House committee chairman wants VA middle managers held accountable

Monday - 2/17/2014, 3:44pm EST

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) interviewed by Federal News Radio's Francis Rose

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The author of new legislation that would make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to fire its senior executives says the agency is too shy about cutting loose middle managers who are performing poorly.

"For a number of years, now, we have been trying to get VA to accept responsibility ... and to hold their employees accountable for some of the errors that they've been making," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose . "For some reason, VA is not able to do that, and hopefully this piece of legislation will stir them to be a little more proactive."

Miller is the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Miller: Mid-level managers need to be held accountable

The VA Management Accountability Act would allow Senior Executive Service (SES) members to be removed or demoted from service "if the secretary determines the performance of the individual warrants such removal," according to the bill. That would essentially give VA Secretary Eric Shinseki the same authority to fire VA executives that members of Congress have over members of their own staff.

"I have asked on repeated occasions for the President to hold the secretary accountable and, of course, that would require the secretary to hold his mid-level managers and frontline individuals accountable for what they do," Miller said.

Under current law, SES members can be removed from service for a host of reasons, including misconduct, malfeasance and neglect of duty. But agencies must provide 30 days' notice, and employees are entitled to appeal rights.

That's too much "red tape," Miller contends.

"VA has already said that they have the necessary tools that they need, they can hold people accountable," Miller said. "And I want to know when and where? Because we're still finding places where there are preventable deaths and other issues that have occurred that nobody has been disciplined, nobody has been fired and that's just not acceptable."

In recent years, Miller's committee has investigated allegations of mismanagement by VA employees at veteran health centers that may have contributed to outbreaks of disease, such as Legionnaire's disease.

"I know that Secretary Shinseki, in his heart, wants to do the right thing," Miller said. "But I do not think that his mid-level management is serving him well. I don't believe that they keep him informed as to the issues that are critical to this committee."

Committee eyeing VA bonuses

This isn't the first time Miller has set his sights on the VA workforce. Earlier this month, the House approved another bill championed by Miller that would prohibit performance awards for SES members at VA over the next five years.

Last year, Miller called for a top-to- bottom review of the agency's performance-appraisal system after an SES official received a $63,000 bonus despite overseeing a VA hospital where an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease killed five veterans.

"I have been saying for well over a year, maybe almost two years now, that VA needs to quit being afraid of disciplining poor performing employees," he said. "It's easier to get a bonus at VA than it is to get fired."

Still, not everyone is on board with Miller's latest proposal.

The Senior Executives Association, which represents 7,100 members of the SES governmentwide, said Miller's legislation would politicize the federal workforce by making career employees' jobs subject to the whims of a political appointee.

"With fear of retribution by an agency head, the career SES could well become a politicized corps that bends with the political winds," the group's president Carol Bonosaro said in a statement last week.

Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). However, the bill faces a more uncertain future in the Democratic-controlled chamber. Miller said he's not yet spoken with Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) about the legislation.

(Senior Executives Association President Carol Bonosaro will discuss her group's concerns with the bill on Federal News Radio's Your Turn radio program, Wednesday, Feb. 19, at 10 a.m.)

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