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.

R. Allen Pittman interview

Friday, January 26th, 2007 - 20:00
Phrase: 
"Where we need to move from where we are today, how do we transform ourselves -- it is moving from a personnel transaction-based organization into a human resources consulting behavioral-based organization."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 01/27/2007
Guest: 
Intro text: 
R. Allen Pittman
Complete transcript: 

Originally Broadcast Saturday, January 27, 2007

Washington, D.C.

Mr. Morales: Good morning, and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Albert Morales, your host, and managing partner of The IBM Center for The Business of Government. We created the Center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about the Center by visiting us on the web at www.businessofgovernment.org.

The Business of Government Radio Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our special guest this morning is Mr. Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, and Chief Human Capital Officer at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Good morning, Allen.

Mr. Pittman: Good morning, Albert.

Mr. Morales: And joining us in our conversation is Solly Thomas, associate partner in IBM's Human Capital Practice, and former Acting Associate Director for Human Capital at the Office of Personnel Management.

Good morning, Solly.

Mr. Thomas: Good morning, Al.

Mr. Morales: Allen, perhaps you could start by giving our listeners an overview of the history and the mission of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mr. Pittman: Be more than my pleasure to do so. Veterans Affairs actually was established through an Executive Order creating an agency by President Hoover in 1930. In 1989, we became a Cabinet-level department under President Reagan.

Mr. Morales: Could you give us a sense of the scale of the VA? Also, how is it organized, the size of its budget, the number of full-time employees, and its overall geographic footprint?

Mr. Pittman: Absolutely. VA has 235,000 employees, and that fluctuates every month, typically goes up to about 238,000, drops down to about 234,000, but we're currently about 235,000 employees. Of the 235,000 employees, just to give you additional information, we have approximately 190,000 employees that are members of the union. So that's taken into consideration. The VA itself is broken into three major operating groups.

We are kind of different than the rest of the government in that we're actually an operating company if you look at us as a business entity. We have Veterans Health Administration. That has the largest component of employees -- approximately 190,000 employees. Then we have Veterans Benefits Administration, and then we also have the National Cemetery Administration. The remainder would be the staff offices supporting those three operational groups.

We have 1598 locations made up of 156 hospitals, 877 outpatient clinics, 136 nursing homes, 43 residential rehabilitation treatment programs, 207 readjustment counseling centers, 57 veterans benefits regional offices, and 122 national cemeteries.

Mr. Thomas: Allen, perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about your specific role as the Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, and also as the Chief Human Capital Officer. Could you tell us a little bit about the areas under your purview, the organizations, the size, the budget, the resources available to you?

Mr. Pittman: I have five program areas. There's human resources. There's labor relations management; there's administration; there's diversity management, and then the Office of Resolution Management. I have -- reporting into those five program areas, I have approximately 550 employees, and I have a budget responsibility for around $101million.

Mr. Thomas: Allen, I want to shift the focus now and ask you to describe your career path for our listeners. How did you begin your career? Could you talk about your experiences, and also what drew you to this critical position at the VA?

Mr. Pittman: Well, let me go back a little further than what you anticipate by that question, but I think I have to set the stage. I actually was a money and banking major in college, with the University of Arkansas. I had returned from Vietnam -- I'm a Vietnam veteran -- and I was on the G.I. Bill. And majoring through money and banking, I had reached the last semester of my eligibility out of the G.I. Bill and was running out of money. And I had to take one class which remained in my core criteria in reference to my major. Unfortunately, there wasn't anyone available to teach that class. So I switched to personnel management. That's how I got into personnel management.

Upon graduation, I started interviewing within the area that the University of Arkansas was located in, which is Northwest Arkansas. Unfortunately, the only jobs I was receiving came from Tyson Foods. And at that time, the offer that I was given was actually $2,000 less than the poverty level. And my dad, who was a family physician -- here comes a tie as far as health care -- suggested that possibly I get into pharmaceutical sales. So I ventured into that arena as far as that industry sector, and I went to work for American Cyanamid Lederle Laboratories, and eventually for Pfizer Labs.

So I became a pharmaceutical detail man. In my background in the military, I was a hospital corpsman. Again, you'll see there's a thread of health care. So I was able -- I was a caregiver in the Service, obviously, even though it was in a combat-oriented environment. But with pharmaceutical sales, I started understanding pharmacology. After I left Pfizer and went to work in the private sector, I went to work at a hospital, where I was a personnel manager.

I eventually went to work with Fluor Corporation, which was an engineering construction organization, and that was one of the best moves I made, principally because it was so fundamentally sound in reference to its training and development organizations. And from the human resources component, they soon put me into a fast track program where they wanted to make a general manager out of me. But in order to do that, I had to complete all the various disciplines within human resources.

And at Fluor Corporation, they had everything but labor relations. So therefore, I became a fundamental human resources technician, in that I've been in every discipline that there is within human resources, either as a technician or a supervisor or a manager. With that then I soon went on down the road in human resources, but I was soon contacted in the early '80s by a gentleman that I worked with for about 22 years. And we started two companies, both in health care -- both were ambulatory care, but one was home infusion, and the other one, the last one, was U.S. Oncology, which was a cancer-based community-based organization for the treatment of cancer. That's really helped me out. The background that I had created a situation for me in these operational companies that we started up not only in maintaining the direct responsibility for human resources, but also being the operating executive within those two organizations.

So I bring a different fit into the government in that I'm a true operational executive, and have been for over 20 years. However, I'm also a human resources professional. And I think that's always important. When you look at a career in human resources, it's unusual to have someone that understands health care to the degree that I do, and can apply it through a human resources aspect.

Mr. Thomas: Allen, with such a fascinating background and wealth of experiences, I'm curious: how have these experiences prepared you for your current leadership role, and how has this informed your current management approach and leadership style?

Mr. Pittman: Well, it's been beneficial from this respect. I think that you know I'm a political appointee. And with that, a political appointee comes into an environment that the majority of -- at least 98 percent or 99 percent of the employee base are career employees. At the VA, we only have 15 political appointees. We're treating veterans. This is not political, this is an apolitical environment.

So with that, the fact that I have this experience, that brings credibility. So when I talk, I bring credibility from the standpoint of -- again understanding the business, and being able to relate the business to a human resources decision or strategy. And that's been most important.

The other aspect, too -- in those two organizations in particular that I referenced about starting up, we had approximately 40, 45 acquisitions in those two organizations. So needless to say when you acquire an organization and try to transform and transition those two organizations together, it is very, very difficult. So it requires a lot of selling experience and being to sell the program, but importantly, you have to work collaboratively and participatively. I am a collaborator in reference to my management ability. In addition to that, I believe in participation.

That's where ownership comes in as far as whatever strategy or initiative you may have, and ownership by those that are participating in that initiative. I think that's been crucial, because there's such a short time to be able to come into the VA to hopefully impact and move that organization from a collaborative standpoint to where it should be.

Mr. Morales: Fantastic.

What is the VA's human resource strategy? We will ask Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, and Chief Human Capital Officer of the VA, to share with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.

(Intermission)

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, and Chief Human Capital Officer at the VA.

Also joining us in our conversation is Solly Thomas, associate partner in IBM's Human Capital Practice.

Allen, could you elaborate on the four-part HR consulting model that you and your team had recently rolled out? And how does it frame your human capital strategy?

Mr. Pittman: Well, to give you just a little bit of background, first of all, VA, unfortunately over the years, has not kept up as far as leading edge technology or actually systems from a people perspective within the VA. And you might understand why. VA is mostly known for health care and also veterans benefits. So therefore, when the budget comes through, from an appropriation standpoint, it's typically for health care and benefits administration, plus for national cemeteries, of course.

So when you talk about overhead, which we are, it's very difficult to get those dollars that are necessary to move forward. What we've done since I've been there is to identify what we need to be within the future. So we're going through an HR transformation process. And I will tell you something that I think is somewhat funny. When I first came here and did an assessment of VA from the human resource perspective, I mapped out what I thought needed to be done before we sat down and did a collaborative strategic plan as far as human capital plan is concerned. Turns out that it matches the President's Management Agenda, and I would prefer to say that the President is following my lead, but unfortunately, that is -- that is not -- as it turns out, it's a pretty good fit.

And this is not rocket science when you look at human resources. If you look at the fact that fundamentally you're a personnel organization, a personnel department, even though we are 235,000 strong, then you'll soon see what we must do. And automation is almost non-existent to VA. We have a payroll system that has a component for human resources in it.

So taking a look at where we need to move from where we are today to where we're going to in the future, and the people involved, and how do we get there, how do we transform ourselves, a lot of it is moving from a personnel transaction-based organization into a human resources consulting behavioral-based organization. But you also need to have the tools that allow you to do that.

We went through that process and soon realized that if we're going to become a consulting organization, then what do we need to subscribe to? And you mentioned the four-step consulting model. Well, it includes the focus on customer needs, exploring solutions, developing and executing action plans, and closing the loop with our HR practitioners, but also the line managers that they work with.

So what we're trying to do is take those four components and develop core competency training programs so we can create an organization that is a consulting organization. We have a three-year plan in reference to that training and development piece as far as human resources and the human resource professionals are concerned. A lot of it's contingent also upon automation.

Mr. Morales: You talk about the scale of transition. Could you elaborate a little bit more on the VA's plan to transition to an HR line of business? And how does this move factor into your strategy, which you talked about, of moving your HR function to a more consultative and less transactional focus?

Mr. Pittman: Well, if one understands -- if you're a personnel transaction-based organization -- I'll give you an example of that: within the federal government, there is a Form 52, which is actually a change of status for an employee that's filled out typically by either the supervisor or human resources. And it's a paper form, and that's the way we do it at VA.

Understanding that that's a transaction itself, and then also understanding that our survey has shown us that approximately 36 to 42 percent of our HR professionals are transaction-based tasks, then you can see just how much labor it's taking in order to move an individual from one slot to another to perform any function within human resources. So just imagine if we automated those functions, then wouldn't that give us more capacity without even adding staff? And that is our strategy right there.

We want to automate, thus increasing capacity of our human resources professionals to allow them to do consulting without adding FTE. In order to do that -- that's where our HR line of business comes into play -- pretty much tells us where we need to go, and that's even better. Why? Because we don't have to build it. The HR line of business goes through a process through OPM. And OPM goes through the due diligence process of not only creating the project teams that represent all the departments and agencies within the federal government, to be able to select going through a due diligence process of who can perform these functions from a transaction-based piece.

Most people call these organizations "service centers." So a service center can offer, for example, classification. What we're doing is buying that service from either another agency and the agencies that have been identified within the federal government have been identified, and there's four that meet the criteria we need from the human resource information standpoint.

However, at the same time, OMB is going through a process of due diligence as far as the private sector is concerned, allowing them the opportunity also to become service center operators. So we're waiting for that one aspect to be complete. But by utilizing a human resource information system, this allows us to go into the database. And the database, in this respect, comes from a personnel file.

Once we automate that personnel file, the official personnel file, then this human resource information system -- an automated system can reach down into that database and pull out all these various aspects of an employee. And that will help us in managing our workforce.

Mr. Thomas: Allen, I want to talk a little bit about performance management. I want to know if you could elaborate on the VA's five-tier performance management system, and your experience implementing the performance appraisal plans. In particular, I'm interested in hearing what kind of findings, what your experience was under your performance management data site.

Mr. Pittman: Well, most people are unaware of this, that there is an awful lot of publicity in reference to the Department of Defense and Homeland Security and the issues they're having to train and to implement a five-tier performance appraisal system, which is absolutely crucial to performance planning. VA is the second largest agency and department within the federal government -- 235,000 strong.

All 235,000 employees are on the five-tier system. We had that ratified by the union six months ago. And we've worked with our union partners to get that. That was an essential piece. If we didn't do that, other than our Senior Executive Service who is on a five-tier system already, and that's approximately 300 of our executives -- if we didn't have a five-tier system, we'd still be on a pass/fail system. Now, the pass/fail system doesn't bode well for lots of different reasons. If you and I -- Solly, for example, are in the same classification and the same job title and we perform the same work, and you receive a pass and I receive a pass, but you work extremely hard and I work just enough to get a pass, then who can the supervisor and who should the supervisor invest in from a training and development standpoint for the future of this succession plan and also strategies of VA?

If the investment goes into you, I have every right to raise my hand and say, "How come you're not investing in me, I also have a pass?" We need to be able to distinguish between the levels of performance to give us a determination of who from a career path and career progression standpoint is going to move forward; also, who needs development, how can we invest those very valuable and scarce resources, dollars, that we get from the Congress, to invest in you?

So from a five-tier system, we started this process just this last six months, with the exception of the Senior Executive Service. So we have gone out and we've tested it, we've implemented it in all parts of the country. We are writing up the objectives as we just speak now that align with incentives, the incentives being defined as the strategies of the VA, strategies of the organization and also the objectives of the individual. So we can have measurable metrics that will afford us the opportunity to move people through the system based upon performance.

Now, the experience we have has been short-lived other than the Senior Executive Service. We've piloted this program and it's working extremely well. We had approximately three VISNs. VISNs are integrated systems within VHA. So it's Veterans Information and Integrated Service Network -- that's what a VISN is. So we've done that, it's working extremely well, and now we are doing a wholesale rollout in reference to the five-tier performance appraisal system. Unfortunately, we don't have that much experience to speak of.

Mr. Thomas: And you mentioned that you worked with the unions. I'm sure they raised some concerns at the outset. How did you address those concerns?

Mr. Pittman: Well, I speak very openly and short and to the point. And if I'm asked a question, I'll answer the question, obviously, but if there is a confidential situation, I'll explain it's confidential, I can't explain it. But in talking with the unions, I've been very, very clear about their relationship. When I first came into the VA, I read the master agreement with reference to the American Federation of Government Employees master agreement and saw that it was a pro-union master contract. In talking with the unions, I expressed that, and I said, well, what we need to do is not to create a pro-management agreement, but to create one that is equitable for not only the unions, but also for management, which would impact, obviously positively, the employees.

It's very, very difficult to manage an employee, the human capital asset, if in fact you can't do it directly. And if you have to give 30 days' notice every time you do something, whether it's a salary increase or whether it's a performance appraisal or et cetera. And that's what we talked about. We talked about how we could collaboratively develop a master agreement that would allow us the opportunity to manage the employees for the benefit of the veterans that we serve. Otherwise, we are too restrictive right now. In addition to that, I did talk about the fact that, you know, there's a trend within the private sector in particular that unions are becoming more and more minimized. And there is an opportunity to work with us in a partnership to develop an equitable plan, an equitable agreement to allow them to participate properly in the future.

You know, I talked about performance planning. Their concern was performance planning. And when there is an issue, whether it's positive or negative, but typically negative, then there is not a performance plan in place that allows the employee a good-faith effort to turn around and to continue employment. We have a philosophy at VA, I have a philosophy at VA -- it's our job to retain an employee. It's not our job to separate an employee. It's difficult enough bringing someone on board, so why not keep them. So through a performance plan request that they had as far as negotiations are concerned, I said absolutely, that's what supervisors are supposed to do.

Again, some of the very basic elements of labor management relations that should have been there were not there. We are creating that.

Mr. Morales: How is VA transforming how it manages its workforce?

We will ask Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, and Chief Human Capital Officer at the VA, to share with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.

(Intermission)

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, and Chief Human Capital Officer at the VA.

Also joining us in our conversation is Solly Thomas, associate partner in IBM's Human Capital Practice.

Allen, we often talk with our guests about the pending retirement wave in government and the type of impact that this will have on their operations. What are you seeing within the VA, and what plans are in place to mitigate its possible effects?

Mr. Pittman: This is one of the most important areas that not only VA, but also the government, needs to respond to and respond to very quickly. Director Springer of the Office of Personnel Management uses the phrase "retirement tsunami." And I think that's a pretty good graphic, as a matter of fact, when you start talking about retirement. At the VA, which is in parallel to the rest of the agencies, but speaking about VA, we actually have 60 percent of our employee workforce that is eligible to retire within the next five years, not 10 years.

And doing an analysis in reference to where they're at as far as their retirements are concerned -- they being the employees, we've done two things. One is we have started a program of actually asking the employees -- which is part of succession planning -- it really surprises me when I first came on this, has anybody ever asked the employee when they have an expectation of retirement? And it's not illegal to do so. And the reason behind that is anyone can apply for retirement. They have to fill out an application actually to retire. They can actually pull that application anytime they want to, even though they've said they're going to retire. But from a planning perspective, you need to understand that.

What's even more important, not only from a planning perspective, is also understanding the intellectual, institutional knowledge that they have. They maintain a lot of information that's not written down anywhere. And it's absolutely necessary that we try and transition that knowledge base to someone else.

And the way that we are trying to approach it is actually multifaceted. What we're looking at and doing an analysis, which was the first part of what I was starting to answer a moment ago, is we were looking at those eligible to retire from an age perspective. When is it that they will retire based upon tendencies? If you look back over the years and look at the individuals that hold certain positions, you'll see that the higher the level, the shorter the time they will have as far as an age perspective. They may retire at 55, they may retire at 58, depending upon the number of years and combination. But you'll find, for example, senior executives, they normally do not go to age 65. Our senior executives typically go right at 59-1/2. And the rationale behind that is they have their high threes.

But if you look at that, that's when an individual -- an executive -- I happen to be 59, just for your information -- I know that I have a lot of years left. You may not think so, but I do. And you're at your peak. So why in fact should we work hard on trying to retain those individuals, how can we retain those individuals, not just plan for future replacement of the individuals through succession planning, but why can't we -- from a legislation standpoint, why can we retain without impacting their high threes as an individual, moving them into another slot parallel for a year or two-year period, to be able to transfer that institutional knowledge they have, and also to mentor their replacements, et cetera. That's an example of what we're trying to do.

The other aspect as far as succession planning is concerned also: the federal government has a tendency of really spending a lot of time on workforce planning. It has been an exceptional tool for the last two to three years. But it is now time to move to succession planning. Director Springer actually has taken this under her objectives and strategies. I believe VA started that process.

Part of what we need is automation -- if you recall, we need to have a learning management system that catches the skills inventory of each individual, not only their skills, but also their educational licensures, to be able to create a database so we can at that point develop a gap analysis in reference to where their skills and where their experiences and professional knowledge are in reference to where we're going from the VA perspective.

The federal government typically does strategic planning on a five-year basis. We are moving to a 10-year plan. There is nothing that you can accomplish in the five-year period. So why don't you look further out, look out further and see what your lines of business are going to be, what your technologies are going to be, what skill sets are necessary to support those lines of business, and start looking not only internally through a gap analysis, developing those competencies through leadership development programs and/or skill development programs to be able to support the lines of business into the future. And also to sit down and review the strategic plan on an annual basis. Right now, there's legislation out there that you have to review your plan every two years.

Well, typically an agency or department will take that plan off the shelf every two years, dust it off, enhance it, put it back on the shelf. It needs to be a living document, where you are looking at it every year and determining that if your lines of business that have been identified in the future have changed, you need to revise your strategies, which means you revise your skill sets necessary to support them.

So one of the things we need to do is to develop career pathing programs. VA does an exceptional job, and I'm serious, an exceptional job, for the highest levels of leadership. That includes the Senior Executive Service. And we have a program that's called the Senior Executive Career Development Program, which actually is a feeder program into the Senior Executive Service. We also have another program called the Leadership VA. The Leadership VA is actually the first executive-level, usually GS-13, 14 and 15 level development program, that is a feeder into the SESCDP, which feeds into the SES program.

However, the void is this: we don't have anything universally across the VA for the GS-3s through 12s. How do you create the pools of talent, how do you create the developed pools of talent in order to succeed? And this succession plan itself identifies positions based upon not only skill sets, but also careers. We have a tendency of recruiting. When we recruit for future purposes, we don't really recruit for the future. What we are recruiting is for now, for the vacancy. We are changing our recruitment strategies, our recruitment strategies for the future development based upon the skill sets necessary to support the strategies of the future and also technologies in the lines of business. So when we go out and recruit, we actually are offering a career based upon a need for the VA, not the vacancy.

Mr. Morales: I want to go back to some of the earlier comments you made about the -- certainly the size of the VA and its geographic dispersion. I'm curious. How does the VA evaluate HR field performance as well as impart some of these best practices to the HR community? And what steps are you taking to ensure that the policies and procedures are documented and communicated in a timely and comprehensible manner?

Mr. Pittman: Well, this is twofold. Again, when I came onboard and did an assessment, I asked first of all, do we have the human resource information system? That system is absolutely crucial to anyone that is in the profession of human resources. Why? For example, when you are talking about field audits, you can do system audits if you have a human resource information system, it will save you a ton of time to ensure that you have compliance to various policies, to include, for example, veterans preference on the hiring process. So a system that we will have on board over the course of the next two to three years maximum will be on board to allow us to do that.

In the meantime, I looked at also again what OPM was requiring us to do to go green. And by the way, we have gone green. We went green approximately six months ago. So we are the largest federal agency that has a green status at the current time. And part of that process, and what we needed to do, is to create an accountability organization. The accountability organization functions like an audit organization that comes out of human resources.

So it's a manual process, and what we do is we started out with just one individual. And we now have 11 staff that's in the accountability office. That's how important it is to our organization, and also one of the most important strategies we've done to ensure compliance. I think that you know that first of all, we are Veterans Affairs. So therefore, one of our most and greatest priorities that we ought to have is the hiring of veterans. And as you well know, there is veterans preference from a legal perspective that needs to be complied with.

We are the second-largest department behind the Department of Defense, with 30 percent of employment being veterans. And we absolutely believe in the merit system to begin with. I'm a strong supporter of the merit system, which surprised me when I came on board, coming from the private sector. However, I'm a firm believer that that needs to be there and to be maintained. And the other aspect of it, too, is that any preferences that we have as far as legislation is concerned needs to be followed to disability, age, whatever it might be -- needs to be followed.

So this accountability organization has been absolutely crucial. What it does, it checks every aspect, every function of human resources, not only from a recruiting standpoint, but from a classification standpoint, compensation, disciplinary action, it ensures compliance. Unfortunately, being the size that we are, 235,000 employees, and the dispersion that we have geographically as far as our locations are concerned, needless to say, this is a little bit difficult when you have a staff of 11. What we are doing though is, we're now training up the field staff, field human resource organizations, coming out of each one of our administrations -- that's Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration and National Cemetery Administration -- their human resources staff, to function as a team with us.

We've taken an integrated team approach. Those individuals that come from field operations will now be auditing their own facilities or even in their own administration. Therefore, we will have more capability to be able to do that. That's how we do it currently. We are anticipating automation. It will help us as far as system audits.

Mr. Thomas: Allen, you had mentioned some changes you had put into place to focus on the recruitment process. Maybe you could elaborate in a little bit more detail. And on a related matter, does the VA use flexible compensation strategies to attract and retain quality talent?

Mr. Pittman: To answer your question in reference to flexibility, the answer is yes. We extensively use such things as recruitment relocation and retention incentives. We use special rate ranges to attract and retain quality employees that possess mission-critical competencies. So we use all the flexibilities that OPM allows, and we use them very aggressively. The other aspect, too, in mentioning the recruitment strategies, when I first came onboard -- again, and it seems like everything that I have done is being matched by someone else from an initiative standpoint -- either the President or the OPM, so they are following me extremely well, by the way. But I will tell you, we needed help as far as our recruiting strategies, in reference to bringing people onboard.

Our analysis of the general schedule, the GS classifications, in the hiring of the general schedule employees was that we were exceeding in the neighborhood of 95 days to bring on a general schedule. From a Senior Executive Service onboard process, we were in the neighborhood of 220 days. So can you imagine? We're sitting here trying to compete with the private sector, and a private sector employee has been offered a job from us for the Senior Executive Service probably has gone to work for three or four companies during that 220-day period.

So you can just imagine the talent that we were losing. So what we ended up doing is we sought help from the Office of Personnel Management actually. And they have a process; it's called a hiring makeover. We asked them to come in and help us. We are an operational organization, so we don't have that much staff to sit back and assess, analyze. We have to operate an organization, and at the same time try to do these assessments. So OPM offered their services; we took advantage. They came in, and it was most beneficial. From a general schedule standpoint, taking a look at what we were doing and how we were bringing people onboard, we have now gone down to 38 days in reference to the onboard process for the general schedule, which also helps us as far as going green and maintaining our green status.

Also from the Senior Executive Service standpoint, we've reduced the 220 down to 98 days, and we're on our way to an objective of 45 days. Now, one aspect that we've done just recently is the utilization of USA Staffing. USA Staffing is an application of recruitment that also enhances and expedites the process of delegated examining units. So the delegating examining function, which actually rates and ranks applicants and their applications, takes into consideration the preferences and creates a certificate. It's done automatically through the automated USA Staffing approach.

So that's been most beneficial in impacting what we are doing. Now we are in the process of rolling that out. We have 800 licenses that we are going to be going after pretty soon through the Office of Personnel Management, which will help us again trying to bring that onboard process down to something manageable, and therefore not losing the talent as much as we have in the past, because competition with the private sector is just huge.

Mr. Morales: How is VA planning for its future staffing needs?

We will ask Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resource and Administration, and Chief Human Capital Officer at the VA, to share with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.

(Intermission)

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, and Chief Human Capital Officer at the VA.

Also joining us in our conversation is Solly Thomas, associate partner in IBM's Human Capital Practice.

Allen, you talked about your movement to a 10-year plan. So as you look at this horizon, what types of personnel challenges do you think the VA will face?

Mr. Pittman: From a personnel challenge standpoint, if you're talking about human capital into the future, we have a huge challenge ahead of us. I'd just very briefly talk about succession planning. Obviously, you have to ensure that you have a flow of candidates for employment. That's absolutely crucial that we not only focus there but also understand what we are about in the lines of business that we're going to support in the future.

Again, mentioning our three administrations, if you know that VHA, Veterans Health Administration, is the largest component of our operating units and it is patient care-oriented, then that tells you pretty much the focus that we would have in reference to that administration. Doctors, nurses, health care professionals and health care technicians.

And we need to ensure that there is a constant flow, and we're taking steps to do that. We've developed, for example -- we're trying to brand ourselves within the minority community. It's an unusual approach; again, this is thinking outside the box. The private sector and the federal government typically go after anyone that they can recruit, but the most overlooked segment of our society happens to be the minorities. And that speaks very, very clearly. I mean, if you look at under-representation within the government, that speaks to where we are not getting candidates for employment from.

So why not become the brand within that minority community? I'll give you an example. We developed just recently and implemented in Puerto Rico a community prosperity partnership with one of the nation's largest Hispanic organizations, LULAC, and also the American GI Forum, which is a Hispanic veteran organization that's chartered by the federal government. And what the intent is is to look 10 years in the future and see what our job requirements are based upon the lines of business, the skills necessary to support those, and turn it right around and go into the Hispanic community through the storefronts that belong to American GI Forum and also LULAC; they're inviting us into their community.

The problem with our recruiting strategies typically is we don't understand the culture. So by working with them to develop those strategies, what we're doing is taking those job requirements into their youth development programs and developing that individual to where they are qualified for the job openings. The biggest barrier that we have is finding a qualified candidate for the job posting. So if we have a qualified candidate, that minimizes that barrier approach. Well, there's other approaches, too. Nursing; nursing shortages continue to happen. And it's not that there are not individuals that want to become nurses, the numbers are there. It's just that the nursing schools don't have the number of openings because they don't have enough instructors.

So therefore VA, has taken another unique approach. The Deputy suggested -- again thinking outside the box -- why doesn't VA have a nursing school, a national nursing school? Well, we're looking into that, so we can have people come to us. I also have been talking with the surgeon generals of the British Military Services. And they are very, very supportive of this. The allied health care professionals, for example, the non-nurses, non-physicians, those that have made the actual decision to separate from Service, why can't we bring them into our organization? Remember, we hire veterans. But also, we are bringing in qualified individuals.

If we had someone, for example, that was a hospital corpsman in the navy that wants to come to VA and become a nurse, we have a program where they can actually come in and we'll send them to a nursing school. We'll pay them 100 percent of their salary while they are going to school, and then whenever they get out of school, then they'll sign a contract with us for a number of years of service in order to pay us back for taking them through that process. But in talking with the military branches, they are wholeheartedly supportive of that. The one concern they have is that our program becomes so good that those individuals that were in the military or on the border, I mean on the edge of making decision whether staying in the military or leaving, that they may make the decision to leave or separate. So that's a concern we have is making sure we have a human capital for the future.

Mr. Morales: Along sort of the same lines, what challenges and adjustments do you foresee as a result of the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr. Pittman: There is a program that we have that's actually called Coming Home to Work Initiative. And for those young men and women, the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the theaters, that have been severely wounded or disabled, they typically would go through a process of rehabilitation assessment, for example, at Walter Reed -- or it could be Bethesda Naval or it could be in San Diego, it could be at Madigan in Seattle. There is a process they're going through where there's determination being made as to whether they can stay in the service, or unfortunately, from their perspective, being discharged.

And I would tell you, if you ask them, they want to stay in the service, they want to stay, and they actually want to go back to Afghanistan and Iraq. And it makes you so proud when you talk to them. But what we have is in the Coming Home to Work Initiative is actually a compensated work initiative. What that means is while they are going through rehabilitation and being paid by their military branch, by the Department of Defense, we have them come to work for us for 17 hours a week, and our one commitment is and the top priority is getting back for rehabilitation therapy. Any employment they had, we'll get them back. But what we're trying to do is during the 17-hour-a-week process, is to help them develop a new profession, a new occupation.

And we started that program about 2-1/2 years ago, and since that period of time, we have hired onboard with us -- mostly in information technology actually. It's about approximately 45 individuals, but we have more that's coming through the process itself. So we're trying to anticipate, from an employment perspective, those individuals coming back. From a network perspective, from a Veterans Health Administration standpoint, obviously we have health care needs also. And we're trying to adapt to that. And we're doing an extremely good job there. And particularly when it comes to brain injury and spinal code injuries, we actually have Centers of Excellence across the country, eight in number. And we're known now as a Center of Excellence for those severe injuries.

Mr. Thomas: Allen, I want to talk a little bit about technologies that are used in the Human Resources area. There's a lot of talk about commercial best practices, and certainly you have an interesting perspective coming in from the private sector. What emerging technologies do you think hold the most promise for improving federal human resource management?

Mr. Pittman: Well, I really think that what we need into the future is really what we are trying to do now through the HR lines of business. However, to take a step further, we need to have an opportunity to where we created a desktop management, human resources management approach for each manager and supervisor. If you look at the flexibility that we have by automating personnel files through the electronic official personnel file process under e-gov and also the human resource information system under the HR lines of business, the intent is to create an icon sitting on that desktop, that computer desktop, that not only sits there with the other icons you may have, like Word and et cetera, but to be able to tap into this icon that says H-R-I-S.

Now, through access rights to whatever applications may be within the human resources information system and also field rights, that supervisor -- as I had mentioned to you earlier, we have a Form 52 which is a manual process on an employee change of status of some sort -- if that supervisor wants to initiate an action, then they can just tap that icon, go into that -- the certain field of an application, fill out electronically that form and also transmit it -- if it requires upline management approval -- to transmit it.

It also has the learning management system that sits within it. For example, the individual development profiles of those employees that they supervise; what kind of training is necessary; what's necessary into the future? So it's to create a desktop approach that's absolutely essential for every manager in order to manage the workforce of tomorrow.

Mr. Morales: Allen, you have a tremendous passion for the business, and you started your career in the private sector and sort of had a variety of experiences. I'm curious and I'd love to learn, for those folks that are out there possibly thinking about a career in public service, what advice could you give them to get started?

Mr. Pittman: I think it's an honor to serve for the public, with the public, in any kind of opportunity that one may have, whether it's the federal government, state, local, could be the Peace Corps, could be the military. If one were to ask me 35 years ago what I would do for anyone coming out of high school, I would highly recommend having a two-year tour duty in public service. And I'll say the Peace Corps again, or it could be the military. I happen to be one of those individuals coming out of a process to where I was a little bit on the wild side, and I needed to have an understanding of a little bit more discipline in my life.

And what I understood in the military, as an example -- and this happens in public service, it's not about I, it's about we. It's a team. You cannot move anything to an outcome unless you have others to help you and to be part of that team approach. And just by the mere fact that you know that you're giving back to your community in one form or another, truly, truly excites me day-in and day-out.

Some say this is a sacrifice. This is not a sacrifice; it's an honor.

Mr. Morales: Great, that is fantastic. Unfortunately, we have reached the end of our time. I do want to thank you for fitting us into your busy schedule, but more importantly, Solly and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to our country and our veterans.

Mr. Pittman: Thank you very much. Again, I would just like to emphasize, if one has the opportunity for public service, please serve. I can't miss this opportunity to say something about Veterans Affairs; the Veterans Health Administration itself. If you have been reading anything about the VA over the course of the last two years, you now know that the Veterans Health Administration has the highest quality outcomes of any health care distributing system in the world. It's known for its quality care. What a change.

And our Secretary has a tendency -- Secretary Nicholson has a tendency of saying this is the best story never told. And that's true. We're taking an approach now that every opportunity we have, like I do now, to talk about Veterans Affairs, talk about not only medical care, but the Veterans Benefits Administration, and also the shrines that we have for those veterans that are going be laid to rest.

And again, thank you very much. Again, it's an honor to be here and it's an honor to talk about the Veterans Affairs Department.

Mr. Morales: And it is a wonderful story.

This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resource and Administration, and Chief Human Capital Officer at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Be sure to visit us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. There, you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's conversation. Once again, that's businessofgovernment.org.

As you enjoy the rest of your day, please take time to remember the men and women of our armed and civil services abroad who can't hear this morning's show on how we are improving their government, but who deserve our unconditional respect and support.

For The Business of Government Hour, I am Albert Morales.

Thank you for listening.

R. Allen Pittman interview
01/27/2007
"Where we need to move from where we are today, how do we transform ourselves -- it is moving from a personnel transaction-based organization into a human resources consulting behavioral-based organization."

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