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Even With Check in Hand, GI Benefits Elusive

By Ed O'Keefe
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Department of Veterans Affairs' problems with the Post-9/11 GI Bill's benefits seem to linger, no matter what the government does.

Tens of thousands of veterans, active-duty servicemembers and their dependents have been waiting for promised higher-education benefits from VA since fall classes began last month. The agency attempted to address the backlog by granting $3,000 in emergency checks, but that has just created a new problem.

A reader alerted your (substitute) Diarist that her husband's bank had placed a five-day hold on his check, out of concern about potential fraud. She was worried that other banks might do the same to other participants.

They did, according to VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts. It turns out that VA was hustling so to get checks in the right hands that officials began distributing benefits checks that had been filled out by hand. Not surprisingly, that sent up alarm bells at banks.

VA contacted banks, university officials and other program participants over the weekend to alert them. Concerned bank employees can call VA at 800-827-2166 to confirm a check's amount and whether it was previously cashed. (Those with the checks might want to write that phone number down, too, just in case there's a question at the bank.)

The department has distributed roughly $70 million in emergency checks since the payments began Friday, Roberts said. Roughly 30,000 of the 64,000 students enrolled in the Post 9/11 GI Bill are still awaiting payment. VA is authorizing payment for about 3,000 students per day.

New Performance Measures

The new fiscal year has just started, but government bean counters are already preparing for fiscal 2011. Determined to get the full bang for the taxpayer buck, the Office of Management and Budget will release new performance guidelines Wednesday to collect deeper evaluations of federal offices and programs.

The new Program Evaluation Initiative is voluntary but will help agencies make "evidence-based policy decisions" about what's working and what needs improvement, White House Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients said in an interview.

"This administration is very committed to delivering value, and that means we should be investing in programs that work, and programs that aren't working we either need to fix or we need to terminate them," Zients said.

"We're working to create a system that's actually used by senior decision-makers," he added, noting that it will enhance and not replace the Bush administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool, which was also developed to track performance.

Participating agencies will have to post program evaluations online as part of the administration's ongoing openness and transparency efforts. The OMB will also bring together agency leaders to share good ideas on how to perform evaluations. But perhaps most importantly, agency leaders will get extra funding to perform deeper program evaluations that produce proof of their effectiveness.

"It's that kind of more in-depth, rigorous evaluation that holds the best promise for improving program performance and telling you where best to invest your dollars," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"Assuming that the administration and Congress make some additional resources available, I think that those investments will pay for themselves many times over," he said.

The administration also hopes the new plans convince agency leaders to think more about a program's performance and effectiveness before they prepare budgets, instead of afterward.

"This is forward-leaning, understanding what works and what doesn't work," Zients said. "It's not a retrospective justification. Instead, it's the right way to be thinking about how we invest our scarce resources."

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, applauded the administration's efforts, but cautioned that the OMB will have to convince managers that the guidelines will actually help them succeed.

"Until we can get to the point where managers view this as something that helps them do their job better, we're not going to achieve what we need," Stier said.

Zients said that shouldn't be an issue.

"Everyone's interests are aligned. We want to understand what's the best steward of the taxpayer dollars," he said.

EEOC Employees Can Breathe Easy

Loyal Diary readers will recall Joe Davidson's April column about air-quality concerns at the new M Street NE headquarters of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hundreds of employees complained then of headaches, dizziness, coughing and respiratory issues. Air-quality tests later revealed high levels of formaldehyde and carbon dioxide. But tests conducted over the summer confirm that the building's air quality is now acceptable, according to a memo sent Monday to staffers by the EEOC's acting chairman, Stuart J. Ishimaru.

The agency will also offer a voluntary health survey to employees who may still have concerns, the memo said.

Joe Davidson is away. He will resume writing this column when he returns. Contact Federal Diary at federaldiary@washpost.com, and read Ed O'Keefe's blog, the Federal Eye, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/federaleye.

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