VA’s carrot-and-stick plan: Raise salaries, limit appeal rights for its executives

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By Eric Yoder February 24 at 3:35 PM

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Obama administration has proposed a carrot-and-stick approach to revamping the senior executive cadre at the Department of Veterans Affairs, holding out the prospect of higher salaries while proposing further limits on executives’ rights to appeal disciplinary actions.

A proposal sent to Capitol Hill seeks to put into law an idea the department raised recently to shift its senior executives into a separate set of policies covering VA medical personnel, called Title 38. Those policies allow for appeals of discipline only through internal channels and not to an outside body such as the Merit Systems Protection Board.

[Tighter limits on appeal rights of VA execs being considered]

Under a 2014 law, senior executives at the department already have fewer appeal rights than most federal employees. They have less time to appeal discipline including firing and demotion, the discipline stands if the hearing officer does not issue a decision overturning it within 21 days, and there is no right of further appeal.

However, even under those limits, MSPB hearing officers recently overturned discipline the department sought against executives in three high-profile cases.

“This lack of deference to the Secretary’s exercise of a clear statutory prerogative has frustrated the Secretary’s efforts to remove malfeasant or neglectful executives from VA’s senior leadership corps,” the proposal states.

However, it says that broader reforms are needed for the department to compete for top talent it needs, particularly in the health-care field. A 2013 industry survey showed that chief executives of a single facility within an overall health-care system received an average salary of $393,100, compared with the top SES pay rate that year of $181,500, it says.

Nearly 30 percent of its Senior Executive Service positions are currently vacant and the VA is having trouble filling them, it says — and in addition, 70 percent of current executives are eligible to retire or will be this year.

“The VA Secretary needs greater flexibility than current authorities afford him in terms of recruiting, compensating, appraising and — where necessary — disciplining career leaders to ensure that VA can operate as a values-based high performance organization rather than a compliance-focused underperforming bureaucracy,” it says.
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Under the proposal, rather than the current single pay range used for all SES members, the executive cadre at the VA would be split into four levels, with salaries at the top reaching $235,000. It projects that about two-thirds of the roughly 350 positions would stay within current limits in which the top salary is now $185,100, however.

Pay would be set according to the “complexity of the position held; an analysis of the local labor market for similar positions in private and other Federal sector organizations; and the individual executive’s experience and performance in the position and/or in other VA assignments,” it says.

Performance would be evaluated on “outcome-oriented and business-related factors such as customer satisfaction, employee feedback, and organization deliverables.”

Jason Briefel, acting president of the Senior Executives Association, said that although the VA’s proposal has a mix of provisions, “the disciplinary component really is the central focus and the talk about pay really seems more like talk that won’t be followed up on.”

He added, “We find it especially hard to believe that after years of pillorying the senior executives at the VA that Congress and the public will support increasing their pay.”

The proposal comes as the House and Senate committees overseeing the agency are working on VA personnel legislation with a goal of enacting it this year. That could include extending limits on appeal rights department-wide.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.,) chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement that “if VA’s proposal to eliminate the MSPB from the department’s senior executive disciplinary process has any chance of getting through Congress, it needs a much stronger focus on the task at hand: instilling accountability across VA, rather than increasing pay and benefits for the department’s most senior employees.”

“The Title 38 employee disciplinary process can take up to 700-plus days, so simply reclassifying Senior Executive Service employees as Title 38 employees isn’t going to cut it. Additionally, if we are even going to consider giving the department any flexibility regarding executive pay, it must be accompanied by strict safeguards to ensure this authority is used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary,” he said.
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The House passed a bill last year to shorten the appeals process for all VA employees, although not as severely as the 2014 law does for senior executives there; the White House threatened to veto that measure. Another bill, which passed the House committee level in January, would apply to senior executives government-wide the current limits on appeals for VA senior executives.

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