Reflections on Public Service During a Pandemic
A conversation with Paul Lawrence, the former Under Secretary for Benefits at the Veterans Affairs Department.
After a management consulting career spent working with federal agencies to improve their performance, Paul Lawrence became the 7th Under Secretary for Benefits in the Veterans Affairs Department, a job he held from April 26, 2018, to January 20. The position gave him the unique opportunity to practice what he preached. I sat down with Lawrence to discuss his experience at the Veterans Benefits Administration and the challenges of managing a large organization during a pandemic.
Mark Abramson: How would you describe your time as Under Secretary?
Paul Lawrence: As a veteran myself and coming from a family of veterans, it was an opportunity for me to extend my family’s commitment to public service.
Professionally, I wanted to make a difference. It was an important time to be involved with veterans. There were lots of resources being devoted to veteran issues, new laws to implement, and a great deal of energy around improving how we support veterans.
I felt I had the right experience to be able to make a difference. As a management consultant, I had familiarity with what VBA did: large scale paper processing, providing college education financing, mortgage applications, and insurance servicing.
MA: What surprised you when you arrived at VBA?
PL: Given my experiences, I understood the nature of the work to be done at VBA. I knew that it would be a demanding full time job. But I quickly came to appreciate two other aspects of the job which would be equally demanding.
First, VBA has an active group of stakeholders, including the veteran service organizations and the departments of veterans affairs in every state. Working with veteran groups rightly required a significant amount of time and energy.
Second, VBA, like all government agencies, has to work closely with Congress. I participated in significant congressional oversight, ranging from testifying in congressional hearings to supporting constituent services.
The surprise was that I thought I had signed up for one significant job, leading VBA programs, but I quickly found out that I had two other significant responsibilities to fulfill.
MA: What is the accomplishment for which you are most proud?
PL: In the period of time I was there, we provided more benefits faster than any time in VBA history. This was accomplished by aligning the right public servants to the right job, investing in continuous process improvement, and working closely with VA’s chief information officer to improve VBA technology.
We also had three key pieces of legislation that were recently passed, which VBA had to implement on tight time schedules. The Forever GI Bill, the Appeals Modernization Act (AMA), and Blue Water Navy (BWN) all required significant amounts of my time and attention. AMA and BWN were implemented on time as required. The Forever GI Bill required a change of schedule, which was then successfully met.
MA: How did the pandemic impact you in your role as Under Secretary?
PL: It impacted me in two ways. First, it eliminated my ability to interact with staff in the field. Prior to the pandemic, I would regularly go to visit our regional benefit offices and conduct in-person town halls fielding questions directly from our staff at all levels. These sessions were invaluable to me as I learned what was going on in the field and I heard their concerns directly.
Second, it eliminated my ability to directly interact with veterans on their home turf. Prior to March 2020, I visited with veterans’ organizations in the evenings after having met with regional staff in the daytime. Visits to American Legion and VFW posts gave me the chance to talk directly to veterans and hear about the quality of our services directly from them.
MA: How did you respond to these new limitations caused by the pandemic?
PL: At the end of March, I began to conduct a series of telephone town halls with veterans in each state. By the end of 2020, I had conducted 110 tele-town halls reaching all 50 states. The 110 tele-town halls included tele-town halls which were dedicated to each of the seven major veterans’ organizations. In total, I connected with 5.7 million veterans and fielded 1,600 questions. These town halls gave me insights into what processes we needed to improve. The tele-town halls also gave veterans the opportunity to hold me, as the highest ranking person in the organization, accountable for agency performance.
Surprisingly, VBA staff began to listen into the tele-town halls and they also gained insights into veteran’s concerns and worked to solve them. Most importantly, staff heard me doing customer service and not just talking about it and telling them to do it.
MA: Do you think the pandemic has permanently changed the way government will operate in the future?
PL: I hope so. During the pandemic, many processes were streamlined to get services to citizens faster. Making those temporary changes permanent will have a tremendous impact on the government’s ability to provide services to citizens. For example, electronic signatures replaced “wet” signatures. Direct hiring authority decreased the hiring process at VA by months. Tele-counseling enabled us to help hundreds of thousands of veterans who we would never have been able to see in person. All of these changes have had positive impacts and I hope they will last.
MA: What did you learn about managing a large organization during your time at VBA?
PL: First is the importance of identifying a very limited number of performance metrics on which we would pay attention to and get everybody focused on those measures. When I arrived, VBA collected and reported on too much data, which made it difficult to understand what veterans really wanted from us. By reducing the amount of data collected and getting everyone focused on it helped us improve performance. The simple process of reporting our results every quarter on the VBA Performance and Results Webcast let everybody know what we were doing for veterans and how well we were doing.
Second, the scale of government is seldom seen in the private sector. The need for communication to your employees, stakeholders, and customers is critical. This led me to an expansive presence on social media, hundreds of radio and television interviews, and the development of tele-town halls to communicate how we were supporting veterans.
MA: Paul, any final thoughts?
PL: This was the most demanding job I ever had. The hours were long, and the issues were complex. Nonetheless, the ability to help veterans was so rewarding that I would not change one minute of the experience. I recommend everybody consider public service during their career.
Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.