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Hiring to expand veterans' services: Q&A with W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs

Interview by Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; B03

The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to hire roughly 105,000 employees in the next two years as part of the Obama administration's expansion of benefits and services for veterans. Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould talked Monday about the hiring plans and other department operations.

Q Who exactly are you looking for? Just doctors and nurses or claims folks?

We're looking for medical professionals: Doctors, nurses top our lists. Also claims processors. We're putting a big emphasis on clearing through the backlog. Obviously, in addition to new technology and better processes, we need good people to make those judgments.

How's this going to work? Besides a $12.4 million television ad campaign, are there recruitment fairs at medical schools or some other outreach?

We're airing on the Olympics; we're on all the major award shows. We think it's a brand-new way of getting out in front of folks and letting them be aware of what the VA has to offer. In addition to that, we're looking to streamline our internal processes. So when someone calls, they express an interest, they're going to find a more customer-friendly VA.

Pretend I'm a med student who's plotting my post-school plans. What would be the sales pitch?

Number one, the mission. Taking care of our veterans, taking care of the people who have protected our freedom over time. I can't think of a better synergy and overlap between a physician who wants to do something for their community and heartfelt service to veterans. The second would be leadership that gets it. Leadership that's prepared to invest in them and develop their careers over time. And the third thing I'd say is that we're growing.

Let's talk salary and benefits: Is it comparable if one goes to the VA vs. a private hospital?

Surprisingly, yes. Under Title 38 [regarding veterans' benefits], we have the capacity to pay up to $400,000 a year for a physician. . . . We're not as high-paying as the highest-paying, but we think we have very respectable compensation.

In addition, you don't have to buy insurance, and you can practice medicine anywhere in the country, as long as you have one state where you passed your certification. So it's a flexible career; it's one where you can move without having to undergo the burden of repeated exams and licensure.

One of the big concerns generally with federal hiring, but also at VA, is backlog. What guarantee can you give an applicant right now that if they apply they will know within a reasonable amount of time? What is a reasonable amount of time?

Our goal is 60 days. We're over 100 right now. This is a tremendous misalignment between our aspiration, what we think needs to be done to match the best in the private sector and the best in the private sector -- IBM, a company that can do it in 60 days. We're at 102. We have to do a lot of training.

At the end of the day, the ability to hire someone and do it well is an intensely personal management-supervisor-level decision. Am I going to get Scott Gould and hire him, and why? How do you identify what those job requirements are? That's a skill that we have to give and raise up for a lot of our managers. We have a lot of middle-level managers who have to learn how to do this in a different way.

What is being done here at VA to recruit and hire veterans? We hear from readers that it's not being done enough, but you hear from civilians who say they're being given too much preference.

And what's that balance, yes. As you know, the president has announced the veterans hiring initiative. That entire initiative is moving forward under the premise, especially here at VA, that veterans do better at serving veterans than non-veterans.

We want a mix of veterans present in that VA workforce that have had the common experience, that have served their country in that way. That doesn't mean that non-veterans can't do that just as well, but there is a sense that, in the veteran community -- that experiences at a young age twice the unemployment rate as some in our economy -- that this is something that the country can and should do as part of an economic plan to help them.

Have you ever collected VA benefits or gone to a VA medical center yourself?

I got my master's and doctoral degrees paid for by the VA. And my dad was given care in a VA hospital for 11 years. He entered an Alzheimer's center when he was in his late 50s and spent 11 years there until his death.

You're married to Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy. What's it like being one of Washington's power couples, at least in title and rank?

Thank you for that qualifier. We tend to ignore that as much as possible. It's wonderful from a personal side to see her fulfilled and doing what she's prepared all her life to do. It's just a wonderful thing. I think she feels the same way about me. Very early in the morning, two cars pull up to the house, and we each say our goodbyes and make sure the lunchboxes are packed and the kids are out the door.

We tend to come home [about] 7 or 8 at night. Both my secretary and [Defense] Secretary [Robert M.] Gates have been great about trying to approach this in a way that allows us to spend time with our family and still get the job done.

How do you defrag from it all? Do you bring work home and talk about it, or do you try to find something other than work to talk about it?

You know, probably one of the most interesting conversations in my day is right after dinner, when the kids are all assigned to get their homework done, the TV is off and I get about 20 minutes with Michele over dessert and coffee. We talk about the day's events, and about leadership and about politics, and it's a sense of kind of sharing how to navigate in Washington and how to do good and how to fulfill your dream with a partner who each day is learning as much as I am in my job about how to do that.

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