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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Former Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould

KickOff of 2011 HR Professionals Conference
Washington, DC
May 24, 2011

Thank you, John. And thank you all for inviting me to help kick-off VA’s 2011 HR Professionals Conference. Let me welcome the VA community-at-large, and watching remotely. Also, let me extend greetings to those who will later view this kickoff in a re-broadcast on VA’s TMS. Thank you all for tuning in.

VA’s people—and their professional development—is a cause that is among my top priorities as VA’s chief operating officer. And I know that Secretary Shinseki feels the same way. Because when we talk about government—or any organization, public or private—we are talking about people. We’re not just talking about systems, assets, technology, programs, policies, or money—mission-critical though they may be.

People are our most valuable resource. When you get right down to it, they are our department. Each and every day, they bring VA to life: In our medical centers, benefits offices, and cemeteries; in all our facilities from Maine to Manila.

As they go about doing their jobs, they shape how Veterans, the American people, and our Nation’s decision-makers see and understand our department. It stands to reason, then, that we need to treat our human resources as a vital strategic asset worthy of our ongoing investment. Investment in finding and attracting the right people for the right job. Training and developing them to excel. Managing them so that they can achieve their full potential and accomplish our mission.

President Obama is also committed to federal workers and to overhauling the complex, outdated personnel system they have worked under for far too long. More than most, you know that changes and advances are being made in everything from recruitment to retirement. OPM’s Director, John Berry, is working on the cutting edge of the people factor, instituting progressive personnel policies drawn from the best practices of highly-successful companies.

The goal is to develop a framework that:

  • Synchronizes current human resources theory with accepted, successful management practices;

  • Executes progressive policies from both the public and private sectors;

  • Puts a premium on performance, not process; and,

  • Incorporates the “people factor” in the way we manage.

By that I mean a people-focused culture where, among other things, employees are developed according to the latest learning strategies and cutting-edge delivery models.

Under Secretary Shinseki’s leadership, VA’s transformation is leveraging the well-documented link between investing in our organization’s people and achieving better operational results overall. That’s why so many of our transformative initiatives revolve around the people factor.

Training is key. We’ve put our money on the table. We invested $300 million in FY10 and trained more than 200,000 employees. And we expect to train at least another 135,000 in FY11. So are developmental opportunities like this 2011 HR Professionals Conference. It represents an investment in your current performance, and in your future potential.

I have a solid respect for the challenges you face as HR professionals. Yours is not an easy task. VA’s workforce is one of the most complex in the federal arena. We have two personnel systems—Title 38 and Title 5; over 300 job series classifications; and nationally-distributed facilities.

Our size, scope, and revenues give us parity with the top ten corporations in America. Your influence is VA-wide. In one way or another, you touch all of our more than 300,000 employees—from the day they first walk through our doors, to the day they hand in their badges and leave us for the last time.

That’s why it’s vitally important that we create meaningful opportunities to maximize your effectiveness through top-notch training like the HR Professionals Conference. Under VA’s innovative human capital investment plan—you know it as HCIP—we are working to provide VA employees with the tools and training to transform our department into a “Veteran-centric, results-driven, and forward-looking” National Advocate for Veterans.

That now-familiar phrase is more than just a catchy slogan. It defines VA’s core operating principles and clearly describes a day-to-day service model for all of us. We want that phrase to shape—and to govern—the one-on-one human interactions that bring about a solution, an answer, or a positive outcome for Veterans.

But we also have an internal focus. We want to provide world-class service to VA employees as well—the men and women who directly or indirectly serve Veterans and their families. We want to create for them a service orientation framed by the following question: “How can we make your HR experience user-friendly, outcome-oriented, supportive, and professionally enhancing?”

Why? Because, here again, the DNA of any organization is its people.

It’s well-documented that how you treat your employees correlates to how well your customers are served. HR professionals understand that superior HR practices lead to a superior employee workforce. And a superior workforce leads to superior customer service.

Customer service is “Job One” for VA. While a recent American Customer Satisfaction Index found that overall customer satisfaction with the government is at a 10-year low, VA’s National Cemetery Administration is ranked number one in the United States. Who made that happen? People—our employees.

We want to scale that culture of excellence across all our programs and services. HR is positioned to help institute that kind of high-performance culture through reconstituted hiring practices, management processes, training approaches; funding and leadership.

There’s another element though. Increasingly, HR is being charged with new, expanded responsibilities. I am talking about HR professionals as conduits to improved on-the-job performance at the agency level, and, in turn, to the overall perception of performance across the federal landscape.

Good HR—and in turn, good agency performance—speaks to inclusion. It speaks to HR partnerships and teaming at all organizational levels—in our case, from the 10th floor to the A-level.

President Obama’s Chief Performance Officer, Jeffrey Zients, and OPM’s Director, John Berry, want to see HR professionals function more as they do in the private sector. By that I mean as partners, counselors, and advisors to everyone from employees to line managers, and from executives to the CEO. As active participants in agency-wide decision-making events, and as collaborators and sometimes leaders in transformative initiatives.

In the 21st century, Human Resources can no longer be termed a “support” function. It is not.

HR professionals have as much to teach line managers as they have to do for line managers. And HR professionals must be able to work successfully with line managers—not as overseers, but as partners in a process to achieve common mission outcomes. One cannot be successful without the other.

The bottom line? If employees, managers, and, indeed, an agency of government are to be successful—individually and collectively—HR must figure prominently. If only for the reason that it, alone, is the repository for the talent, expertise, and experience that can put the right person, in the right job, at the right time.

And if we accept the premise that people are the DNA of any business, company, or agency, then HR can make a real difference in the “life,” health, longevity, and success of any organization.

I spoke a moment ago about HR as a leader in organizational transformations. I’m pleased to say that our own HR function is keeping the promise of changing in challenging times. It is making measurable strides in promoting greater employee satisfaction by implementing better management and support services. By increasing opportunities for training and professional development geared toward enhancing performance, management environment, productivity, and potential. And by proactive efforts, across the board, designed to make VA an “employer of choice” in government.

HR is delivering the message—loud and clear—that, at VA, employees are valued and merit our appreciation and recognition for a job well done.

From my perspective, I see HR in the vanguard of VA transformation. There’s a growing list of forward-leaning achievements to your credit. They attest to your willingness to change. And, ultimately, they all accrue to Veterans and their families. These include:

  • ADVANCE—where we’re transforming potential into performance through professional growth.

  • VA’s Learning University—delivering a full complement of tiered courses and programs to support improved on-the-job performance. Through VALU, more than 204,000 employees have completed at least one ADVANCE training course.

  • Change Academy—where we drive transformation by going to VA facilities across the country to get a “boots-on-the-ground” perspective on problematic issues, and get innovative solutions generated on the “front lines” of VA operations.

  • HR Academy—where we ensure HR professionals have the skills needed to act as strategic consultants to VA managers as they grapple with issues: in recruitment; staffing; labor management relations; and other critical areas.

  • Our new Talent Management System Training—the latest in easy-to-use, online interface, featuring streamlined navigation capabilities.

  • And our new Office of Corporate Senior Executive Management—where we provide the full scope of centralized human resources services that is the bedrock for effective executive management.

Let’s talk about hiring reform. Over the past two years, VA has engaged in a top-to-bottom review of our processes, systems, and operations to develop new and better ways to serve both our external customers, Veterans, and our internal customers, the employees who serve them.

As a result, we are well positioned to implement the President’s landmark directive to transform government’s recruitment and hiring practices. President Obama’s mandate calls for a common-sense approach to the federal application process. It incorporates private sector features like the two-page resume and a cover letter.

It eliminates lengthy, cumbersome paperwork. In other words—more is not better, better is better! It uses easy-to-understand text and terms in keeping with the Plain Language Act of 2010. The overall result is a more efficient, applicant-friendly, and faster process.

We can’t talk meaningfully about recruitment and hiring reform without talking about Veterans employment. One of the best ways by which to care for Veterans is to help make sure they have a job to pay their bills and support their families. In addition to encouraging the private sector to step up its hiring of Veterans, we’ve been working closely with OPM, the Departments of Defense and Labor as well as with other agencies to increase the number of Veterans in the federal workforce.

In VA, fully one-third of our employees are Veterans and we’re looking to drive that figure to 40 percent. We are working this issue hard and will be fielding new initiatives later this year.

Let’s look at labor management relations because, here, too, we’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve completed a Master Bargaining Agreement with the AFGE; reached agreement with five unions on Title 38; and provided online training to 23,000 VA supervisors and managers on Equal Opportunity and labor-management partnerships. Additionally, we’re starting use of USA Staffing for bargaining unit employees, an initiative that will translate into more timely hiring.

From a cultural perspective, there has been a renewed understanding that HR activities are jointly-held by managers and our HR teams. In other words, we are jointly responsible for mission accomplishment. This central realization is essential for HR personnel to provide good service, and for line managers to receive good service. One cannot happen without the other.

Clearly, this is an exciting time to be working in HR, and in VA. You are an integral part of our efforts to build a 21st century organization for 21st century Veterans—and for 21st century employees. In my view, many of the systemic workforce problems that have hobbled government for far too long are giving way.

Today transformation is a work in progress. What each of you do, every day, working with line managers to recruit, develop, and retain the right people for our important work—and to plan for, and implement, the changes needed to ensure a strong VA workforce of the future—make a difference for America’s Veterans.

In closing, I’d like to share one last thought with you. In characterizing efforts to revitalize the business of government, President Obama has said: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.”

As I see it, your individual and collective mission is to be VA’s agents of change. Your “time” is now. I encourage you to take all that you learn from the upcoming HR conference and apply it to the tasks and responsibilities that are yours.

Work to create a spirit of community service and innovation.

Remember that innovation in the public sector is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity.

Think critically about opportunities to forge improved services for our employees.

Keep open the lines of communication among HR’s many functional areas, and with the operating units you serve.

And, very importantly, take the opportunity to strengthen the bonds of support among your colleagues.

Again, thank you for inviting me here today. I wish you a productive and enjoyable training conference, and thank you all for what you do—and continue to do—for VA and for Veterans.