The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VA employee reforms, good or not, could be road map for other agencies

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he hopes his colleagues use his legislation “as a template to look into other agencies within the federal government.” (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Civil service reform is a hardy perennial that doesn’t die, but also doesn’t bloom.

Good-government groups call for changes in reports that are read, discussed and shelved.

President Obama's repeated proposals for a Commission of Federal Public Service Reform have been ignored by Congress. He first made that call in 2011, then in each budget request since, although the White House has put no energy behind it.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) doesn’t need a commission or another report. He chairs a congressional committee. He is using that powerful perch to remake the civil service at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) one step at a time. It is an effort that has implications, some better than others, for the federal workforce generally.

Miller said he hopes his colleagues use his legislation “as a template to look into other agencies within the federal government.”

As chairman of the House Veterans Affairs' Committee, Miller led the revelations last year into the coverup of long patient wait times at veterans' facilities. Through a relentless series of hearings, he exposed dismal, sometimes scandalous VA management practices, including widespread retaliation against whistleblowers. The scandal forced out the previous secretary.

Miller deserves big props for shaking up a department that had grown lazy and corrupt, even as many veterans praised their health care. He conducted the committee’s probe in a calm, thorough, bipartisan fashion. In other hands, it might have been a screaming, partisan witch hunt.

Yet for the many positives Miller has produced, the parts of his approach affecting the department’s employees, particularly its senior executives, show why federal employee leaders are wary of what passes for civil service reform.

Last year, the House gave overwhelming bipartisan support to his legislation that would have stripped VA Senior Executive Service (SES) members of their due process rights to appeal disciplinary actions. The department's secretary would have had the power to fire at will the high-ranking civil servants. This could have led to the creation of a political spoils system, with civil servants falling at the whim of whatever party was in control.

That measure was modified before it became law, handing VA senior executives a truncated appeals system that still makes them due-process paupers.

Miller has proposed a series of VA bills that could provide a road map for a broader civil service reform effort. The measures include:

● ● H.R. 280, which authorizes the VA secretary to recoup bonuses and awards paid to those Miller's news release calls "failed employees." The secretary would issue regulations related to the repayments, and the employees could have a hearing before another agency.

H.R. 473, which would allow the VA secretary to reduce pensions of SES employees convicted of crimes that influenced work performance. It also would limit SES paid administrative leave to 14 days unless extended by the secretary and would require SES members to rotate positions within the department every five years. Top performance ratings and bonuses would be limited to
30 percent of VA senior executives.

H.R. 571, known as the Veterans Affairs Retaliation Prevention Act of 2015, would create a system for reporting claims of retaliation against VA whistleblowers and would establish mandatory minimum penalties for employees who engage in retaliation.

“I know there is an appetite in Congress to fix the VA and to hold people accountable and not reward bad behavior,” Miller said. “That’s what these bills are designed to do.”

One common factor in these bills is the sense that accountability means punishment for the bad, instead of resources for the good — a point not lost on federal employee leaders.

Said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, "The continuing stream of punitive legislation directed at the VA SES . . . will deter the recruitment and retention of well-qualified, dedicated executives."

Added J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, "The VA needs more vehicles to reward good behavior and attract talented employees, not a cudgel to silence dissenting voices."

Just as civil service reform is better done government-wide rather than one agency at a time, Max Stier, president and chief executive of the good-government Partnership for Public Service, said a more holistic approach to "the talent management system" is better than one-sided efforts.

Stier said one way to improve that system is by recognizing good workers.

“You have fewer poor performers if there is a real upside for the good performers,” he said.

While giving kudos to Miller for engaging reform, Stier said the chairman “is failing to focus on the real issues that would generate the change that he wants.”

For example, selecting better management candidates and providing them better training to assist poor performers, Stier said, “would be a huge change.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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