries where graft, bribery, and politics permeate the civil service.”
The SEA survey included responses from 236 senior executives at the VA—roughly 67 percent of the total SES corps at the department. SEA plans to release the full results of the survey before a Tuesday afternoon Senate hearing with McDonald to discuss the Title 38 proposal.
The department appears to be distancing itself from the draft proposal on Title 38. VA spokesman Henry Huntley on Tuesday, in response to questions sent on March 7 from Government Executive, said that the VA doesn’t intend to take all the department’s senior executives out of Title 5, and that the draft proposal was “an idea that result[ed] from internal collaborative discussions,” and was not a department or Obama administration proposal. He added that “mobility of executives into and out of VA was one of the factors considered following some of the initial idea discussions.”
Asked about SEA’s survey, and VA senior executives’ negative response to it, Huntley said the department’s “most recent efforts to seek to expand the current Title 38 hiring authority [apply] only to medical center director, network director, [and] other specified health care executive positions.” The "majority" of the VA's senior executives would remain in Title 5, Huntley said.
Among the survey’s other findings, 69 percent of the respondents don’t believe the proposal would improve services and care for veterans, while 59 percent don’t think it will help with retaining talented senior executives. Respondents cited frustration with Congress and VA leadership, as well as a fear of unfair media and congressional scrutiny as the top reasons they’d consider leaving the federal government. About a one-third said the attraction of the private sector wouldn’t sway them from leaving federal service, according to preliminary survey results.
“Executives are leaving VA not because we don't earn enough money, but because of the environment of fear that has been created,” said one respondent.
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.”
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday will hold a hearing on draft legislation to improve recruitment and retention of doctors and other employees at the VA.
The public debate over moving VA senior executives out of Title 5 into Title 38 sparked after three separate administrative judges in January and February reversed VA officials' decisions to demote or fire senior executives accused of wrongdoing. (The department used its authority under the 2014 Choice Act to demote and fire those senior executives.)
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.” He added 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.”