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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

Board of Veterans Appeals Swearing-In Ceremony
Washington, DC
May 5, 2016

Laura, thank you for that kind introduction and for the invitation to join you for this important ceremony.

Thanks also to Lisa Moore and to Chaplain McCoy for the National Anthem and the Invocation—both of which add so much to this very special occasion.

You know, at VA we are truly privileged to come to work each day to fulfill the most inspiring mission in the federal government—caring for those “who shall have borne the battle” and their families and survivors.

We’re fortunate to have exceptional, meaningful I-CARE organizational values—Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence.

And across VA, we’re overcoming challenges and transforming our department in order to become the top customer service organization in government. Veterans depend upon us for health care, for benefits, for sound answers in appeals, and for myriad other services—and VA’s hardworking employees come through for them.

And that’s why swearing-in these new judges constitutes a big and important day for the Board of Veterans Appeals and for VA. Even more importantly, it’s a big and important day for Veterans.

The Board currently has 61 Veterans Law Judges. The 14 newly appointed judges brings that number up to 75—nearing our authorized full complement of 78 judges.

This new talent, their experience, their knowledge of Veterans, and their combined years of legal expertise will help the Board and VA better serve Veterans and their family members.

Board judges are doing yeoman’s work. Last fiscal year, the number of dispositions and Veterans served was almost 56,000—a record breaking number since the advent of VA judicial review nearly three decades ago.

That kind of improvement and success comes from dedicated judges and attorneys, and a strong Board team.

It’s the result of improved opportunities for employee engagement, commitment, and feedback.

It’s the end-product of business-process improvements within the Board to meet the incoming workload.

And it’s what happens when dedicated people are determined to do a great job. Our deficiency-free rate for dispositions of appeals—our quality rating—for last fiscal year was 94 percent. Of course, it would be great for it to be even higher, but that’s pretty darn good.

I know the amount and quality of work the Board does is going to improve as a result of welcoming these dedicated legal professionals as Veterans Law Judges today. As a group, they are distinguished attorneys with extensive and broad experience in Veterans Law.

Through a competitive selection process, involving participation by senior leaders across the Department, the most exceptional and superior candidates were identified.

Those names were submitted to me to consider for appointment. Part of that process requires that I send the names forward to the White House for approval by the President of the United States, in order that I may make that appointment.

It’s a difficult and impressive selection process because the office they hold, the work that they do, and the leadership they provide are critically important to VA and to our country’s Veterans.

I’ve worked closely with Laura and the Board team now for two years. I’m consistently impressed by their professionalism and their dedication to doing right by Veterans.

The work they do isn’t easy. There are over 450,000 appeals pending in the Department, with over 93,000 pending here at the Board. There are also over 66,000 pending hearing requests in appeals. That’s an incredible amount of work for those 75 Judges; even with the large staffing growth in the Board in recent years, we know we still need more.

As for the appeals process itself, we know it operates on an “open record” basis, which means Veterans can submit new evidence at any point in the process, and the law requires that the Department continue to develop new evidence in pending appeals where necessary. This prolongs the appeals process and leads to appeals churning in the current process for many years. No one is satisfied by this churning—Veterans are confused, and I know the Board gets frustrated when it cannot provide an answer in an appeal because more evidence must be developed.

The length and complexities in the appeals process is not a problem that has come about because of a mistake on anyone’s part, or because VA didn’t manage workflow properly. It’s a result of two conspiring circumstances.

First, we have all inherited an antiquated, complicated appeals system that has been patched with Band-Aids over many decades. It needs to be modernized.

And second, we are seeing drastic, evolutionary changes in Veteran demographics, which are making it impossible for the current system to keep up.

  • The Veteran population is aging. Just fifty six years ago, in 1960, only 520,000 American Veterans were 65 years old or older—2.3 percent of our total Veteran population. In 2020, about 9.8 million Veterans will be 65 or older—almost half of all Veterans at or beyond retirement age.
  • Simultaneously, younger Veterans are surviving the battlefield at higher rates, thanks to improvements in military medicine, but they are also returning home with higher levels of disability.

So it’s no surprise we’re seeing record numbers of claims for disability, with more causes of disability in each claim, plus a dramatic increase in Veterans unable to manage their own affairs. The number of beneficiaries in our Fiduciary Program has risen 50 percent since FY 2011.

And more claims means more appeals—although the rate of appeal has held steady, with approximately 11-12 percent of claims decisions appealed each year, we have seen the total number of appeals increase by 35 percent from 2012 to 2015. Thirty-five percent. The current system just can’t keep up. It’s failing Veterans.

The solution is fundamental appeals reform. And I am determined to work with and press members of Congress to help us achieve that fundamental reform. I am very proud of the work done by Laura and the team from both the Board and VBA to work with VSOs on a comprehensive legislative appeals reform package.

Our proposal for reform is designed to ensure Veterans’ rights are respected. They’ll know what their options are and be able to follow each step in the process. They’ll get timely decisions and won’t be penalized for their choice of how to reach resolution in their matter or how to appeal to the Board.

That’s what we, the leaders of VA, owe these newest Veterans Law Judges we’ll soon swear in—a better appeals process for the Department to execute and, more importantly, a better process for America’s Veterans.

To the new judges—strong leadership is so integral to our ability to become a high performing organization, an organization that provides outstanding service to Veterans.

I know that our judges are attorneys who possess technical expertise in Veterans law. First let me point out that I love attorneys—my son is an attorney. Some judges may not necessarily see their role as one of a leader. Yet, a critical and indelible characteristic of a high-performing judge is strong leadership.

Leadership gives judges the ability to preside over legal proceedings with deeply respected judicial authority and to inspire others to grow and develop their potential. So, challenge yourselves to be strong leaders.

Here are a few thoughts on leadership from my years of experience in the private and public sector.

First, remember that people like to work for leaders that have a clear and consistent purpose.

Leaders must understand and enable the purpose and dreams of their employees—doing so turns a job into a profession, a calling.

Secondly, leaders must do well to do good—and they must do good to do well. This becomes a positive and virtuous cycle over time.

Third, always remember that people want to succeed. The job of the leader is to help them become successful or to be more successful. One of your jobs is to “catch” people succeeding, and to use that success to build a virtuous cycle of larger successes. Success is contagious. Encourage that cycle.

Fourth, putting people in the right jobs is one of the most important jobs of the leader. People like to do things they are good at. Leaders identify what their people do well and then put them into roles that take advantage of those strengths.

Fifth, character is the most important trait of a leader. Character entails putting the needs of the organization and others above your own. At West Point I learned to “choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong,” an excerpt of the Cadet Prayer. Leaders who live by their word can be counted on to do the unpopular thing when it is the right thing, even under the most difficult circumstances. Living this ideal is the single most memorable demonstration of leadership.

Sixth, never forget that diversity is important in any large organization. Rather than following the Golden Rule, leaders of the most effective, diverse teams follow the Platinum Rule: Treat others as they want to be treated. Great leaders learn how the people they work with want to be treated.

Seventh, an important role for all leaders is to eliminate ineffective systems and strategies and a poor institutional culture—often the biggest barriers to success for any institution. High Performance Organizations must have four components: passionate leadership, sound strategies, robust systems, and a high performance culture. Effective leaders build all four pillars.

My eighth leadership lesson is that there will always be a few people in the organization who will be either unwilling or unable to go on the journey of growth with the organization. It is the leader's job to identify them, help them recognize the tension, and help them find other careers which offer promise.

Ninth, all successful organizations must renew themselves. That’s what MyVA transformation, and appeals reform, is about. This is what differentiates successful institutions from those that fail. Training and recruiting are essential as leaders guide their organizations through transformation and renewal.

And last, I’ve found that the true test of leaders is the performance of their organizations when they are absent or after they depart. The leader’s job is to build sufficient organizational capability, effective systems, and subordinate leaders and colleagues with the right judgment and individual initiative so that your presence or absence does not significantly affect the quantity and the quality of the organization’s results.

Never forget that you are key to our commitment to making sure Veterans receive the benefits and services they have earned, the benefits and services authorized by law. Never forget the importance of your position and the importance of your leadership in the Board and the Department.

Thank you for your willingness to serve and contribute to the most satisfying mission in government. I know you will find the work hard but supremely rewarding. We are all counting on you.

Thank you for your commitment, and best wishes.