Veterans Health Administration

Performance and Conduct Issues Involving Senior Managers at VA Medical Centers Gao ID: GGD-98-92 April 30, 1998

This report examines how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) manages the performance of senior executives and deals with instances of poor performance and misconduct. GAO focuses on the operations of one component of VA, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), during fiscal years 1994 through 1996. GAO answers the following questions: How was the VHA performance management system identifying and dealing with poor and marginal performers at the senior management levels of medical center director, associate or assistant director, and chief of staff? What effects, if any, have changes in organizational structure, policies, and procedures instituted by VHA in fiscal year 1996 had on its ability to identify and deal with poor and marginal performers? How was VHA identifying and dealing with instances of misconduct at the senior management levels of medical center director, associate or assistant director, and chief of staff?

GAO noted that: (1) none of the 477 management triad members received a performance appraisal of less than Fully Successful during the 1994 through 1996 rating periods; (2) this is not much different from how other executive agencies rated their senior management employees during this 3-year period; (3) the network directors acknowledged in interviews, however, that the record of the performance appraisals did not capture the actual performance appraisals of all the management triad members; (4) most network directors agreed that they did not identify poor or marginal performance in the performance appraisals, because those ratings necessitate formal actions to remedy performance problems; (5) the network directors perceived those actions as time-consuming and distracting, burdensome, and unlikely to produce a desired result; (6) although network directors did not use formal means to deal with poor or marginal performers, they said they effectively managed poor performers through informal means; (7) the network directors' propensity to use informal, rather than formal, means to address performance problems is not unique to them; (8) prior studies by GAO and the Merit Systems Protection Board have shown that managers and supervisors governmentwide have avoided taking formal actions against less than satisfactory performers for some of the very same reasons cited by the network directors; (9) in its oversight capacity for federal personnel issues, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has included in its strategic plan for fiscal years 1997 through 2002 efforts to improve the capacity of managers to identify and resolve performance problems; (10) the network directors were nearly unanimous in asserting that the changes VHA recently implemented, particularly the reduction in the number of triad members for whom they were responsible, were helping them to identify and deal with poor performance; (11) most network directors did not consider misconduct to be a widespread problem among management triad officials, although they did acknowledge that instances of misconduct by employees at that level have occurred; (12) disciplinary actions that VHA took to address the misconduct created some controversy that primarily revolved around one sexual harassment case; and (13) the controversy about how VHA handled this case as well as concerns about the effectiveness of VA's zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and employment discrimination led to administrative and statutory changes.


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