STATEMENT OF THE HONORABLE ERIC K. SHINSEKI,
SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
February 4, 2009
Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members of the Committee:
Thank you for this invitation to discuss the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I am deeply honored that President Obama has entrusted me with this opportunity to serve our Veterans, and I look forward to working with you to ensure that they receive timely access to the highest quality of benefits and services which we can provide and which they earned through their sacrifice and service to our Nation.
I would like to acknowledge the presence this morning of representatives from a number of our Veterans' Service Organizations. They are essential partners in assuring that we have all met our obligation to the men and women who have safeguarded our way of life. In doing so, the VSOs score our performance and theirs, as well, in how we meet our promises to care, in President Lincoln’s words, for “him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan . . .” Their advice on how we might do things better will always be welcomed.
I am fully committed to fulfilling President Obama’s vision for transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs into a 21st Century organization. It is a mission that will require a comprehensive review of the fundamentals in every line of operation that we perform. It is a mission I look forward to undertaking. In the few days since my confirmation on January 20th, I've had the opportunity to meet with and speak to many of you individually. I appreciated hearing your concerns, gaining your insights and advice. What resounded in those discussions was your unwavering support of all our Veterans—and for the good people who come to work everyday in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
We have over 280,000 employees working at 153 medical centers, 755 outpatient clinics, 230 VetCenters, 57 Regional Offices (ROs), in our 128 National Cemeteries, and here at the Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. They are an immediate and constant source of pride as they demonstrate their dedication to our mission, their devotion to our clients, and their willingness to continue to serve something larger than self. I intend to encourage teamwork, reward initiative, seek innovation, demand the highest levels of integrity, transparency, and performance in leading the Department through the fundamental and comprehensive change it must quickly undergo, if it is to be transformational. People induce change, not technology or processes, so transformation is ultimately a leadership issue. We have a capable and dedicated workforce, and I am prepared to help lead the Department through this.
Leadership, innovation, and initiative—those qualities are important if we are going to change the culture of the Department. We do many things well now, but there are also other things we can and must do better. I have much yet to learn about Veterans Affairs, and there are good people helping me to quickly settle in. I do have some experience in leading large, proud, complex, and high-performing organizations through change. Not all experiences permit translation from one organization to another, but select principles often adapt meaningfully. Change is the most difficult task most organizations undertake, and yet change is imperative for all good organizations—if they are to remain relevant and responsive to those whom they serve. Our Veterans deserve and demand a Department of Veterans Affairs that remains relevant over time, that is responsive to their individual and changing needs, and that cares enough about them to undertake this challenging transformation. We care.
We faced similar challenges about 10 years ago, as we began the transformation of the United States Army, a process that continues today. We found we could reframe the challenges we faced then into opportunities—opportunities for innovation and increased productivity. It is leadership’s responsibility to define opportunity and quantify risk. Strong, positive leadership, dedication, and teamwork on the part of each key leader in the organization creates these opportunities—but it starts with me.
Transforming the VA into a 21st Century organization requires three fundamental principles. We must be people-centric; we will be results-driven; and, by necessity, we will be forward looking.
Veterans are the centerpiece of our organization and of everything we do as we design, implement, and sustain programs that serve them. Through service in uniform, they have invested of themselves in the security, the safety and the well-being of our Nation. They are clients—not merely customers—whom we willingly serve in meeting obligations earned through their service and sacrifice. It is our mission to address their changing needs over time and across the full range of support that our government has committed to providing them. This, we will accomplish.
Equally essential are the people who are the VA—our professional and talented workforce. There's a long tradition of VA providing leadership in medicine, of setting standards in many fields. Where we lead, we must continue. Where we do not, we must regain that leadership. From delivering cutting-edge medical care to answering the more basic benefits inquiries, we will grow and retain a skilled, motivated, and client-oriented workforce. Training and continuous learning, communications and team-building, will be components of that culture.
Second, results. At the end of each day our true measure of success is the timeliness, the quality, and the consistency of services and support we provide. You expect that, and I certainly expect it. We will set and meet objectives in each of those performance areas—timeliness, quality, consistency. We will all know the standards, perform to them or exceed them. Our processes will remain accessible, responsive, and transparent to ensure we address the needs of a diverse Veteran population dispersed geographically across our country. Success also includes cost-effectiveness. We are stewards of taxpayer dollars, and we will include appropriate metrics to assure quality in our care and management processes.
Finally, forward-looking. We must seek out opportunities for delivering best services with available resources; we must continually challenge ourselves to look for ways to do things smarter and more effectively. We will aggressively leverage the world's best practices, our knowledge base, and our emerging technologies to increase our capabilities in areas such as healthcare, information management, and service delivery.
In the near-term, I am focusing my energy on the development of a credible and adequate 2010 budget request as a priority, but the long-term priority will always be to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st Century organization, singularly focused on the Nation's Veterans as its clients. This committee is noted for its unwavering commitment to those Veterans. I will listen carefully to your concerns and your advice, and I will benefit from your counsel. I look forward to working with you to fulfill our covenant with the Nation’s Veterans.