VA Health Care:
Processes to Evaluate, Implement, and Monitor Organizational Structure Changes Needed
GAO-16-803: Published: Sep 27, 2016. Publicly Released: Oct 27, 2016.
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is in the midst of its largest geographic realignment in more than 20 years. The realignment resulted in some staff redundancies—2 or more staff doing the same job, also called "double-encumbered" positions. Regional network directors told us they were frustrated with the lack of guidance from VHA's central office about how to resolve this and other challenges they faced.
Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Regional Map, Post-Realignment
Map showing VHA's realigned regions for health care service delivery.
What GAO Found
Recent internal and external reviews of Veterans Health Administration (VHA) operations have identified deficiencies in its organizational structure and recommended changes that would require significant restructuring to address, including eliminating and consolidating program offices and reducing VHA central office staff. However, VHA does not have a process that ensures recommended organizational structure changes are evaluated to determine appropriate actions and implemented. This is inconsistent with federal standards for internal control for monitoring, which state that management should remediate identified internal control deficiencies on a timely basis. GAO found instances where VHA actions in response to recent recommendations for organizational structure changes were incomplete, not documented, or not timely. For example, VHA chartered a task force to develop a detailed plan to implement selected recommendations from the independent assessment of VHA's operations required by the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014; according to VHA, the assessment cost $68 million. It found, among other things, that VHA central office programs and staff had increased dramatically in recent years, resulting in a fragmented and “silo-ed” organization without any discernible improvement in business or health outcomes. It recommended restructuring and downsizing VHA's central office. The task force of 18 senior Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and VHA officials conducted work over about 6 months, but did not produce a documented implementation plan or initiate implementation of recommendations. Without a process that documents the assessment, approval, and implementation of organizational structure changes, VHA cannot ensure that it is making appropriate changes, using resources efficiently, holding officials accountable for taking action, and maintaining documentation of decisions made.
VHA central office's monitoring of the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) realignment—a recent and significant organizational structure change—has been limited, and the office has provided little implementation guidance. In October 2015, VHA began to implement a realignment of its VISN boundaries, which involves decreasing the number of VISNs from 21 to 18 and reassigning some VA medical centers (VAMC) to different VISNs. VHA officials anticipate this process will be completed by the end of fiscal year 2018. VHA officials on the task force implementing the realignment told GAO they thought VISNs could implement the realignment independently without the need for close monitoring. VHA also did not provide guidance to address VISN and VAMC challenges that could have been anticipated, including challenges with services and budgets, double-encumbered positions (two officials in the same position in merging VISNs), and information technology. Further, VHA officials said they do not have plans to evaluate the realignment. VHA's actions are inconsistent with federal internal control standards for monitoring (management should establish monitoring activities, evaluate results, and remediate identified deficiencies) and risk assessment (management should identify, analyze, and respond to changes that could affect the system). Without adequate monitoring, including a plan for evaluating the VISN realignment, VHA cannot be certain that the changes being made are effectively addressing deficiencies; nor can it ensure lessons learned can be applied to future organizational structure changes.
Why GAO Did This Study
GAO and others have expressed concerns about VHA's management of its health care system. In response, VA initiated a new regional framework to improve internal coordination and customer service, and VHA initiated an effort to realign its VISNs.
GAO was asked to review VHA's organizational structure—the operating units, processes, and other components used to achieve agency objectives. This report examines the extent to which (1) VHA has a process for evaluating recommended organizational structure changes to determine actions needed and implementing them as appropriate; and (2) VHA monitored and provided guidance for implementing the VISN realignment. GAO reviewed VHA documents, reviewed internal and external assessments of VHA, and interviewed officials from VHA central office and all VISNs. GAO evaluated VHA's actions against relevant federal standards for internal control.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that VHA (1) develop a process to ensure that organizational structure recommendations are evaluated for implementation; and (2) evaluate the implementation of the VISN realignment to determine and correct deficiencies, and apply lessons learned to future organizational structure changes, such as possible changes to VISN staffing models. VA concurred with GAO's recommendations.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: VHA concurred with this recommendation, stating that VHA's Office of Workforce Management and Consulting (WMC) would evaluate the implementation of the VISN realignment to include the identification of deficiencies for correction, lessons learned, and potential changes to the VISN staffing models. VHA stated that as the implementation activities near completion in fiscal year 2017, WMC would evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the VISN realignment processes. In December 2016, VHA reported that WMC had begun consultations with the Office of Strategic Integration on a strategic assessment of the VHA organizational structure in the field to 1) identify and recommend to leadership optimal proposals for organization design efficiencies and 2) define and recommend analytical and implementation procedures that will avoid the challenges from previous field reorganizations. As of April 2017, VHA reported that the Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health found that lessons learned from the VISN Realignment Workgroup needed to be incorporated into the VA Modernization initiative, and directed the VHA's Office of Strategic Integration to coordinate with WMC and former members of the VISN Realignment Workgroup to determine how best to document lessons learned and apply them to future organizational structure changes. In July 2017, VHA told us that a Rapid Design and Implementation functional assessment of VHA Central Office and VISN organizations had been completed, which included a survey, interviews with central office and VISN officials, and other meetings. VHA stated its target completion date of September 2017 was unchanged, but did not provide additional detail on how the functional assessment is related to the evaluation of the VISN realignment that we recommended VHA conduct, or how lessons learned from the realignment are being incorporated into organizational structure changes such as the new functional chart VHA reported developing.
Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Health to conduct an evaluation of the implementation of the VISN realignment to determine whether deficiencies exist that need corrective actions, and apply lessons learned from the evaluation to future organizational structure changes, such as possible changes to VISN staffing models or actions to implement Commission on Care recommendations.
Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs
Comments: VHA concurred with this recommendation. In December 2016, VHA stated that its Office of Workforce Management and Consulting (WMC) had begun to develop a consistent process to ensure that organizational structure changes are evaluated and implemented appropriately. In addition, a first draft of a permanent organization approval procedure had been completed and was undergoing review for the Under Secretary for Health. In May 2017, VHA officials told us their initial work on this recommendation was paused to allow the Agency to respond to President Trump's Executive Order dated March 13, 2017, on "Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch." VHA reported that WMC's proposed process will be assessed in the context of the Executive Order. In July 2017, VHA reported that the VA Modernization Team evaluated the results from a VHA Rapid Design and Implementation functional review, which was conducted to determine where shared areas of responsibilities and redundancies exist across VHA, and developed a draft functional chart that was under review. WMC anticipated continuing work on this recommendation after the functional chart's approval, with an anticipated completion date of September 2017. We will follow-up with VHA to obtain updates on both the organizational structure changes process as well as the new functional chart for VHA.
Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Health to develop a process to ensure that organizational structure recommendations resulting from internal and external reviews of VHA are evaluated for implementation. This process should include the documentation of decisions and assigning officials or offices responsibility for ensuring that approved recommendations are implemented.
Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs