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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Former Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould

Veterans Benefits Administration Leadership Annual Conference Employee Recognition Ceremony
Cleveland, OH
August 4, 2010

Good evening. I’m delighted to be joining the leadership of VBA here in Cleveland, and to be honoring this exceptional group of VA employees.

I’m glad we’re supporting Cleveland this summer in light of LeBron James’ recent—some might call it ignominious—departure! As someone who studies people in organizations, I must admit that I was somewhat intrigued by his decision to leave the Cavaliers last month. By joining the team in Miami, he has a chance to help transform that program into a winning one. His time in Cleveland taught him an important lesson: the one essential ingredient in transforming an organization is good people. What Mr. James didn’t do very well, however, is serve his existing fan base here; with his departure he leaves Cleveland broken-hearted. And that’s always the challenge: to achieve the mission, but take care of your people at the same time.

That is certainly the challenge we face at VA. The president gave us a mandate: to transform VA into a 21st century organization. Secretary Shinseki has called for VA to change from being an agency perceived as adversarial to one known for advocacy. 

As many of you know, to transform VA, we’ve been guided by three principles over the last 18 months: we must be people-centric—focused on the best for our Veterans and for our VA employees. We must be results-oriented—Veterans have served their country and are looking for outcomes and solutions to their problems. They deserve results and answers in a timely fashion. And finally, we must be forward-looking—attuned to their evolving needs and prepared to meet them with available resources.

VBA is making great strides towards transformation, but we still face challenges. You’ve cleared some big hurdles in recent months which should make you proud and give you confidence for the future. Here are some examples:

  • Last year you sustained a tough sprint until August 1 to get the first checks out the door as part of the Post 9-11 G.I. Bill. Since that time you’ve issued over $4 billion in tuition, housing, and stipends for over 300,000 student Veterans and eligible family members.
  • You’re breaking the back of the backlog with increased hiring, pilot programs, and a decision to invest $138 million in a paperless benefits management system.
  • To respond to the growing needs of women Veterans, you’ve now got women Veterans coordinators at all regional offices to provide benefits assistance.
  • You’re continuing to ease service members’ transition from DoD to VA by lowering the processing time for DES evaluation and the BDD program.

At the same time you are making all these changes, VA home loans maintain a significantly lower foreclosure rate than any other type of home loan in the industry. As the eighth largest insurance provider in the country, VBA insures over seven million Americans with total coverage of over $1.3 trillion. VBA is a big organization and you are on the move.

The pilot programs in Milwaukee and Wichita to provide on-the-spot claims review have the potential to transform how quickly we process claims for Veterans. Your initiative to develop disability benefits questionnaires will lead to completeness in medical exams and faster compensation decisions. Your Quick Pay pilot in St. Petersburg has already resulted in $1 million being paid to Veterans.

What is encouraging about these accomplishments and initiatives is that many came from you and from your fellow VBA employees. The VBA innovation competition has led to some exciting ideas in which we have invested and I offer my congratulations to each of you for doing your part—thank you.

Now, the distinguished employees we salute tonight exemplify what’s best about VBA. I am confident with people such as these, VBA will not only meet its transformation goals, but exceed them. They understand that buildings and facilities don’t transform organizations, that information technology, databases and medical equipment don’t take care of Veterans—people do. Each of them has gone above and beyond the call of duty to serve our nation’s Veterans.

Having been the primary caregiver for my father—a Veteran—in his final days, I know first-hand that no matter how ready you feel, no one can prepare you for when you actually lose that loved one. The Month of Death team took advocacy for Veterans to a whole new level, and many families are truly blessed by your efforts.

Candice Lopez exemplifies what I would call active compassion. he has made an incredible difference in the lives of so many Veterans. Thank you, Candy, for going the extra mile every day.

Laura Jones—your extraordinary accomplishments in your community and at home are truly inspiring. I am just grateful that at VA, we get to have a portion of your efforts to serve others. Thank you for sharing your gifts, enormous dedication, and commitment with us.

To achieve the change the Secretary has called for, we need to encourage everyone at VBA to follow the example of our fine award winners. We know it won’t be easy. It will require cultural change to instill an attitude of advocacy in an organization as large as VBA.

That cultural change will only occur if we invest in our people. So here are some questions I’d like you to consider as you continue the work of transformation of VBA: Are you leading your people, mentoring them, and investing in their training? Are you encouraging them and recognizing them for their achievements?

Change is a business process issue as well. And it is a technology issue. Do your people have the right procedures and tools to be effective advocates?

In addition, change will not come if there is a lack of trust between management and labor. What are you doing to build trust with your employees and the unions that represent them? I encourage you to work constructively with the union, take a hard look at all their concerns, and work to resolve them.

And as you well know, cultural change also requires resources and in an era of fiscal constraint, VBA has been blessed with significant budget increases. Are you doing all you can to make timely use of growth and investment in VBA? Make haste carefully. Time is of the essence. There is no time to waste in showing that you will give a return on the investment and make every dollar count for our Veterans.

There is a lot of work ahead. But we will make our performance goals at VBA. I am confident that with the leadership and dedication of everyone in this room, VBA will be a different organization in the future from the one that exists today.

Thank you for choosing to serve Veterans, their families and survivors and for leading us to a 21st century Department of Veterans Affairs. The Secretary and I are delighted to be partners with you in this great effort.

Congratulations again to our award winners. May God bless you all, our Veterans, and this great country. Thank you.