Federal law prohibits discrimination against federal employees on the basis of race, among other things. We reviewed the Department of Veterans Affairs' efforts to ensure equitable treatment of its employees.
VA's workforce is diverse but there are disparities in pay and promotions for some racial, ethnic, and gender groups, and VA could better address discrimination. While VA tracks complaints of alleged racial discrimination, it hasn't fully analyzed other data to understand the potential prevalence of discrimination throughout the agency.
We recommended that VA plan for and analyze data on reported discrimination to address potential trends.
What GAO Found
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a diverse workforce, but disparities exist in career outcomes. GAO found that VA had higher representation of certain historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups from fiscal years 2017 to 2021 than the national civilian labor force from 2014 to 2018 (the most recent data available). However, within VA's workforce, GAO estimated that from 2000 to 2021, certain of these groups hired into similar occupations had lower pay and attained fewer promotions than White men, on average (see figure).
Estimated Differences in Promotions of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) workers Hired into Similar Jobs 10 years after Starting Employment, by Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, Fiscal Years 2000-2021 (Percent Difference Relative to White Men)
VA tracks complaints of alleged racial discrimination and harassment, but has not fully analyzed other data to understand potential prevalence. While VA has a goal to develop a dashboard to assess data on workplace climate, it has not planned for or conducted this analysis. Until doing so, VA is not best positioned to identify and address trends in potential discrimination and harassment.
The continued misalignment of its equal employment opportunity (EEO) program with a federal directive hinders VA's ability to prevent and address employment discrimination. In 2020, GAO recommended that VA address these misalignment issues by ensuring VA's EEO director is not responsible for personnel functions and completing VA's planned realignment of its EEO Program Managers. As of April 2023, VA has not taken action to fully implement these recommendations.
While VA has several programs that can receive complaints from veterans who feel they have been discriminated against in VA programs, it does not have a comprehensive policy to ensure complaints are addressed. This created several issues, such as (1) inconsistent processing of complaints; (2) lack of communication with veterans; (3) lack of coordination across the offices receiving complaints; and (4) lack of data on complaints. As a result, VA may not have visibility into whether veterans' complaints have been fully addressed, or the potential extent of discrimination against veterans in VA programs.
Why GAO Did This Study
Federal law prohibits employment discrimination against federal employees and discrimination in federal programs on the basis of race, among other things. GAO was asked to review VA's efforts to ensure equitable treatment of its employees and veterans receiving its services or participating in its programs.
This report examines (1) what disparities, if any, exist between VA employees from different racial and ethnic groups; (2) how VA tracks potential racial discrimination against its employees; (3) the extent to which VA has practices to prevent and address employment discrimination; and (4) how VA assesses and addresses issues related to the treatment of veterans based on race in VA programs. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, and VA policies and documents; analyzed employee personnel data, survey data, and data on EEO complaints; held discussion groups with VA employees; and interviewed VA officials, representatives from VA's unions, employee affinity groups, and veterans service organizations.
GAO continues to believe its prior recommendations on the structure of VA's EEO program have merit. GAO is making eight new recommendations, including that VA plan for and analyze data on reported discrimination and harassment and establish a comprehensive policy for addressing veterans' complaints. VA agreed with 7 recommendations and neither agreed nor disagreed with 1 to regularly conduct barrier analyses, which GAO continues to believe is warranted.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Veterans Affairs||The Secretary of VA should finalize the I-DEA dashboard and use the data in the dashboard to regularly conduct trend analysis of internal and other data on perceived experiences of discrimination. Such analyses should pinpoint problematic locations, guide preventive efforts, and incorporate available data from VA's All Employee Survey; EEO and Harassment Prevention Program data; and information from other internal and external data collection efforts and assess trends down to the facility level. (Recommendation 1)|
|Department of Veterans Affairs||The Secretary of VA should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion assesses and addresses any potential risks to the independence of the agency's EEO program, including the Harassment Prevention Program. (Recommendation 2)|
|Department of Veterans Affairs||The Secretary of VA should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion assesses the factors that increase the time it takes to implement the terms of final decisions in cases where discrimination is found and develops a plan to ensure these final decisions are implemented in a timely manner. (Recommendation 3)|
|Department of Veterans Affairs||The Secretary of VA should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion develops a strategic workforce plan that incorporates internal stakeholder feedback in order to meet its programmatic functions and goals. (Recommendation 4)|
|Department of Veterans Affairs||The Secretary of VA should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion regularly conducts analyses of VA workforce data to identify barriers to employment in the VA workforce; develop action plans for all identified barriers; and annually report on progress on implementing action plans. (Recommendation 5)|
|Department of Veterans Affairs||The Secretary of VA should ensure that the Assistant Secretary for Human Resources & Administration/Operations, Security and Preparedness collects and analyzes information on facilities' hiring and promotion selection panel processes and addresses any findings from this analysis. This should include action plans with timeframes to address any deficiencies identified and sharing best practices. (Recommendation 6)|
|Department of Veterans Affairs||The Secretary of VA should work with the relevant offices to establish a comprehensive policy for addressing veterans' complaints of discrimination while accessing VA services or participating in VA programs. This policy should include (a) a standardized process for handling veteran complaints of discrimination from intake to final resolution; (b) requirements for communicating with veterans about the status of their complaints; (c) a process for coordinating related efforts across the agency; and (d) a centralized process and requirements for collecting comprehensive data on veterans' complaints, including their resolution. (Recommendation 7)|
|Department of Veterans Affairs||The Secretary of VA should establish a communication strategy to promote veteran awareness of the External Complaint Program and other avenues for filing discrimination complaints. (Recommendation 8)|