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VA Needs Better Relocation Incentive Tracking, Flu Season Approaches and More

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A government watchdog said the Veteran Affairs Department should do more to track the effectiveness of a program that helps relocating employees sell their homes.

A Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday said VA has taken steps to tighten its internal controls over its use of the General Services Administration’s Appraised Value Offer program in response to a 2015 report from the agency’s inspector general. But the agency does not adequately track the program’s usage in order to better inform future decision-making on its deployment.

AVO is a program that federal agencies can use to recruit and relocate employees for mission critical positions where a GSA contractor will help find a purchaser for the employee’s home—or purchase it outright.

In 2014, Diana Rubens, senior executive director of the Veterans Benefits Administration's Philadelphia office, was accused of abusing her authority to secure a transfer from Washington, D.C., to her current position, along with nearly $310,000 in relocation costs, including more than $200,000 through AVO.

Rubens was demoted while she under investigation, but that decision was overturned by a judge in 2016.

Last year, VA made a number of improvements to its administration of the program. Officials now must obtain approval for the use of AVO before it starts a recruitment campaign, and applicants must provide written justification that the job fills a critical need and that previous attempts to hire for the position—without AVO—proved fruitless.

Additionally, use of AVO in recruitment for jobs at the Senior Executive Service level require a secretarial waiver and trigger notification of Congress.

While VA tracks the number of times AVO is used, the amount of money spent through the program and whether employees who use AVO are members of the SES, it does not have the ability to track its overall effectiveness. Agency officials told auditors that they do not have “the resources or capabilities to track such data.”

“VA officials stated AVO is beneficial for hard-to-fill SES positions and for mission critical skills occupations,” GAO wrote. “However, VA does not track data to determine whether AVO improves the recruitment and retention of employees.”

The report’s authors said that by better tracking the usage of AVO, VA officials can make better decisions about where and when to deploy the program in its efforts to improve recruitment, particularly in rural areas, regions with a high cost of living and places that have experienced physician and nurse shortages.

“As VA continues to seek ways to address its recruitment and retention challenges, collecting such data could be useful in identifying trends and options for targeting certain occupations or skill sets that may improve the agency’s use of home sales to support relocation,” GAO wrote. “Without tracking these data, VA will be unable to determine whether the use of AVO is improving recruitment and retention.”

VA concurred with GAO’s recommendation to improve its tracking of the program, and said it is “working to improve its reporting capabilities” to better analyze the agency’s use of AVO.

Elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy, officials at the Office of Personnel Management and the Health and Human Services Department are encouraging federal workers to get vaccinated ahead of flu season.

Acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan and HHS Secretary Tom Price sent a joint memo to federal employees laying out the dangers of influenza and the importance of annual inoculations against the virus.

“[The flu] causes between 140,000 [and] 710,000 hospitalizations, 12,000 [and] 56,000 deaths, and costs billions to the economy [every year],” they wrote. “Although proper etiquette for coughs and sneezes, frequent hand-washing, and other good health behaviors can help, experts agree a flu vaccine is the best way to protect against the flu.”

They noted that the flu vaccine is available as part of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, and that most FEHB plans cover shots administered at pharmacies and other retail stores, in addition to the traditional doctor’s office or clinic. Patients can get the vaccine without co-pays if they go in-network.

McGettigan and Price said many federal agencies offer the flu shot on-site, and they encouraged workers to ask their supervisors for information about if and when such an opportunity will be available at their workplace.

Meanwhile, OPM announced Wednesday that it had authorized an emergency leave transfer program for employees affected by Hurricane Irma. The program allows federal employees to donate unused annual leave so that employees impacted by the storm can take time off to recover without needing to use their own paid leave. OPM authorized a similar effort for feds affected by Hurricane Harvey.

"OPM continues to support federal agencies in the regions devastated by Hurricane Irma, and the issuance of this recent ELTP is just one of the ways our agency is helping our colleagues in need,” McGettigan said in a statement. "Our thoughts are with those affected and we wish them continued safety and a quick recovery."

Erich Wagner is a staff correspondent covering pay, benefits and other federal workforce issues. He joined Government Executive in the spring of 2017 after extensive experience writing about state and local issues in Maryland and Virginia, most recently as editor-in-chief of the Alexandria Times. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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