Gina Farrisee was a major general in the Army, so she must know something about keeping cool under fire.
That training paid off during a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing Friday.
Members of the panel wanted to know why an agency that has come under justified attack for covering up long delays in service to veterans rates all of its senior executives as “fully successful” or better.
That and the performance awards given to Senior Executive Service (SES) members in the Veterans Affairs Department were the focus of the incredulous elected officials at the Cannon House Office Building session.
Farrisee, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, was the only witness at the hearing, so no one else was around to take the congressional heat. Though for the most part the members, Republicans and Democrats alike, were polite and cordial to Farrisee, and they directed their anger at the department to her.
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he called the hearing to examine “the outlandish bonus culture at VA and the larger organizational crisis that seems to have developed from awarding performance awards to senior executives despite the fact that their performance fails to deliver on our promise to our veterans. . . .
“These performance awards went to at least 65 percent of the senior executive workforce at the department. In fact, not a single senior manager at VA, out of 470 individuals, received a less than fully successful performance review for the last fiscal year. . . . I wholeheartedly disagree with VA’s assessment of its senior staff,” Miller said.
Although VA was the target, the committee’s questions and other congressional actions have implications for the federal civil service as a whole. The scandal has so eroded trust in the agency that the House has voted for mass punishment though legislation that would ban the awards for all VA employees, including those not directly involved in patient care and those doing excellent work, for three years.
“Maybe the people who will not get a bonus,” Miller said after the hearing, “will pressure the agency to do the right thing. . . . Pressure from within will do wonders to leadership in many institutions.”
VA itself took similar action when acting secretary Sloan Gibson suspended awards for senior executives in the department’s health administration for this fiscal year.
The House, in an apparent act of vengeance, also voted to strip VA senior executives of certain appeal rights if they are fired or demoted. The Senate would provide an abbreviated due process not worthy of the name.
If Congress thinks hijacking civil service protections for senior executives and eliminating bonuses for all, no matter their performance, is good for VA, no one in any agency is safe from such bad policies. VA’s record on SES ratings and performance awards is similar to other agencies.
While expressing outrage at the VA scandal during a meeting with reporters, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said “fear” actions like these could set a “precedent of undermining the civil service system, not just the VA.”
Farrisee defended performance awards — feds hate to call them bonuses, saying they are needed to “recruit and retain the best talent, many of whom require special skills in health care, information technology, management and benefits delivery. In particular, VA requires talented senior executives to manage the complex set of facilities and programs that VA is responsible to administer. We are competing in tough labor markets for skilled personnel, both in the public and private sector.”
The Senior Executives Association (SEA), in a letter to Miller and Rep. Michael H. Michaud (Maine), the top Democrat on the committee, said “all SES pay adjustments are
based on performance,” including performance awards. With the high bar to SES status, SEA added, “it is to be expected that the overwhelming majority of Senior Executives receive ratings of at least Fully Successful; it would be surprising if they were not high performers.”
That argument doesn’t sway Republicans or Democrats on the panel, who think VA gives out performance awards almost by rote.
Most of the committee members attended the hearing and many stayed for the whole thing. That’s saying something for a Friday meeting. It also speaks to how seriously the members take the VA situation and their bipartisan approach. There was a little grandstanding but not much. To their credit, they have been tenacious in exposing the need for VA reform. To their discredit, the committee’s solutions have led the House to include employee punishments that are spiteful and potentially counter-productive.
In his opening statement, Michaud acknowledged the department’s “very extensive and diligent process” for evaluating performance.
“So, what has repeatedly gone wrong?” he asked. “Where does the system break down?”
The answer he found: “The senior-most leaders in VA are held accountable for managing the process that benefits VA, not delivering an outcome beneficial to veterans.”
That’s not good.
But the answer Congress is contemplating for dealing with VA employees is just as bad.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.