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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Former Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould

Leadership VA Graduation Ceremony
Baltimore, MD
November 20, 2009

Let me be among the first to offer my “CONGRATULATIONS” as LVA’s Class of 2009 begins the countdown to graduation!

VA has a very talented leadership cadre thanks to the opportunities for growth, professional development, and networking that LVA offers. And thanks to the dedication and hard work of our first-rate LVA staff and faculty—Joy Hunter, Mike Brenny, Sara Barker, Tim Pleso and all the behind-the-scenes staff who make this program such a success—a great job, everyone! On behalf of the Class of 2009, thank you for providing four exciting, action-packed weeks of Leadership VA!

For more than three decades, this program has been preparing men and women to serve at the top echelons of our department. LVA graduates serve in positions of great trust and responsibility, managing the complex functions that drive our day-to-day operations. They use their knowledge, expertise, and the LVA network to develop and deliver Veterans’ programs, services, and benefits that are the envy of the world.

Over the past eight months, you’ve heard from a number of high-level speakers. You’ve absorbed a great deal of knowledge about VA’s history, programs and services, achievements and challenges. You’ve completed a great number of difficult assignments and engaged in thought-provoking discussions. And you’ve forged a professional network and friendships that will last your VA career, and beyond. This network is quite valuable, certainly in terms of relationships, but more importantly in terms of framing a particular way of thinking and sizing up an issue or problem.

Through this program, VA has invested heavily in your leadership potential. And past experience has shown we’ve received a consistently high return on that investment. LVA has paid our department big dividends.

We only need to look at a sampling of VA’s Presidential Rank Award winners over the past several years—those men and women whose contributions to VA earned them the highest recognition in Government. In 2006, fully 63% of VA’s Presidential Rank awards went to LVA graduates. In 2007, that figure was 80%. And last year, it was 67%.

These statistics can be interpreted to mean that LVA excels at producing leaders who can successfully tackle our department’s problems, manage change and challenge, and leverage progress.

President John Kennedy once said, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”  

Being chosen to attend LVA carries with it a great responsibility—the responsibility to make a difference in the lives of our clients, America’s Veterans. Secretary Shinseki and I expect a high return on our investment in you because you are now part of an elite group of VA employees who’ve been given the tools to lead today, and the leadership skills to succeed in top positions tomorrow.

I want to take some time this evening to talk about change and progress at VA, and how, as LVA graduates, you are well prepared to take on the role of VA’s agents of change. Now let me say, that while change doesn’t necessarily mean progress, you can’t have measurable progress without change.

President Obama has charged Secretary Shinseki with transforming the department to capture new opportunities and meet the emerging challenges of the 21st century. That means adapting to new realities, leveraging new technologies, and proactively serving a diverse range of Veterans while remaining consistent with three overarching principles that are guiding our transformation—a people-centric, results-driven, and forward-looking VA.

This will mean updating and improving both the way we serve our clients and the way we work with each other in meeting their needs. We must begin to think about ourselves in the same way that our Veterans think about us—as a single, integrated benefits and service provider.

To that end, our leadership team has done a lot of listening. The Secretary has been on the road talking with Veterans to understand their needs and concerns. We have gathered input and gotten advice from across our employee population. We’ve captured the best thinking from the VA front-lines by soliciting transformation ideas from those who work closely with Veterans and who know the issues, up-close and personal.

We've also done a lot of fact-gathering and analysis, in particular about our external environment, but also about our own performance, capabilities, and resources. We committed ourselves to building on what we already do so well, but not at the expense of finding new and better ways to operate and organize ourselves.

Now that we are nearly done with our transformation planning, I’d like to give you some perspective on what lies ahead. I'd like to set the stage by describing our strategic plan for the next five years.

First, there are the three guiding principles I mentioned that overarch all our reform initiatives, and which serve as the yardstick against which we will assess all that we do: Veteran-centric, results-driven, and forward-looking.

Second, we will measure our transformation success in terms of our performance against four specific strategic goals. They are the department’s top priorities:

  1. Improve the quality and accessibility of health care, benefits, and memorial services while optimizing their value.
  2. Increase Veteran-client satisfaction with health, education, training, counseling, financial and burial benefits and services.
  3. Raise readiness to provide services and protect people and assets continuously and in times of crisis.
  4. Improve employee satisfaction with management systems and support services to better achieve our mission. That means investing in our human capital in programs like LVA.

Our plan for achieving these four goals calls for a department-wide effort to bring into sharp focus the needs, expectations, and experiences of Veterans and their families, while, at the same time, maximizing the efficiency and value of our services. To do this, we have committed to three integrated objectives. The goals I just mentioned are the “what” of our plan; the integrated objectives are the “how.”

First, we want to make it easier for Veterans and their families to receive the right benefits, and meet their expectations for quality, timeliness, and responsiveness. We must maintain a Veteran-centric perspective in the services we provide and the way in which we provide them. We will work to eliminate complexities and disparities in determining who is eligible for VA benefits, and in accessing those benefits. And we will do it in a way that ensures Veterans and their families are served in a spirit of engagement, empathy, and proactive effort. We will also raise the bar on the quality and value of the benefits themselves.

Second, we want to educate and empower Veterans and their families through proactive outreach and effective advocacy. VA must engage our clients as people, advocate on their behalf, and empower them with clear and consistent information. Toward that end, we will distribute information through new and existing channels; leverage technology in targeted ways; and, improve our ability to listen to Veterans to learn more about what works best for them.

And third, we will build our internal capacity to serve Veterans, their families, our employees, and other stakeholders efficiently and effectively. We must commit ourselves to investing in the renewal of our internal capabilities and building a foundation for future innovation. Together, we will build a first-rate VA, committed to attracting, deploying, and retaining great people. We will manage the department according to data and outcomes. We will align our workforce, infrastructure and our partnerships to meet current needs and the challenges and opportunities of the future. And we will create a culture that continuously looks for improvements in how we operate in terms of cost, productivity, speed, and quality.

So how do we go about doing all this? Well, a number of strategic initiatives are at the heart of our transformation effort. You will hear much more about these going forward, but I want to touch on them briefly. We have prioritized 13 major initiatives that represent the areas of highest importance to us. Each of them is ambitious, balanced, relentlessly client-focused, and demanding of department-wide collaboration. Collectively, they are the springboard for improving our organizational health to make our overall strategy successful.

When you return to your workplaces, see if you can get involved in these initiatives. The resources, time, and attention of our leadership team will be here for you, and Veterans will benefit from our progress across the following areas.

We want to eliminate homelessness among Veterans. One hundred thirty-one thousand Veterans are homeless on any given night, and many more are considered at risk. Our goal is to eliminate Veteran homelessness over the next five years, an ambitious goal to be sure. How do we do that? Primarily by expanding VA’s current programs to treat and house Veterans—an effort that will depend on significant involvement from community providers at the grassroots level. 

We must work to enable 21st century benefits delivery and services. The increasing volume and complexity of claims, coupled with increasing benefit coverage, have driven a processing backlog. We must eliminate it. As important, in order to stay ahead of future system demand, VA must redouble its efforts to ensure best-in-class execution of benefits delivery. Toward that goal, we have developed a benefits business transformation strategy to analyze and improve the way we do business. We will leverage our past successes and lessons learned by developing a business model that is less paper-reliant, more flexible, and better able to ensure timely, high quality services.

Our department will automate GI Bill benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill greatly enhances VA’s portfolio of education benefits. To effectively and efficiently provide benefits with a client-centered approach, VA plans to create a fully-automated claims processing IT system for Post 9/11 GI Bill benefit claims. It will improve the timeliness of claims processing and payments to beneficiaries and schools as well as maximize our client service resources by reducing the manual processing burden.

We will implement a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record, or VLER. Annually, more than 150,000 active and reserve duty service members transition from military to Veteran status. This requires the transfer of paper-based administrative and medical records from DoD to the Veteran or to the Veteran’s new chosen health care provider, often VA. To ensure against the loss or mishandling of Veteran information, VA and DoD are developing a completely integrated electronic personal information system. A VLER will accompany every service member from the day he or she enters a Military Entrance Processing Center to the day of final honors at a VA cemetery.

VA is committed to improving its mental health care. More than 1.5 million of the 5.5 million Veterans seen by VA last year received a mental health diagnosis. Increasingly, Veterans are being diagnosed with mental health conditions, often coexisting with other medical problems. To meet this challenge, VA has invested in our mental health care workforce by hiring more than 6,000 new mental health care workers since 2005. We have published a Handbook on Uniform Mental Health Services, which is the foundation for evidence-based, standard-based, quality care in the 21st century. In addition to setting and maintaining the cutting edge of advance in mental health care, we are also ramping up our collaboration with DoD as we think in bold and innovative ways for envisioning the services and care of the future.

We are committed to building a Veteran relationship management capability to enable convenient, seamless interactions across our services. The types of client service interactions common to Veterans are changing rapidly, along with expectations for greater service levels. VA has an obligation to change as well. We must provide consistent information, access, and service levels across any and all interfaces that our clients prefer if we are to provide on-demand access to our comprehensive services and benefits in a consistent, user-centric manner.

Our department will design a Veteran-centric health care model and right-sized infrastructure to help Veterans navigate the health care delivery system and receive coordinated care. The VA health care delivery system has great strengths—cost effectiveness and technology among them. Nonetheless, shifts in health care and the evolving needs of Veterans call for a more fundamental reassessment of VA’s approach to delivery, funding, and coordination. We must adapt our service delivery model to address these and other potential changes. VA will exercise its strengths to build a system that meets Veterans’ needs, engages the larger federal and private health care system, and creates a sustainable model for the 21st century.

We must expand health care access for Veterans, to include our women and rural populations. Under our current delivery system, VA provides care to more than 5.5 million Veterans each year at over 1,400 locations. And we’ve fielded significant innovations in access—for example, telemedicine and mobile clinics. However, demographic shifts—especially in the increasing numbers of women and rural Veterans—call for a continuing realignment of our delivery system. We will address this issue.

VA must ensure its preparedness to meet emergent national needs, such as presented by hurricanes like Katrina, or the H1N1 virus. A little-known VA mission—but one essential to the security of the nation—is to serve as a primary back up to the DoD Military Healthcare System during war or national emergency. It’s also our responsibility to assist other federal agencies in providing medical and other services during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. VA is uniquely situated to play this role by virtue of its sheer size as well as its unrivalled expertise in medical and other social service provision.

We must develop our capabilities and enable the systems to drive performance and outcomes. The best run global organizations vigorously manage to value, to ensure efficiency and effectiveness, and to direct the appropriate allocation of scarce resources. “Value” means measurable outputs that show return on inputs—whether people, time, or funding—for a task or a process. This approach helps to identify best practices and is a foundational element of operating a “results-driven” organization.

Our department must establish a solid VA management infrastructure and integrated operating model. In executing this overall strategy, we must maintain our strong local knowledge, close alignment with external stakeholders, and responsiveness to the Veterans we serve. If we are to fully capture the potential benefits from our initiatives, we must also learn how to operate in new and better ways. We must capture economies of skill and scale by building our capabilities across VA to provide more effective support to local delivery.

We must transform management of our human capital. VA’s people are central to achieving our goals for our organization and for Veterans. I call it the “people factor.” Both Secretary Shinseki and I want VA to be the federal government’s employer-of-choice; we want to attract the best and the brightest to VA’s doors. To do that, we will invest in developing our people, in helping them reach their full potential. LVA is a prime example of a high return on our investment. As we go about creating programs to increase health and wellness, we will also strengthen accountability among managers for providing training and support to their employees.

VA must ramp up research and development to enhance the long-term health and well-being of Veterans. Health care is as much an art as a science. If we are to consistently deliver the right care, at the right place, at the right time, then it follows that we must have the right systems in place. By embedding research within a large-scale, integrated health care system with a longitudinal electronic health record, we create a national laboratory for the discovery of potentially groundbreaking health care insights. Because clinical care and research occur under one roof, scientific discovery arcs from the lab bench to a patient’s bedside, making our research program one of VA’s most effective tools for enhancing Veterans’ care. Make no mistake, VA will continue to play a leading role in the advancement of clinical medicine—for the benefit of Veterans and for the national and international community at large.

The initiatives I just described represent the priorities that will create better outcomes for Veterans immediately and in the years to come. Although they may, in some cases, be led by a specific organization, they all will require the collaboration and support of the entire department if we are to achieve success in our transformation effort.

This year, in FY 2010, you will see immediate progress against a number of transformational initiatives, which reflect these priorities and are designed to achieve results this year, and build momentum for the future.

We are at the intersection of a new century, a new generation of Veterans, and a new national leadership team. VA is changing accordingly. The times demand it; our Veterans expect it; and our President directed it.

As the present and future leaders of our department, you can help. As LVA graduates, yours is not to be just caretakers of the status quo. Learn about and master VA’s strategy for change. Think through what you can contribute to our common cause:

  • Think critically about opportunities to shape improved services and programs for Veterans.
  • Cut across organizational lines and hierarchies with a “can-do” attitude.
  • Dismiss as unacceptable the temptation to do things only “because that’s the way it’s always been done.”
  • Recognize we must do what is “right” for Veterans, not necessarily what is just technically or procedurally correct.
  • Strive to replace bureaucratic nonsense with old-fashioned common sense.
  • Take the initiative; don’t wait for “permission.”
  • And, last, keep in touch; keep the bonds tight among yourselves. Collectively, you will be the ones called on to confront the challenges and leverage the opportunities in the years ahead.

In closing, I would ask you to commit to take VA forward with a willing heart and with conviction that your work supports, benefits, and directly helps the remarkable men and women who stand as nothing less than the lifeblood of our democracy.

Let me again congratulate you on your LVA achievement. This is a night of recognition and celebration—enjoy it, everyone! Thank you, all.