Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson announced the hiring freeze recently.

Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson announced the hiring freeze recently. Matt York/AP

VA Hiring Freeze Could Cut Unnecessary Layers of Management

Move may free up resources for additional medical services field staff.

The targeted hiring freeze that acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson announced recently along with 15 other management reforms could reduce bloat and free up resources to combat the patient-wait-time scandal that has engulfed the department, observers say.

The hiring freeze would apply to the Veterans Health Administration Central Office and the 21 Veterans Integrated Service Network regional offices, with exceptions for critical positions to be approved by the secretary on a case-by-case basis. The purpose, Gibson said, is to “begin to remove bureaucratic obstacles and establish responsive, forward-leaning leadership.”

To that Gibson added a plan to bring on “additional clinical and patient support staff,” promising to “deploy teams of dedicated human resource employees to accelerate the hiring of additional, needed staff.”

Understanding why the two moves that appear to pull in opposite directions are consistent requires focusing on the type of employee who is headquarters-bound in contrast with those on the front line, according to observers Government Executive consulted.

“Part of the VA’s access to care crisis can be directly attributed to medical staff vacancies in potentially every hospital and outpatient clinic,” said Joe Davis, public affairs director at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Washington Office. “Clerks are important, but right now the VA needs more folks manning the ramparts than they do in the back office.”

Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said VA may be addressing a common problem. “It is possible that there are too many HQ execs and not enough capacity in the field, a phenomenon in a lot of governmental and private sector entities,” he said. Gibson should be given the benefit of the doubt on these kinds of choices, Stier said, since he has the best information and is running the agency.

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has long advocated the “delayering” of agency central management, said Gibson didn’t go far enough. “It’s a half step, maybe even less because the word freeze itself suggests that a thaw will follow,” Light said.

What the acting secretary “should do is eliminate the positions, ask Congress to get rid of them,” Light added. “My experience over the years has been 100 percent accurate in predicting that frozen positions will always thaw and be filled in the future. Gibson does not need all those layers, nor the leaders per layer, who are self-aggrandizing in many cases and get in the way.”