Veterans Health Administration:

Performance and Conduct Issues Involving Senior Managers at VA Medical Centers

GGD-98-92: Published: Apr 30, 1998. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) manages the performance of senior executives and deals with instances of poor performance and misconduct, focusing on the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) during fiscal years 1994 through 1996.

GAO noted that: (1) none of the 477 management triad members received a performance appraisal of less than Fully Successful during the 1994 through 1996 rating periods; (2) this is not much different from how other executive agencies rated their senior management employees during this 3-year period; (3) the network directors acknowledged in interviews, however, that the record of the performance appraisals did not capture the actual performance appraisals of all the management triad members; (4) most network directors agreed that they did not identify poor or marginal performance in the performance appraisals, because those ratings necessitate formal actions to remedy performance problems; (5) the network directors perceived those actions as time-consuming and distracting, burdensome, and unlikely to produce a desired result; (6) although network directors did not use formal means to deal with poor or marginal performers, they said they effectively managed poor performers through informal means; (7) the network directors' propensity to use informal, rather than formal, means to address performance problems is not unique to them; (8) prior studies by GAO and the Merit Systems Protection Board have shown that managers and supervisors governmentwide have avoided taking formal actions against less than satisfactory performers for some of the very same reasons cited by the network directors; (9) in its oversight capacity for federal personnel issues, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has included in its strategic plan for fiscal years 1997 through 2002 efforts to improve the capacity of managers to identify and resolve performance problems; (10) the network directors were nearly unanimous in asserting that the changes VHA recently implemented, particularly the reduction in the number of triad members for whom they were responsible, were helping them to identify and deal with poor performance; (11) most network directors did not consider misconduct to be a widespread problem among management triad officials, although they did acknowledge that instances of misconduct by employees at that level have occurred; (12) disciplinary actions that VHA took to address the misconduct created some controversy that primarily revolved around one sexual harassment case; and (13) the controversy about how VHA handled this case as well as concerns about the effectiveness of VA's zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and employment discrimination led to administrative and statutory changes.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its 2001 response to this recommendation, OPM said that its 1999 survey of SES members provided data about managerial attitudes toward performance management. GAO's review of the 1999 survey instrument confirms that managers were asked their perceptions of the performance management system. OPM also said it will do a follow-up survey of the SES in 2002, if funds are available, and compare those results to the 1999 survey results to determine if any attitudinal changes have occurred regarding performance management. In its 2002 response to this recommendation, OPM said that it has not conducted the 2002 survey of SES members and it is still finalizing the instrument. OPM said there are questions on the survey regarding performance management systems that are similar to those questions in the 1999 survey, which GAO confirmed by reviewing a draft of the 2002 survey. GAO determined that while the draft survey does contain questions relating to performance management systems, the survey is too general in scope to address this specific recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Director, OPM, should develop data to show by 2002 whether managers' perceptions of the formal performance management system improve following training and experience in proper use of the system. If perceptions improve, the Director, OPM, should advertise this information and further encourage managers to use the formal performance management system. However, if the data developed by OPM continue to show that managers perceive that the formal system is too burdensome and unlikely to produce desired results, the Director, OPM, should work with Congress to develop and test alternative approaches that may be more effective than the existing performance management system.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 30, 2000, VA's Acting Secretary issued guidance, effective immediately, on the process and procedures for handling performance and conduct problems involving senior managers. This guidance clearly shows that chiefs of staff and assistant and associate directors are covered and are considered senior managers.

    Recommendation: To avoid any potential confusion on which positions in the management triad are covered by the March 1997 policy, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should revise the policy to specifically include all chiefs of staffs who are appointed under title 38 and associate and assistant medical center directors who are at the GS-13 and GS-14 levels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 30, 2000, VA's Acting Secretary issued guidance, effective immediately, on the process and procedures for handling performance and conduct problems involving senior managers. The guidance indicates that a panel of certain management officials, including the Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration and the General Counsel, will determine whether a team should be constituted to investigate allegations of serious misconduct, such as discrimination and sexual harassment, and that the Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration will appoint members of the investigative team.

    Recommendation: The Secretary's policy on the use of administrative review boards should clearly reflect that VHA officials cannot convene such boards to investigate employment discrimination complaints made against any triad member.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs


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