Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me to speak with you today because, quite simply, you are the face of our department. You bring VA to life in the public’s eyes. You deliver the message that shapes how Veterans, the American people, and our Nation’s decision-makers see and understand our department.
Equally important, you prepare yourselves—through conferences like this—to take the offense, not just the defense in communicating VA’s cause … in explaining what we do … and reporting on how well we do it. Yours is not an easy task, considering that VA’s size, scope, and revenues give us parity with the top 10 corporations in America.
From the perspective of 17 months on the job, I’ve gained a solid respect for the challenges you face. Whether talking about new PTSD regulations and advances in mental health care … the claims backlog … or expanding and improving our cemeteries, I think it’s fair to say that VA’s program challenges are public affairs challenges—each and every one, each and every time. Your sphere of influence is VA-wide, internal and external.
Our founding visionary, President Lincoln, understood the power of public opinion. He believed that education and persuasion were the two critical elements in molding it. That‘s your stock-in-trade—you educate Veterans and the public about VA. The good and great things we do and have available … and the remedial actions we take to fix the not so great things that can happen in an organization the size of our department. I know it’s a point of pride for you to correct the mis-truths and half-truths that sometimes surface. And that speaks to your professionalism.
You’re all probably familiar with Lincoln’s belief that,“Whoever can change public opinion can change the government.”In our case, whoever gets the word out to the public—with no mistake about itsclarity and accuracy—can change how VA is perceived. Change the way we are portrayed on-line, in newspapers and on TV, and in social media. Change the way we are viewed by Congress and valued by the American people. The way we are seen through the eyes of our clients—Veterans and their families. And, very importantly, the way we are—or are not—seen as living up to our 19th century heritage in serving 21st century Veterans.
Today, I want to talk about that 21st century VA. I want to talk about transformation.
Under President Obama and Secretary Shinseki’s leadership, it’s VA’s operative word. I’m not overstating the case when I say, as public affairs officers, your skill sets … expertise … and professional acumen are essential to our transformation efforts.
It comes down to that old saying, What the public thinks depends on what the public hears. We want them to hear—loud and clear—about the proactive initiatives taking place all across our department. We want them to hear our message of change.
Let me give you an example. Probably the most high-profile issue facing our department is the claims backlog. In attempting to fix this problem once and for all, we’ve dozens of pilot programs in operation. Two of our Regional Offices are testing walk-in, ‘on-the-spot’ review of claims for comp and pen benefits; the Wichita RO is one of them. Its director, Antoine Waller, forwarded this account of the pilot as seen through the eyes of the on-the-ground Service Center Manager who wrote—
“I worked with a man and his son who walked into the office after lunch. The veteran had lung cancer. He had his private medical records, DD 214, and Bronze Star award with him. I reviewed the records and explained the process to him. Before the end of the day I was shaking his hand and providing him an award letter granting him $3,327.00 dollars per month. Amazing.
The veteran had tears in his eyes. He had no idea he would get this type of service or benefit. He had never used VA before. While we were waiting for the award letter [to be delivered], we also got him enrolled for care at the VA hospital.”
What a great story! What an opportunity to educate the American people about a changing VA.
It’s good news stories like this one that we want the public to know about. Not only in disability claims, but across-the-board. Not just once in a while, but consistently.
On another level, that story illustrates the fact our services ultimately come down to the one-on-one human interactions that bring about a solution … an answer … or a positive outcome for a Veteran. It speaks to a new service orientation that can be framed by the following questions:
“How can we help you?” ”How can we make a positive difference in your life?” “How can we make your experience with VA user-friendly, outcome-oriented, and hassle-free?”
In short, we want to be a Veteran’s advocate, not adversary.
By now, you’re all familiar with the words Veteran-centric, results-driven, and forward-looking. They are more than just a catchy slogan; they are operating principles that help VA employees decide what to do in a turbulent, fast-moving environment:
This afternoon, I want to talk about three things: Why we are transforming. Where we are in the process itself. And, most importantly, your part in it.
Transformation can be defined in three sentences. Change VA’s culture, adversary to advocate. Deliver improved services and benefits in a tough operating environment to achieve high standards of quality. And build strong and flexible management systems to help us achieve optimal results for Veterans.
Within that context, VA is morphing into a high-powered, innovative organization—Why? Because the old way of doing things will not deal with the growth in volume and complexity of our work. Veterans rightfully expect us to meet their needs in increasingly efficient, convenient, and customer-friendly ways. “Business as usual” will no longer do. The business of government must change with the times. We’re changing to better serve the evolving needs of America’s Veterans whether he or she is the 20-year old Veteran of Afghanistan; 40-year old Veteran of Kuwait; 60-something Veteran of Vietnam; or the 90-year old Veteran of Normandy.
We want to take advantage of new technologies, and new ways of serving Veterans. And rid ourselves of lingering systemic problems that hobble our operations and prevent our employees from giving the optimal levels of service that they want to render.
How do we do that? Well, by a number of things. By changing our approach to serving Veterans. There are lessons to be learned about customer service and public affairs from the pros: Amazon, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, ACE Hardware, and Nordstrom. Lessons about doing business in the 21st century—with speed, agility, high levels of customer service, and a parsimonious use of resources. And lessons about using the force of an organization’s public affairs office to the best advantage. Through branding; by forging strong, collaborative relationships with all stakeholders; and leveraging coordinated, creative, and consistent messaging.
Like Lincoln, we need to take the offensive and educate people using the facts.
Exactly how is VA changing? By developing our presence on the World Wide Web. By maximizing our ability to access and deliver services online. By using best practices from the private sector. By keeping an external perspective, because in the 21st century collaborations matter.
The days of the insular, monolithic organization are long gone. Alliances rule: Public-private; local-state-national; academic; not-for-profits; small business; multi-nationals.
We’re changing by leveraging technology across all our programs. The future is bound to technology—and our human reaction to it.
We’re retooling our governance structure to advance transparency in operations.
We’re ramping up investment in our employees—$350 million this year. In my view, people rank as Government’s most important resource. I’m convinced we need to treat that national resource better than we would any other—as the vital factor worthy of our ongoing development.
Some examples are this OPIA training conference. Another is our Advance initiative, where we’re transforming potential into performance through professional growth. And still another is in instituting government-wide hiring and personnel reforms.
We’re changing by ushering in a new era in energy efficiency, with an eye toward greening our department—a $400 million investment.
We’re fostering changes in attitude, a cultural shift in how we define ourselves as a department.
How are we turning the strategy into reality?
First, we’ve taken a hard look at our organization—from top to bottom—to identify areas for improvement in quality, access and value. We’ve questioned our assumptions at every juncture. We’ve listened to the concerns of Veterans. We’ve conducted internal surveys and interviews. We’ve engaged in fact-gathering and sought advice from the front lines to capture the best thinking and ideas.
We’ve had multiple meetings with key internal and external audiences and stakeholders at all levels to accelerate sourcing for transformation ideas. The first two rounds of our department-wide VA Innovation Initiative, VAi2, have generated over 10,000 ideas from 45,000 employees.
Second, we’ve strengthened accountability agency-wide. Take our Performance Review Board process, for example. It’s no secret that measurable performance goes hand-in-hand with a results-oriented culture. High individual performance supports a high-performing organization.
Third, we’ve secured the resources needed to drive change. We have a rising budget baseline. This year’s budget represents the largest increase in 30 years.
And last, we’ve fielded wide-ranging initiatives to dramatically improve our programs and services—each relating to one or more of our four strategic goals.
What are VA’s strategic goals?
I’ve been using high-action words like ramp up … improve … increase … raise …develop … maximize … and others. Those calls to action not only speak to transformation, but are in response to VA’s challenges—big challenges. Here are a few:
These increases are good news—that’s what we are here to do. But they are challenges we can’t address in the same way as before. New challenges demand new responses.
What have we accomplished so far? Through our targeted initiatives—we’ve reset VA’s axis of advance and dramatically changed our organizational posture. Here are a few specifics.
We’ve launched an aggressive campaign to attack the claims backlog. We expect to have a fully-automated, online system prototype by November of this year. We’ve expanded the VBA workforce by over 3,500, and opened up on-line applications for initial disability benefits. We’ve initiated an innovation competition, as I’ve mentioned, and launched over 30 pilot programs and initiatives to identify best practices. And we’ve invested $138 million in a paperless system to be deployed in 2012.
In health care, we are adopting a patient-centered, team-based system, using evidence-based approaches to health promotion, disease prevention, and population health. We’re working to improve access with new and upgraded facilities at Denver; Palo Alto and Alameda, California; Omaha and New Orleans. We’re providing health care eligibility for more Priority Group 8 Veterans. We’re making big investments in big issues: $250 million for rural health care access and $217.6 million in women’s health, for example. And we’re continuing to develop our Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record with our VA-Kaiser Permanente pilot program.
In our National Cemetery System, we are expanding and improving cemeteries at Indiantown Gap; Los Angeles; and Tahoma, Washington. In addition, we have authorization for five new national cemeteries.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is yet another success story. As of last month, VA has issued over $4 billion in tuition, housing, and stipends for 300,000 Veteran-students or family members. That’s been driven, in part, by our nationwide advertising campaign. Very important, we expect to have an automated processing system on line by the end of this year.
We’ve conducted an intense campaign to end Veteran homelessness within five years. How have we done? Well, in 2008, there were an estimated 131,000 homeless Veterans on the streets; last year, in 2009, there were 107,000. Also last year, we held the National Summit on Veterans Homeless to collaborate with our public-private partners in reaching our goal of ending Veteran homelessness within five years. Toward that goal, we’ve instituted a National Homeless Hotline and have resourcing in the pipeline; our 2011 budget request contains a 23% funding increase for our homeless programs—up from $3.4 billion in 2010, to $4.2 billion next year.
Thanks to OPIA, VA has dramatically expanded its communications profile. We have a new, user-friendly web site and a presence on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. In fact, VA has more Facebook subscribers than any other Cabinet department—We’re #1! It’s all part of open government. Congratulations OPIA!
Job One for OPIA is to tell the transformationstory.Your success depends on your efforts to learn everything you can about the many changes that are taking place within our organization.
You have a clear mandate to educate and empower Veterans and their families through outreach, advocacy, and information.But it doesn’t end there, does it? There are other stakeholders. What about the media;VA employees;Veterans service organizations; state and local governments;neighborhood groups;the executive and legislative branches; our Armed Forces;business and industry;and the general public.
The fact is your reach is open-ended. Your message echoes all the way from Maine to Manila … and everywhere in between.As communicators, your role in transformation is crucial. It’s more than public affairs, it’s relationship-building. Building rapport with Veterans and, indeed, with all VA stakeholders.Reaching out to grassroots and rural media.Building stronger relations with cultural, special, and social media. Helping our own employees understand transformation. Helping Veterans understand what they are entitled to. And relying on Aristotle’s famous dictum, know your audience, if we are to be effective.Think about the generational sensitivities, of say, communicating with our Greatest Generation versus our latest generation. Big difference, right?
Your mandate includes building relationships within your own chain-of-command and the communities you serve. Your job is more than putting the good word out there. It’s about proactive, positive VA exposure. Developing and managing the message—and then, staying on-message. Leveraging technology and new modes of communication. Looking for opportunities for innovation; if you have a good idea, Secretary Duckworth wants to hear about it … I want to hear about it.
As I say that, let me congratulate Secretary Duckworth and OPIA for inaugurating a formal relationship with the Public Relations Society of America and all that that entails—credentialing VA employees, and partnering to exchange ideas, network, and capture emerging trends, best practices, and the latest research.
It’s forward-thinking innovations like this that define our transformation.
The Department of Veterans is operating under a new construct—a paradigm for high-performing systems, meaningful, consistent metrics, and for measurable progress. Whether you work in Alaska or Alabama … North Dakota or New York … Secretary Shinseki and I look to you to tell VA’s transformation story to America’s Veterans and to America-at-large. The fact is we depend on you.
In just over a year, thanks to you, VA has been able to promote and publicize its drive to help Veterans to better health and better lives. But there’s a lot more to do, and I look to each of you as my “partner for progress.” I ask you to be an involved part of the transformation process. Make the most of your passion for what you do. Care enough not to “settle”—care enough to learn what you need to know about VA policy and operations. Communicate with your co-workers and colleagues. Network and share lessons learned and best practices. Take the initiative. Talk up your forward-thinking ideas or your answer to a particular OPIA issue or problem. Above all, strive to be agents of change, not just caretakers of the status quo.
In closing, I’d like to turn again to President Lincoln and call to mind his great respect for public opinion, for language, and for people themselves. He once said that, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” This concept cuts to the very heart of your profession … and to VA’s transformation.
As you can probably tell, I have high regard for what you bring to the VA table. Each of you is highly-skilled and highly-competent. I know many of you, through your years with VA, have broad and deep institutional knowledge and know-how. As I do, I know Tammy, Nathan, and Katie have the greatest respect your experience. And most of you will be working to the benefit of this wonderful agency long after our non-career leadership has departed.
I know your commitment to, and respect for Veterans is without question. And I want to take this opportunity to thank each of you for what you do every day for our department, and for your contributions to positive change at VA.