The Business of Government Hour


About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Joseph Thompson interview

Monday, November 29th, 1999 - 20:00
Joseph Thompson
Radio show date: 
Tue, 04/25/2000
Intro text: 
Customer focus/Case management; Missions and Programs; Collaboration: Networks and Partnerships ...

Customer focus/Case management; Missions and Programs; Collaboration: Networks and Partnerships

Complete transcript: 

Arlington, Virginia

Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Mr. Lawrence: Good evening, and welcome to the Business of Government Hour, conversations with government leaders. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and a co-chair of The PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for The Business of Government. The endowment was created in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to approving government effectiveness. To find out more about the endowment and our research, visit us on the web at

The Business of Government Hour focuses on outstanding government executives who are changing the way government does business. Our special guest tonight is Joe Thompson, Undersecretary for Benefits for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Welcome, Joe.

Mr. Thompson: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mr. Lawrence: Joining us in our conversation is another PricewaterhouseCoopers partner, Greg Greben. Hi, Greg.

Mr. Greben: Hello. Thank you.

Mr. Lawrence: In this first segment, Joe, we would like to talk about your career in VBA. VBA administers some of the most well-known federal programs. Could you tell us about them?

Mr. Thompson: Our largest program, both in terms of the number of veterans who participate in it and the amount of money we spend, is a compensation program. Those are the benefits that we pay to veterans who were hurt in service.

We also have a pension program which is designed to help veterans who have fallen on hard times, both financially and also in terms of their health. We have a home-loan-guarantee program where we provide enough of a backing for a veteran to buy a home without a down payment. We issued our 17 millionth home loan this past year.

We have vocational rehabilitation, which is designed to both educate and help veterans find employment when the veterans are seriously disabled from service, and then we run the nation's fourth-largest life insurance program. Between the coverage we provide to men and women in service and the coverage we provide to veterans, it runs in the neighborhood of $600 billion total coverage.

Mr. Lawrence: Joe, your career at the Veterans Benefit Administration began some 25 year ago. Can you tell us a little bit about your career with VA?

Mr. Thompson: I began as a claims examiner in New York City and from there came down to Washington, a very interesting experience for me about 20 years ago, actually in 1977, and I worked on staff in headquarters, first as a procedure writer. I got to learn the nuances of trying to write for a large audience and try to make it understandable in the shortest amount of time possible. I then went on the staff of one of our line operations that was in VA headquarters.

From there I went to the Philadelphia Regional Office and Insurance Center as an assistant director, and it was a great experience for me because we got to participate and be involved in a lot of projects; it's VBA's largest field office. We had a lot of opportunity to interact with other agencies, to interact with private-sector concerns, so it was a good learning and good experience for me.

After that I became the director of the New York Regional office located in Manhattan, and from there I came into this job.

Mr. Lawrence: What are some of the biggest changes you've seen at the VA during this time?

Mr. Thompson: Well, not just VA but government in general, I would say, the need for speed. The agency that I came to work for 25 years ago moved at a slower pace, as I think is probably true for just about any organization that's been in business that long, just to adapt to the changing conditions that you find yourself in, the changing technologies. So there really is an emphasis on doing things quickly that I don't think was present, at least to that extent, when I began my career.

And I think the changing expectations of the people we deal with, the changing stakeholder concerns, have driven our system considerably in certain directions. Whereas veterans of an earlier age might have accepted a government's decision, the VA's decision, on their claims and those kinds of things, we find that it is much more likely to be challenged. I think, again, that's a reflection of broader societal changes as well.

So I think that the agency is changing fundamentally. We are further away from a major conflict like Vietnam. We're a quarter of a century away from that now, and so the conditions that we deal with are not the traditional battlefield-type disabilities that you might normally see. They are more likely to arise to exposure to environmental hazards. Agent Orange is a good example of that, some of the undiagnosed illnesses from the Gulf War.

So the type of business that we see coming into the agency is different. The individuals, I think, are more demanding as they well should be, and I think we have an obligation to be a lot faster at what we do.

Mr. Lawrence: How about changes in management style and approaches during the same period of time?

Mr. Thompson: Well, I would say historically VA is a very conservative organization. We are command-and-control oriented and approach things typically in an assembly line-type fashion. That's the way we looked at most of our business processes. We have tried to open that up to become more participative, to engage employees in the business of making the business better, and to change the business processes fundamentally to make them both more responsive to the veterans that come to us for help and to our own employees make it more rewarding for them and a more rewarding environment to work in.

Mr. Lawrence: What drew you to a career in public service?

Mr. Thompson: Well, initially they were those that would hire me. I did not plan on making a career of government service, but I had just finished school under the GI bill. I had a wife and a young son at home and I needed the money, so I took the federal service exam and came to work for the VA.

And after I was there a bit, I found that I really enjoyed it. The mission itself to me is very compelling. The people that you get an opportunity to help are recognized as heroes by this country, so the work itself, the end product of the work, I find very rewarding.

I also found that in government service you often times are given enormous responsibilities at a very early stage of your career which in my case was true. I was supervising a staff of approximately 70 people in the first year I was there, knowing maybe one page more in the manual than they did in terms of the business we were engaged in. But I found it very challenging. I found it very stimulating. I found it very rewarding, and I've spent the last 25 years trying to do that.

Mr. Lawrence: Are you concerned about the VA's ability to attract young people today?

Mr. Thompson: Yes, I am. Yes, I am. We're in a competition with every other agency and government with most of the private sector for the same folks graduating from college today. The government salary is not as competitive in many markets around the United States, and we have a presence in every state so in some locales we are not that competitive in terms of the economics. What we do find as a competitive advantage is the mission, that if we can get people engaged in the business for a little while they will find the job itself very rewarding.

So that's our long suit but our short suit is that the economics and maybe government service in general is not seen favorably by a lot of young people, and I think that that tends making the job a bit more difficult trying to get in good folks.

Mr. Lawrence: You've really grown up in the VBA organization. I'm wondering what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of the Undersecretary coming from within the organization?

Mr. Thompson: The advantage is that you do know the business. You do know most of the personalities if you spend any time in there. So you should have a pretty clear idea about what needs to be done and who you can get to help your doing that. The disadvantages are that you may not know what you think you know. Your ideas may have been so shaped by your experience in the organization that it may just be wrong.

I think that there are advantages to coming from the inside in that you can get up to speed very quickly, but I think there are disadvantages as well, that you can be overbought into the status quo and not see the need for change.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, how should organizations make the decision to hire from within or go outside?

Mr. Thompson: I would utilize the Dallas Cowboys philosophy. When they drafted football players they always said they took the best athlete. I would take whoever you thought had the best skills and the most potential, be they insiders or outsiders, and try to shore up their weaknesses at the next level of the organization.

If they are an insider, it would probably help to have some people from the outside coming in and working along with them. If they are an outsider, I think having a good, knowledgeable person who has worked inside the organization is a great asset.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, it's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of the Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Joe Thompson, Undersecretary for Benefits for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and joining me is Greg Greben, also a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Well, Joe, in this segment we would like to talk about reinvention at VBA. You began in New York City, so perhaps you could go back and spend some time. Tell us about your experience, what it was like when you were there and what changes you made.

Mr. Thompson: Well I had an interesting experience, in that I grew up in New York, I'm a veteran, and I happen to have filed claims with that office many years earlier. I also began my career there as a rank-and-file worker, and now I came back as the director.

In looking at the same process that we had in place, I found it frustrating from all three perspectives, that it didn't satisfy veterans and it made both rank-and-file employees and managers of the process very frustrated that, again, it was very much command and control.

It was an assembly line-type process. We had up to 12 to 14 people handling each claim. The people that spoke to veterans when they called in or visited the office to find out what was going on with their claims actually had nothing to do with the actual processing of the claim, so they often were in the dark themselves. So you had this business process that took too long, often came to the wrong conclusion, and pretty much didn't satisfy anyone in the process.

So we set about trying to change that. We said if you had a blank sheet of paper and you could draw any process you wanted onto it what would you do if you were designing this from scratch? So that's what we had done in our reinvention activities. We consolidated 17 jobs down to 3. We took 24 hand-off process down to about 7 or 8.

We merged the public contact jobs with the claims-processing jobs so the person speaking to the veteran had intimate knowledge of what was going on in the claim, and we put in a set of balanced measures to make sure that we didn't overfocus on one area.

Instead of just looking at how quickly things were going, we looked at the speed, the accuracy with which we made decisions, how much it was costing us to make those decisions, the veteran's satisfaction with the process, and how our own employees were doing in five equal measures in what we called our balanced score card.

Mr. Lawrence: What are you most proud of from that experience?

Mr. Thompson: I think the single thing I'm most proud of is the focus on meeting veterans' expectations and needs. Changing the focus of the organization from being so consumed with internal processes to one that cared about what veterans thought, what was going on, and not just cared about it but did something about it. You had a means of determining what they thought about it, and you had a means of changing the system once you found out what you had in place wasn't working.

Mr. Greben: Joe, building on your New York experience, in 1997 you were appointed to your current position as Undersecretary for Benefits. What changes did you most want to make in the larger organization?

Mr. Thompson: I think what I mentioned about the thing I'm most proud of in the regional office, which is a focus on veterans, is a similar issue I saw with the larger organization, that we had become consumed with our own internal concerns, and the organization. I hate to use the term "low morale," but for want of a better term I think I will use that one. It had been severely criticized by all of the stakeholders in the process.

I think many people had come to the conclusion that VBA was incapable of doing the right thing or changing itself fundamentally. So I think just trying to get a sense in the organization, a belief that we could do the right thing by veterans, we could bring about fundamental change, that we could get the support of stakeholders was an important barrier to cross, and it isn't one you do overnight. It's something that has taken place and continues to do so, but I think there is a growing belief that we're on the right track, we're doing the right things. It's an expansion of many things we did in New York.

We are, in fact, implementing business-process reengineering or reinvention in every regional office. We prototyped six last year. We have nine going up live this month. We'll have 41 out of 57 done by the end of this year, and it's a fundamental reworking of how they do business in regional offices.

It's not a small change. You literally train virtually every employee in new operations. You have to put in IT systems. You have to change their telephones and communication structure, so it's a big change.

Mr. Lawrence: And how is VBA serving the veterans? You've described a lot of processes. What are their responses?

Mr. Thompson: We're seeing small but steadily increasing indicators telling us we're on the right track. A slight increase in customer satisfaction, probably more importantly is an improvement, and I think what is a veteran's ultimate statement of dissatisfaction, which is an appeal of the issue that's been decided, we're seeing significant declines in our appellate work.

We have really focused on trying to make good decisions up front and be quite clear in explaining them to veterans and giving them the opportunity before we go into the formal appellate proceedings to explain their position, and then if we can make changes we do that. So we're starting to see some very positive signs showing that we're on the right track and that veterans are agreeing with it.

Mr. Greben: You've implemented a balanced score card in VBA. Can you tell us about the balanced score card?

Mr. Thompson: For each of our business lines for compensation, pension, education, we have a balanced score card, and in those score cards there are five measures for each program, speed, accuracy, unit cost, customer satisfaction, employee development and satisfaction. There are multiple measures within each of those categories anywhere from two to four or five. We assign a minimum value. If you go below that, you get no credit for what you achieved.

And then we have strategic goals. We have annual goals and strategic goals that we shoot for. Depending on how well you do in a particular indicator, you get points assigned. You can have a maximum of 100 points on each of these score cards.

Now, the best part about this is that we have this on our Intranet site. Every employee can go in and look at their score card for their organization. They can compare it with their network, and they can compare it nationwide. They can look at other business lines.

It's a very, very open system that is beginning to build the basis under which we want to run the organization which is solid data that people understand and can make national decisions on.

Mr. Lawrence: What impact is the score card having currently on the organization?

Mr. Thompson: It's changing behavior fundamentally. Traditionally, we have tended to focus on single measures, typically speed. We would say timeliness is our key goal, and we would sacrifice accuracy and veterans' satisfaction just to hit a speed goal.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, great. It's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of the Business of Government Hour and our conversation with Joe Thompson. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Joe Thompson, Undersecretary for Benefits for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and joining me is Greg Greben, also a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Mr. Greben: Joe, finishing up on the balanced score card, why is it important to the VA?

Mr. Thompson: I think that the real strength of the balanced score card is that it balances internal measures. It makes you not sacrifice one measure for another, so you really have to be a good manager. You need to concern yourself with how much things cost and how long they are taking and what their impact is on the customers, for example.

It also makes you balance internal concerns with external concerns. It isn't just what you think inside your organization that's important; also, the outside world has a say in how well you're doing. So I think that it brings a perspective that traditionally has been lacking inside VA, at least; so for that it changes behavior fundamentally.

Mr. Lawrence: It's always been my impression, Joe, that the Department of Defense and the old Veterans Administration didn't work very closely together. Can you tell us if that has changed?

Mr. Thompson: That is changing, again, very fundamentally. We actually are beginning our relationship with service members in the first week of their enlistment. We work with the Defense Manpower Data Center, and we know when a veteran has enlisted or when a service member has enlisted because they are our customers, most likely. They have life insurance with us, and they probably are participating in the Montgomery GI bill. It's in the high nineties for those two programs. So we contact them at that point and keep them apprised through their military service about what benefits they are entitled to and what kind of help we can provide.

Even more interestingly, on the far end of the experience, when they are ready to get out of the service we have a pre-discharge program now where we work at defense installations, typically those that have the most separations each year. And we provide not only counseling and help with buying a home, going to school, finding a job when they get separated, but if they have disabilities, we actually rate or evaluate their disabilities before they get separated. They will know what they are entitled to, and it may provide them health-care coverage and vocational rehabilitation.

So it's something this nation has never done, which is to treat military service and veterans' affairs as a continuum of the same process. So we're very pleased with that. This has been built up over the last year, and my expectation is that it will continue to grow.

Mr. Lawrence: We were just talking about different departments working together. Can you tell us how the Veterans Health Administration and VBA are working together?

Mr. Thompson: You're asking me if we are no longer divided by a common mission? We are working very closely with our counterparts in the Health Care Administration. Obviously, veterans that come to us don't see us as two separate parts of the same agency. They see VA, whether they are in the hospital or regional office or any other part of the organization.

Now, we have worked extraordinarily closely with them over the last year. We have linkages in the exams that they provide. We have important IT linkages that are being created, so I think that we are really building the basis for making a seamless system, what we call one VA.

When veterans come in they don't need to commit our organizational chart to memory in order to find their way through the system. They know they are dealing with a single entity.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, how about the employees of VBA? What are you doing differently today than in the past in terms of management of employees?

Mr. Thompson: As I mentioned before, we are in a great struggle with all other organizations to attract and retain the best employees possible. They are our key resource. You can knock the buildings down and immobilize the computer systems. This is the only thing you really need to keep standing is your employee work force.

We've devoted an extraordinary amount of our available resources to developing training systems, again, over the last 18 months to two years. We had no centralized training. This was literally done at every location somewhat differently from every other location. So we've spent about 18 months building up excellent, computer-based instruction. We spent time bringing them into our training academy in Baltimore.

We have nationwide satellite hookups to do training. I speak to all employees once a month. I go on satellite and have the opportunity to tell them what's going on in VBA, where we're headed, why we are doing certain things, take questions from them, sometimes that make you squirm while you're on camera. So we're really trying to build up the strength of the employee work force.

We have just negotiated an agreement with our two largest unions, AFGE and NFFE, on certification, which means that we will certify employees' skills before they are promoted. It also puts a heavy training burden on us to make sure we've given them the opportunity to do that. We have the Intranet sites that provide them all kinds of information about what's going on in the agency.

And I think one thing that will come into play this year that will have great significance for employees is we're developing what is actually going to be a score-card measure, a means of determining their skill levels and what types of training they need on an individual-employee basis that will in effect create an IDP, an individual development program, for every employee in VBA. So they will know, depending on the career track they want to pursue, what training they need and what experiences they need to get, and we'll know as well what gaps we have in our own collective training needs in the organization. So this is employees themselves are going to be a key focus of what we do.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, let me just follow up real quick. Are you worried about the average tenure of the employees? Statistics show that in the federal government the average employee is getting older. How is that playing out at VBA?

Mr. Thompson: That's a major issue for us. We are a Vietnam-era, baby-boom generation. VA does hire based on war-time era, so if you do the math age 55 and 30 years of service, you will find a very large number of key decision-makers and senior managers in VBA are either eligible or will shortly be eligible, so we're pushing succession planning. We are trying to hire the next generation of VA employees and bring them in. That is a concern of mine, though.

Mr. Lawrence: Veterans and veterans' service organizations are quite vocal. They make their wishes and views well known. How have you reached out to consult with them on present VBA and the future of VBA?

Mr. Thompson: We work very, very closely with the veterans' service organizations. Once a month we have the largest organizations in, and we sit down and have informal discussions. Once a quarter we meet with all of them and have a much longer session, going into great detail about all of the programs. We also attend virtually all of the veterans events that they sponsor every year, their own conventions, their own training sessions. We do a lot of the training for them as well.

We are also working in partnership with them. We have asked them to become more integral to the front end of our process. Traditionally, they file claims and mail them into us, and then we take it from there. We are asking them to get engaged in actually doing a lot of the up-front claims work and giving us a more finished product, and we're working with the national organizations on that right now, and we have begun that already. We have begun to implement that, so we have a very good, very productive, and very close relationship with the service organizations.

Mr. Lawrence: You described earlier a lot of the business process reengineering that took place, and we believe that VBA was one of the early leaders in government to adopt this. I'm wondering if you could reflect on this experience and talk about its strengths and weaknesses.

Mr. Thompson: The strength of the system and our business process reengineering was as I described in the New York Regional Office, where you collapsed the assembly line. You case-managed individual veterans' claims. They had a good link into the agency. They had better explanations of what was going on. So it drives satisfaction with the process up and actually makes the process itself more efficient.

The down side is that that's an enormous investment for any organization to go through, to retrain virtually all of your employees, to invest in different types of technology and bring them into play because you have different needs when you reorganize.

It really does get to be a major issue, both in terms of resources and time, and you need patience because the other thing you need to understand is that you're asking people to change often times long-held believes about what they should do on the job and how they should do it.

So the whole process of changing the organization's culture does take time. So I always counsel folks when they ask me about this, you need to be very persistent and very patient and stay actively engaged in it through the whole process.

Mr. Lawrence: Technology has become increasingly important to the success of government agencies. Can you tell us what role technology has been playing at VBA and is it improving customer service?

Mr. Thompson: It's beginning to. We have a mix of legacy systems and modern platforms that are woven together. It's not satisfactory at this time. I think we're making some progress, but some of our systems literally date back to the '60s, and they are coupled with Windows and NT and all of the modern platforms. My concern is that not only is that a complex IT system to manage; it's also very difficult for employees to find and fight their way through it and go on from system to system.

Mr. Lawrence: Great. And it's time for a break. We'll be right back for more of the Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation has been with Joe Thompson, Undersecretary for Benefits in the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and joining me has been Greg Greben.

Mr. Greben: Joe, playing on the technology theme from earlier, can you tell us some more about the role of technology in VBA?

Mr. Thompson: Well, it has played an enormous role for many years, and I don't see that role declining in any way. We're engaged in a number of things that I think are very interesting. We have an imaging project. We are going to replace veterans claims files with image documents. Ultimately, we'll get electronic data from DoD to replace that as well, but right now we maintain over two million cubic feet of paper.

Mr. Lawrence: What does that fill? How big is two million?

Mr. Thompson: I don't know. Well, it runs to 20-something-million claims files that have 150 to 200 pages in them. The difficulty is that in order to make decisions on any aspect of the veteran's claim you have to get your hands on that paper which greatly limitations your opportunities to do a better job. So by imaging them we will have the opportunity to change who does the work, when they do it, and where they do it and even how they do it.

So we have a very interesting imaging project on the horizon. We're testing it out now. We expect to export it to several locations this year and grow it out even more next year. We are using data warehousing tremendously. We got that up and running last year.

We are starting to build enormous volumes of information on the functional nature of our work and who is it that comes to us for help. This is information we traditionally have not had in the past or we have had to cobble together from many different sources, so we're finding that the data warehouse has tremendous implications for us.

Just the whole scope of technology now, it is so easy to develop certain systems we're really finding that there is going to be an enormous payoff for being able to leverage that. By the end of this year, veterans will be able to file applications for benefits on line with us. They will be able to update their own records and certain programs with us. So we see this as really being the wave of the future.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, if it's hard to attract employees in general, it's even harder to attract technology-enabled employees. How is the VBA doing in those regards?

Mr. Thompson: Traditionally, we have hired and kept COBOL programmers for many years on the payrolls. Obviously, that strategy is not going to work in the future. What we are seeing is that we can maintain a small corps of trained and knowledgeable employees in IT, but we are doing an awful a lot of contracting out of that work. It's too expensive and too difficult to maintain the skills you need in-house, so we're really looking to the outside world for help in many areas.

Mr. Lawrence: Any other comments regarding e-commerce playing other roles at VBA?

Mr. Thompson: Again, we expect that much of the paper that traditionally comes to VA, and not just in their claims files but even things that are filed by the people we do business with routinely such as schools, the GI bill education program, or mortgage companies for the home-loan program, that most of that will be replaced over the next few years, that the days of mailing paper to the VA are drawing to a close.

Mr. Lawrence: So much of what you described is paper process that you can easily imagine doing electronically now. In 10 to 15 years how many employees do you think VBA will have?

Mr. Thompson: We will have, my guess is, far fewer than we have today. I don't know what the number is because our projections are based more on what laws are written or what conflicts we are likely to be in than even advances in technology. If Congress changes a compensation law in a fundamental way, either to make it much more difficult to process or things are much easier, it has an enormous ripple effect on the size of the work force. But my estimation is we will be considerably smaller by at least a third, perhaps more than that.

Mr. Lawrence: One of the interesting trends in government is the increased use of public-private partnerships. Can you tell us what types of partnerships have developed at VBA and if you see these partnerships increasing in the future?

Mr. Thompson: Absolutely. We are working very closely with key segments of our stakeholders on partnering to do a better job to help veterans out. For example, our home-loan business, within the next two years about 90 percent of all home loans will be originated and guaranteed without any VA involvement.

Traditionally, you came to us, we gave you a certificate of eligibility, we assigned the appraiser, we underwrote the loan, and then we issued a guarantee at the end. All of that will be automated and will be in the hands of the mortgage community, and our job then becomes oversight to make sure that they are doing the best job possible.

The same thing with education. Schools traditionally send us information, and we enter enough of that in our computer systems to issue the veteran a payment. By 2002 our goal is to have 90 percent of that done automatically by the schools on a pass through that comes into our computer systems, and we maintain oversight responsibilities.

Our insurance program, up until the '60s was totally in house. Since 1966 we have done that in partnership with the Prudential Insurance Company. They actually issue the policies, and we oversee their running of the programs both for service members and recently discharged veterans.

And as I mentioned before, in our compensation and pension program we are asking veteran service organizations to provide a lot of the up-front information on claims, things that they traditionally have not done in the past that will make it easier and faster for us to provide good service. So partnerships are a key strategy for us in terms of how we see our organization proceeding in the future.

Mr. Lawrence: We have just talked about an awful a lot of change, doing it with fewer people and doing things electronically. What advice are you going to people who you are mentoring, the future leaders of VBA, in terms of the types of skills that they will need? Is it more technical, less technical? What will those managers and leaders need?

Mr. Thompson: I think you certainly need a greater awareness of technical capabilities and possibilities. I don't know that you need to be a supertechnician yourself, but I think you need to understand at least what's available to you in terms of technology. But I always counsel them the same thing. We're in the people business, and if you've got to learn one skill you need to learn about human beings and how to treat them and how to respond to their needs. That's how you're successful. So that's the advice I would give to anybody that would ask me that question.

Mr. Lawrence: And how about working in a large organization? Are there special challenges to managers and leaders?

Mr. Thompson: Absolutely. It's a complex world. You don't control many of the things that are going to directly impact on your performance, so you need to capitalize on the things you do have within your control and try to influence the things that are not under your direct control. And, again, VA has traditionally been a very conservative command-and-control organization.

Just the whole thought of bringing employees more into the mix and capitalizing on their skills and abilities is somewhat of a switch for us, and it's one that we put a lot of time into training both our more experienced managers as well as our new ones on this is the way organizations run in the 21st century. This is the only way they can succeed.

Mr. Lawrence: And how does one prepare for the openness around VBA? I mean, today in the newspapers and magazines there's grades about how well you're doing, so the flip side of openness is actually people come back and report on that. How does one prepare for being able to deal with that?

Mr. Thompson: Well, you just need to accept that as part of your life. I think any public-service job comes with great scrutiny that I think is an important part of the American political process. I like history and I like American government and I would say that having that scrutiny, while it makes you squirm and wiggle a little bit while it's on, ultimately it's good for you. And it's the right thing for a society to have that kind of focus and to make criticisms of you, even when it's not justified. That's okay, too.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you very much, Joe, for spending some time with us today. Greg and I have appreciated that.

This has been the Business of Government Hour, conversations with government leaders. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers and the co-chair of The PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for The Business of Government. To learn more about the endowment's programs and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness, please visit us on the web at

Joseph Thompson interview
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U.S. Coast Guard
Program Manager for the Evergreen Program

Upcoming Episodes

Vice Admiral Raquel Bono
Director, Defense Health Agency
United States Navy