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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Former Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould

Center for Human Capital Innovation Human Capital Congress
Bethesda, MD
December 14, 2012

Thank you, Allen [Zeman, President of Center for Human Capital Innovation], for that kind introduction, and your invitation to address the first annual Human Capital Congress.

I'm delighted to be here today. I commend each and every one of you for coming, and hope that the ideas, relationships, and opportunities that are generated here today improve the mission outcomes and individual lives of people in organizations across the country.

Leading in government through these turbulent times is quite a challenge. Today, I will talk about those challenges—the "new normal" we are facing, but also new developments that are improving prospects for a stronger future.

The New Normal
This week at VA, the top leadership set aside a day to: assess our performance over the past four years; review our strategic environment; and ask ourselves what more we can do to deliver on our promises to Veterans.

Here are some observations from this session that bear on our understanding of the "new normal":

Complexity: Today, each of us must find good solutions in a multi-stakeholder environment. Not only are we confronted with the rising expectations of our clients—the American taxpayers—we have to address the disparate needs and interests of those we serve: Congress, agency personnel, labor, and contractors who deliver roughly half of all federal government products and services by dollar.

Ambiguity: We have to sort through conflicting information on which to develop genuine insight and make balanced decisions. We have to deal with the absence of reliable information, data out of context, and wildly varying opinions on future courses of action delivered with no time left.

High Rates of Change: We have to respond to the rapid evolution of business processes and technology—faster, better, cheaper. This forms an ever-changing background against which the performance of government products and services are judged. We then try to meet these new standards of performance through legislative, doctrinal, and regulatory mechanisms poorly suited to our need for agility. American taxpayers are used to rapid rates of response. For younger Americans, these days, even a simple phone call can take too long!

Decision-making: We have to wrestle with the conflicting need for time to deliberate and the obligation to disclose promptly. Our obligation to be wise stewards of taxpayer dollars requires informed and thoughtful decision-making.

At the same time, we need to be transparent and participatory in the decision-making process. In a newspaper headline, we are, by turns, either insufficiently deliberate about important decisions, or concealing information from the public.

Management Approach: We have to respond to differences in management approach-- exception-based oversight that focuses on mistakes--or we can try to take a more measured systems-based to improve the steady state performance of the system as a whole.

We have to address tectonic changes in technology, security, demographics, economics and politics


  • Transformation of face-to-face transactions into virtual interactions;

  • Expertise in using social media and mobile devices;

  • Increased power to collect, store, and quickly analyze information.

Conflict and Security:

  • Growing threat of cyber-attack managed by government and individual employers.

  • Organizations will be more or less resilient based on the skill and resourcefulness of the people involved.


  • Persistent social demographic trends indicate that the nation will become more diverse.


  • Our place in the world will change.

  • India and China will have the world's largest economies—drawing their fair share of the best and brightest.

  • The effect of our national debt will affect our growth rates in the future.


  • Sentiments of broad dissatisfaction or frustration with the federal government.

Cost-constraints: And we must do all of these things with less money than ever before. The new normal is not an easy place to be!

The "New Normal" at VA
Let me share with you how we're wrestling with the "new normal" at VA.

People: There's an old Army saying: "mission first, people always." I am fortunate to work for a Secretary who deeply values people and investing in them.

Military schools and the Services know they must invest in their people to achieve their mission. Character is the foundation of leadership, which is why they also put so much emphasis on personal honor, integrity, and courage.

Unfortunately this sort of people strategy is only found in isolated cases across government. And we need this in every agency. Here are some examples of this people strategy at VA.

Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRA) of 2010: As a result of GPRA we've started to put new policies and structures in place:

1.) Hiring reform: We've streamlined vacancy announcements and have set a stringent time to hire goal—60 days for 80 percent of our hires for fiscal year 2013. This is an improvement on previous years—in fiscal year 2012, our goal was 70 percent of hires within 60 days, and in fiscal year 2011 the goal was 60 percent of hires within 60 days.

At VA's central office here in Washington, our HR office has created service-level agreements (SLAs) between HR and their customers—hiring managers—in different offices. These SLAs spell out an understanding among all parties of their different roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

We've also consolidated and standardized our job classification process—we used to have 160 offices classifying positions. We will have only 25 offices performing such functions by the end of this fiscal year.

2.) Information Security: Earlier this year, we achieved 99 percent completion of our annual Privacy and Information Security Awareness Training leveraging a web-enabled Talent Management Systems to reach 320,000 employees and 200,000 others—including contractors, medical residents, other trainees, and volunteers—in 45 days.

Getting this right is extremely important because safeguarding privacy, especially for our Veterans, is crucial for us.

The efforts resulted in zero findings related to Security and Privacy Awareness Training in this fiscal year's financial audit by the Office of Inspector General.

3.) VA Central Office IT Support: Over the last four years, our IT support at VA Central Office here in Washington has been beset by low morale and has delivered increasingly low customer service.

This was for two reasons—budget reductions coupled with a 50 percent increase in customers.

We needed an innovative way to develop employees and improve the situation, so we created our Performance Capability Development Program. After a thorough review of staff and customer needs, we organized a series of working groups called Method Enhancement Teams, or METs.

METs are comprised of 3-6 staff members, meet for 2-4 hours a week, and focus on improving areas such as incident management, service desk function, change management, transition planning, and service design.

Once METs have identified and understood their technical area of focus, they collaborate on action plans, and access resources to support their success such as coaching and training. Finally they'll implement their action plans and then share success and insight with others. Our goal is to demonstrate to employees how they can improve their skills, while enhancing their services to internal customers and Veterans.

Program Planning & Budgets: Our Program Planning Budgeting System allows us to clarify the relationship between programs, plans, budget, and evaluation and ties our budget to specific multi-year plans.

Performance Management Systems: We've also implemented department-wide performance management systems that make the link between mission outcomes and personnel performance evaluation.

Our Project Management Accountability System, or PMAS, which is an incremental developmental approach to IT, ensures early identification and correction of under-performing IT programs. In 2011, PMAS implementation helped OIT successfully achieve 89 percent of all IT project milestones—a significant increase over our 30 percent success rate prior to PMAS implementation.

People Systems: Investing in people includes not only performance counseling and evaluation but learning, skills-building, innovation, and career development.

Over the last three years, our Human Capital Investment Plan (HCIP) has rolled out an array of programs overseen by what we call our VA Learning University or VALU, to provide world-class service to our employees commensurate with the world-class service our employees are expected to deliver to Veterans.

Our human capital goal is to make VA an employer of choice. We believe that this directly contributes to our ability to improve access, eliminate Veteran homelessness, and reduce the backlog of Veterans' claims.

So far we've documented a positive 5-percent return on our investment.

As part of HCIP, our Talent Management System allows us to create and deploy training for all employees, contractors, volunteers and trainers at VA and it supports electronic Individual Development Plans that will help with professional development but will also simplify the overall management of professional development at VA.

MyCareer@VA is an online resource we launched last year to help our employees match their skills and capabilities with career opportunities. It gives individuals the power to decide where they are ready to step up, or step laterally into different work at the same level, or take a step back. In exchange for providing career flexibility, we get something we want—good people staying longer and investing in VA.

If we are going to reach our goal of making VA an employer of choice, it is vital we invest in our people by engaging our employees to work together with their supervisors to improve organizational performance.

Let me share an example from VA's National Cemetery Administration where we have a pilot program using the Goals, Engagement, Accountability and Results (GEAR) approach to change supervisor/employee interaction

This pilot is enabling us to focus on how to best engage our employees. We have provided our supervisors and employees with tools, training, and information so that they can work as a team to enhance the performance of NCA. Employees usually have great ideas about how to improve performance.

The GEAR pilot has also enabled us to focus on encouraging employees to discuss the skills they have that the agency isn't taking advantage of, or the capabilities the employee wants to develop that would benefit the agency. Employees and supervisors meet every four months, instead of bi-annually to discuss their performance, progress, and contributions.

Perhaps most importantly, we are educating employees so they have a clear understanding of NCA's strategic goals, performance targets, and recent accomplishments and challenges. If employees know where we are, where we want to be, and how they can help, we engage them. Engaged employees enhance organizational performance.

Telework: Another key to attracting the best and the brightest to government service is to provide employees with the option to telework. Telework responds to the changing composition of our Federal workforce and is one of the many reforms and initiatives put in place as a result of President Obama and OPM Director John Berry's leadership.

As many of you know, telework cuts commuting costs, decreases work-space needs, improves our disaster preparedness posture, and telework supports the Americans with Disabilities Act by widening the scope of employment opportunities available to the disabled, and by eliminating the often difficult task of physically getting to and from the workplace.

At VA, we launched our telework pilot program in the summer of 2011 and currently nearly 40 percent of our eligible employees are on a telework schedule—this is an increase from just 12 percent when we started.

Resilience Training: The Roman poet, Martial, once wrote that "life is not merely to be alive, but to be well." This is true for all our Veterans, but it is also true for our VA employees, indeed all government employees.

The men and women who have served our nation in uniform deserve the best care and services from us at VA, but their needs are growing and changing, forcing us at VA to do the same.

We have found that having good work-life balance, and good health better supports people's ability to serve Veterans.

We have invested in resilience training—not only employee wellness programs that provide employee coaching, smoking cessation, or weight loss programs—but in cutting edge R&D that will better serve Veterans and make life easier for the clinicians that treat them.

The result is fewer sick days, which translates into a return on the investment in employee health.

The Future
No doubt, many of you have also started to make changes to adjust to life in the "new normal," but what will this community of interest have to do in order to succeed going forward?

Information: First, we're going to require better information about:

  • operational performance;

  • customer satisfaction;

  • financial performance—especially cost;

  • people skills, capabilities, leadership abilities;

  • everything from staffing, to contractors, to buildings, to products, to equipment.

Risk-management: We are going to need better decision-making tools. We must be able to assess risk accurately in order to make sound, informed decisions about the future of our agencies.

At VA, our vision for Enterprise Risk Management is to create a department-wide risk aware culture and risk management infrastructure that enables us to make the best use of resources and better serve Veterans.

This common, enterprise wide framework will provide us with increased visibility of potential and emerging risks. Our goal is that it will also increase confidence in decision-making which leads to better resource allocation, compliance, efficiency, timeliness and accountability in all that we do.

Shorter development cycles: We will have to work harder and smarter, developing new policies and procedures much more quickly than we have in the past.

Better management: Across government, we need better agreement on a predictive theory of good management in government. Is it based on fear vs. esprit de corps, negative sanction vs. positive motivation, control vs. empowerment, or suspicion vs. respect?

New oversight models: We need new models for oversight that can place individual problems in larger context—allowing us to react accordingly and with all the facts. Too often we are on the defensive, reacting to the one mistake, rather than telling the other side of the story—where we got the vast majority of what we do right.

This is true for Congress, IGs, GAO, and agency management teams. A collection of policies born out of the efforts to fix individual problems doesn't make a coherent plan to improve overall performance.

Better relationship with the people we serve:

We need people who:

  • Can serve as a trusted partners;

  • Be recognized for providing a quality experience;

  • Be proactive and agile institutions.

People: Finally—I'll say it again—most importantly when we talk about government, we are talking about people first. They are our most precious resource and we must have a people strategy that links what resources we have today, or what we can get to in the near term—however scarce—to outcomes we want tomorrow.

We need more investment in people to deliver a government that works for everyone. This means, not only leader development, but training at all levels of government.

We need employees who earn the trust and respect of the taxpayers every day.

Earlier I told you about the GEAR pilot in our National Cemetery Administration where we're changing how supervisors and employees work together to improve organizational performance.

Other agencies—HUD, Energy, OPM, and the Coast Guard—are also participating in a GEAR pilot.

Through programs like these GEAR pilots and other changes, we are making progress that will enable public service to succeed not just tomorrow, but well into the future.

The Office of Management and Budget has called on us all to build a 21st century government and to cut waste.

That's a tall order. There are great challenges before each of us, most certainly. But also even greater opportunities for achievement. Neither can be done without investment in people.

Resources: If we hope to shape government for the 21st century, we must allocate, or re-allocate the needed resources, now, to invest in our people.

Particularly in these times of budgetary constraint it is better to have fewer well-trained employees than a larger number of ill-trained ones.

In closing, I'd like you to consider an example of the challenge before us. Take a mental health professional on VA's frontline staff. Let's say a GS-12, called upon to meet with a Veteran who has returned from war, his or her life shattered, dealing with multiple injuries, looking for a job. I am sure we all agree that such a Veteran would deserve the best this country can offer.

Now imagine you are that counselor. The door to your office has closed and you are looking into the eyes of someone the country owes and who needs your help. Wouldn't you want to have the best techniques and training under your belt before you enter the room with that Veteran? Would you want to have the skill and confidence to treat that Veteran's individual needs to help them achieve better health, and find a job? How could you expect to find the inner resources to do that job eight times in a day? Forty times a week, year after year?

Like the counselor in this simple example, government employees are working at their duty stations across a vast array of jobs. What we are asking them to do is hard and changing. And we are asking them to do it better. We must have the programs, systems, and management approach that provides the training they need to accomplish their mission and the leader development that will help them shape, prepare, and respond to mission requirements in the future.

We need policies, systems, technology, and a people strategy that are aligned to that goal.

People must be at the center of our ability to respond, aided by better information about our ongoing operations and the ability of leaders to spot and act on risk—especially risk to the capacity of our human capital to meet the need for an efficient, 21st century government. And one that works for the people it serves.

We have an exciting and challenging opportunity before us! Let me thank you all for your service and extend my best wishes for success in the hard work that lies ahead.

Thank you and I welcome your questions.