Fast Facts

Turnover in key occupations threatens VA’s ability to deliver on its mission. Specifically, about a third of VA’s workers in 2017—including many senior leaders—would be eligible to retire by 2022. Also, VA medical facilities had a vacancy rate of 11% last year, including 24,000 medical and dental jobs.

VA has worked to solve these problems, but additional efforts are needed. Our recommendations include better planning to develop the next generation of leaders and fill key positions.

VA’s management of care and disability benefits are topics on our High Risk List.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) have not fully incorporated key succession planning leading practices (see table).

Assessment of VA, VHA, and VBA Succession Planning Efforts against Key Leading Practices

Leading practice

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA)

Obtain active support and participation from leadership

Develop succession plans aligned with strategic goals

Analyze current and future workforce gaps

Identify strategies for closing workforce gaps

Monitor, evaluate, and update succession plans and strategies

Legend: ● Met ◒ Partially Met ○ Not Met

Source: GAO analysis of VA's, VHA's, and VBA's succession planning efforts. │ GAO-20-15

VA lacks a current, department-wide succession plan. According to VA officials, VA has not produced a department-wide succession plan since 2009 due to leadership turnover. VA officials said the 2009 plan does not reflect their current succession planning efforts. Establishing a succession plan would help VA identify and develop high-potential staff to meet VA's mission over the long term.

VHA's succession plan is consistent with some leading practices, but our prior work found that VHA's physician staffing data are incomplete. Also, VHA performs limited monitoring and evaluation of its plans. Additional monitoring and evaluation could help VHA assess the effectiveness of its strategies in achieving its goals.

VBA's plan includes some analysis of workforce gaps for mission-critical occupations. However, VBA's plan does not address leadership positions or fully incorporate key leading practices for mission-critical occupations, such as veterans claims examiners. Developing a succession planning process for leadership positions and fully incorporating key leading practices into its existing processes could help VBA better meet its current and future workforce needs.

VA has not updated its succession planning directive since 2003 and VA officials told us that the directive does not incorporate legal requirements put in place since then. The directive establishes requirements and responsibilities for succession planning across VA. VA officials stated that they have not updated the directive because of leadership turnover and changes in legal requirements. Updating the directive could help to ensure it reflects relevant legal requirements. In addition, we found that VA, VHA, and VBA do not follow all of the requirements outlined in the directive. Updating the directive could help to clarify and recommunicate succession planning roles and responsibilities across the department.

VA operates one of the largest health care delivery systems in the nation and provides billions of dollars in benefits and services to veterans and their families. However, VA faces serious and long-standing problems with management challenges and veterans' access to care and disability benefits. For example, as of December 2018, VA reported an overall staff vacancy rate of 11 percent at VHA medical facilities, including vacancies of more than 24,000 medical and dental positions, and around 900 human resource positions. Ensuring VA, VHA, and VBA have a pipeline of talent to fill leadership positions and mission-critical occupations is key to addressing these challenges.

The VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017 includes a provision for GAO to review succession planning policies and guidance at VA and its administrations. This report addresses the extent to which succession planning policies and procedures at VA, VHA, and VBA are consistent with key leading practices. 

GAO reviewed agency documents related to succession planning for leadership positions and mission-critical occupations, and interviewed agency officials. To identify key leading practices, GAO reviewed GAO’s past work and Office of Personnel Management guidance.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations. VA should develop a department-wide succession plan and update its succession planning directive. VHA and VBA should fully incorporate key leading practices for succession planning. VA agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should develop a department-wide succession plan for leadership and mission-critical occupations that incorporates key leading practices for succession planning. (Recommendation 1)
Open
VA concurred with this recommendation and stated that it is developing a succession plan for leadership and mission-critical occupations that will incorporate leading practices. In August 2021, VA reported that it expects to finalize its succession plan in early fiscal year 2022. When VA provides us a copy of the final plan, we will provide updated information.
Veterans Health Administration The Under Secretary for Health should incorporate key leading practices into VHA's succession planning processes, including monitoring and evaluating VHA's succession planning. (Recommendation 2)
Open
VA concurred with this recommendation and stated that VHA plans to monitor and evaluate its succession plan by developing guidance and metrics, developing a process to assess field-based succession planning actions, and incorporating metrics and evaluations of implementation strategies into its succession plan. In August 2021, VHA reported that it continues to implement these actions and expects to complete them by January 2022. When we receive VHA's updated plans and guidance, we will provide updated information.
Veterans Benefits Administration The Under Secretary for Benefits should develop a succession planning process for all leadership positions and incorporate key leading practices into VBA's succession planning for leadership positions and mission-critical occupations. These practices include aligning the plans with strategic goals, identifying strategies to close workforce gaps, and monitoring and evaluating VBA's succession planning. (Recommendation 3)
Open
VBA completed a new succession plan in November 2020. The plan is aligned with VBA's strategic goals. It also analyzes current and future workforce gaps and identifies strategies to close those gaps for VBA's mission-critical occupations and leadership positions below the Senior Executive Service (SES) level. In addition, VBA established processes for monitoring and evaluating the plan. However, VBA's analysis did not include SES leaders, which VBA says are critical for the continuity of its mission. VBA stated that it excluded SES leaders from its succession plan for two reasons: (1) VBA's role is to prepare GS-15 employees for future SES roles and (2) VA's Corporate Senior Executive Management Office (CSEMO) services VBA's SES human capital needs. Nevertheless, succession planning leading practices call for agencies to conduct succession planning for all leadership positions. To fully implement our recommendation, VBA (or VBA in coordination with VA) will need to develop succession planning processes that cover all of VBA's leadership positions, including senior executives. In response, VBA reported that they are working in collaboration with CSEMO on the SES succession planning process and that they started a pilot program to address this area in April 2021. As of August 2021, VBA reported that VBA's SES succession planning would be included in the full rollout of VA's department-wide succession plan by the end of fiscal year 2022. We will continue to monitor the agency's progress toward implementing this recommendation.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should update VA's 2003 directive on workforce and succession planning to incorporate relevant legal requirements, including Office of Personnel Management strategic human capital management regulation requirements. (Recommendation 4)
Open
VA concurred with this recommendation and stated that it is currently updating its directive to incorporate relevant legal requirements, including requirements under the Office of Personnel Management's strategic human capital management regulations. In August 2021, VA reported that it expects to finalize the new directive in early fiscal year 2022. When VA provides us a copy of the new directive, we will provide updated information.

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