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What GAO Found

About half of the almost 17,000 veterans who entered the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program in fiscal year 2003 and received employment-related services were placed in suitable jobs, one-third left the program, and most of the others are still participating. It often took veterans 6 years or more to achieve success, due in part to veterans often leaving the program temporarily. Interviews with VR&E staff and participants and administrative data GAO reviewed suggest veterans face numerous challenges that affect their ability to obtain employment, especially related to mental health conditions, working with multiple VR&E counselors over time, and civilian employers' limited understanding of military work experience.

VA has taken steps to improve VR&E performance management, workload management, and staff training, but weaknesses remain. With regard to performance management, VA has an ongoing initiative to revise its approach for measuring rehabilitation success at the individual employee, regional, and national levels. However, the new approach VA is considering for employees reflects only the number, not the rate of successful outcomes, and therefore would not provide sufficient context for understanding program success. VA has not yet developed its new approaches for assessing rehabilitation success regionally and nationally. Also, VA began surveying participants' satisfaction with the program and plans to use the results to manage performance; while VA has generally followed good survey design practices, the agency has not fully assessed the reliability of early customer satisfaction results. In terms of workload management, VA has taken steps to reduce paperwork burdens on regional offices. However, several offices still reported heavy workloads and noted that VA's formula for allocating staff among offices does not consider other staff duties affecting workloads, such as education counseling. In addition, VA has not studied the relative effectiveness and efficiency of regional offices' approaches for assigning staff to manage workloads. Finally, with respect to training, VA has addressed redundancy and most gaps in training for VR&E staff, but gaps remain in the areas of job placement assistance and workplace accommodations.

Why GAO Did This Study

Veterans with disabilities face special challenges to finding employment-- resulting, for example, from the veterans' physical or mental health, or negative attitudes or stereotypes on the part of some employers. VA's VR&E program aims to help veterans with disabilities obtain and maintain suitable employment--compatible with their disabilities--through services such as training and job search assistance. The VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 directed GAO to review the program. GAO examined (1) the outcomes for veterans seeking employment through the program, and (2) the progress VA has made in addressing critical management issues. GAO reviewed relevant laws, regulations, and guidance as well as recent studies; reviewed various program management criteria; analyzed VA administrative data on veterans who entered the program between fiscal years 2003 and 2012; interviewed staff at the VA central office and 8 regional offices; interviewed a random but nongeneralizable sample of 17 program participants; and analyzed data from a VA survey of participants.

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GAO recommends that VA reflect success rates in revised performance measures, ensure the reliability of its customer satisfaction survey results, re-visit its staff allocation formula, study staff assignments, and close certain gaps in its training for staff. In its comments, VA generally concurred with these recommendations and noted steps it plans to take to address them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs In any revised set of national and regional performance measures for the VR&E program, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to include measures of (a) the proportion of program participants successfully rehabilitated into employment, and (b) the proportion of participants who obtain other benefits from VR&E services.
Closed - Implemented
VA implemented new national performance measures for the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program on July 1, 2015. These measures include a class success rate, which is calculated by dividing the number of veterans who started the program in a particular year and achieved a successful outcome by the total number of veterans who started the program in that year. Successful outcomes include both employment achieved directly as a result of program participation, as well as other successful outcomes such as independent living and employment achieved outside of the program. Internally, VA will separately track employment outcomes and other successful outcomes.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to develop new measures of long-term employment that go beyond the minimum 60 days of post-placement monitoring that is currently required. In developing measures, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to consider the feasibility of using results from planned post-closure surveys of veterans as a data source.
Closed - Not Implemented
In December 2018, VA started collecting data from veterans who completed the VR&E program and entered employment, in order to determine their need for additional services. VA is now sending letters to veterans six months after VR&E program completion to find out their employment status and service needs. By September 2019, VA plans to use the data collected through this effort to determine whether it is necessary to extend the minimum 60-day time frame for follow-up services after VR&E program completion. In October 2019, VA reported that it had sent these letters to over 14,000 VR&E participants, and based on veterans' responses to the letters, had determined that less than 1 percent of these VR&E participants had a need for additional VR&E services. As a result, VA decided that the current 60-day time frame for tracking employment outcomes after VR&E program completion is sufficient, and that no new performance metrics related to longer-term outcomes were necessary.
Department of Veterans Affairs Consistent with generally accepted survey practices and as warranted by survey response rates, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to conduct nonresponse analysis of the results of VA's ongoing Voice of the Veteran customer satisfaction surveys.
Closed - Implemented
VA updated its contract for administration of the Voice of the Veteran survey in September 2014 to include a nonresponse bias analysis of the survey results. The contractor has completed an initial nonresponse bias analysis, which is under review by VA.
Department of Veterans Affairs In revisiting VA's formula for allocating VR&E staff among the regional offices, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to (a) assess the inclusion of factors related to regional office performance and if warranted remove them from the formula, and (b) assess the exclusion of any factor related to the number of educational counseling cases in each regional office and if warranted add such a factor.
Closed - Implemented
VA reported that its VR&E resource allocation model workgroup has completed its development of a revised model for fiscal year 2015. Regarding our recommendation that VA consider whether factors related to regional office performance should be retained, VA said the workgroup determined that these factors should be kept in the model. Officials explained that the factors related to numbers of specific outcomes in each office - such as number of job ready decisions - are important because they reflect the varying workloads across offices. Regarding our recommendation that VA consider adding a factor related to educational counseling cases, VA said the workgroup determined that such a factor should be included in the new model, because of the varying educational counseling workloads across offices. VA's FY15 model allocates 14 full-time equivalent VR&E staff to regional offices with the highest educational counseling workloads.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to collect information on the regional offices' approaches for managing their VR&E workloads, assess the advantages and disadvantages of these approaches, and use the results of this assessment to provide guidance to the offices on potential best practices or options to consider.
Closed - Implemented
In December 2014, VA conducted a survey of regional offices, asking them each to identify 2 to 3 practices they use to manage their VR&E workload that they consider best practices. VA central office assessed the results of the survey, and disseminated guidance to all regional offices in February 2015 that summarizes the top 18 recommended best practices collected through this survey. This guidance included recommended practices such as employing a start-to-finish case management approach and distributing a weekly list of the oldest cases to all counselors.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to provide additional training to all individual vocational rehabilitation counselors on job placement strategies and workplace accommodations, potentially as part of the effort to develop a competency-based training approach.
Closed - Implemented
In December 2014, VA updated its training module on job placement strategies and made it available to all new and experienced vocational rehabilitation counselors. This module covers topics such as identifying job placement opportunities and conducting job placement appointments. Also, in March 2015, VA offered a training on the Job Accommodations Network to VR&E staff nationwide. This session covered information and resources related to workplace accommodations for veterans. Finally, VA has completed an initial version of a new workplace accommodations training module for VR&E staff, which covers topics such as the process for and timing of reasonable accommodations requests.

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