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Why ‘chief customer-service officer’ could hold key to Veterans Affairs reset

Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald announced an overhaul of the agency Monday in the wake of a scandal regarding patient wait times that critics have blamed for patient deaths.

Veterans frustrated by long delays for health care may have some ideas to share – not just anger to vent. And Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald says he wants to hear them.

Mr. McDonald, who’s been in the job just over 100 days, announced a reform effort at the VA Monday, but warned that it will take time and that he wants to keep hearing ideas from inside and outside the organization.

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Separately, McDonald said in a TV interview on CBS Sunday that the VA is moving to fire people responsible for the most egregious actions – with "aggressive, expeditious disciplinary action” under way for more than 1,000 of its 315,000 employees.

The drive for cultural change and reorganization was announced on the eve of Veterans Day, and McDonald launched it with a public memo to the agency’s employees.

The former business executive and military veteran announced four coming changes. He said the VA will:

  • Name a chief customer service officer, reporting directly to McDonald, to lead a new VA-wide customer service organization. “The mission of the new office will be to drive VA culture and practices to understand and respond to the expectations” of vets, he said.
  • Better coordinate services within each region. The goal is to make it easier to navigate an agency that currently can involve multiple websites, passwords, and points of contact.
  • Expand ties with state, local and private-sector partners to help vets. The agency will help build a national network of Community Veteran Advisory Councils to aid the effort.
  • Identify ways to realign VA bureaucracy to boost productivity and cut costs, such as by having different branches of the agency rely on the same support services.

McDonald, a former Army officer, arrived at the agency this summer at a time of deep turmoil. VA hospitals were facing scrutiny for severe delays – including news reports that several veterans had died while waiting for treatment in Phoenix.

As chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble, he already had lots of experience thinking about consumers. Now he faces the task of boosting a customer-service ethic within a massive federal agency.   

"We know that the trust has been compromised with the VA," he told a breakfast for reporters last week, hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “And we know that we're going to have to earn back that trust – one veteran at a time."

At the breakfast, he said he doesn’t have the “ability to walk into the room and fire people." 

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Instead, as he elaborated on the CBS show “60 Minutes,” the agency is moving step by step, with proposed firings subject to review by an administrative judge.

He said what the VA is "most concerned about is caring for veterans. So if someone has violated our values and we think has done bad things, we move them out," McDonald said. "And that's why we have a lot of people on administrative leave. We move them out. We don't want any harm to our veterans."

On a parallel track, McDonald is trying to reset the agency’s culture, nurturing the thousands of VA employees who do not face disciplinary action.

“It’s … clear that you share my goal of making VA easier to navigate for Veterans,” he told workers in the memo Monday.

He announced a new online tool, “My VA Idea House,” where employees submit ideas to improve services and vote on ideas shared by others.

At the Monitor breakfast, McDonald also talked about how he’s been opening doors to hearing ideas from veterans and others in the public – including by letting out his personal cellphone number.

Nationwide, the agency serves some 22 million vets, including many from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.