Veterans' Affairs: Veterans Benefits Administration's Progress and Challenges in Implementing GPRA

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-05-14.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on Benefits, Committee on
                          Veterans’ Affairs, House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at 8:30 a.m.
Wednesday, May 14, 1997
                          VETERANS’ AFFAIRS

                          Veterans Benefits
                          Administration’s Progress
                          and Challenges in
                          Implementing GPRA
                          Statement of Stephen P. Backhus, Director
                          Veterans’ Affairs and Military Health Care Issues
                          Health, Education, and Human Services Division

Veterans’ Affairs: Veterans Benefits
Administration’s Progress and Challenges in
Implementing GPRA
               Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

               We are pleased to be here today to provide our views on the progress
               made and challenges faced by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA)
               in implementing the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). As
               you know, over the past several years, the Congress has taken steps to
               fundamentally change the way federal agencies go about their work. The
               Congress took these steps in response to management problems so
               common among federal agencies that they demanded governmentwide
               solutions. GPRA was passed in 1993 to require agencies to clearly define
               their missions, set goals, measure performance, and report on their

               VBA is responsible for administering the Department of Veterans Affairs’
               (VA) nonmedical programs that provide financial and other benefits to
               veterans, their dependents, and survivors. These benefits include disability
               compensation, pensions, rehabilitation assistance, education benefits,
               home loan benefits, and insurance coverage. As requested by the
               Subcommittee, my statement will center primarily on VBA’s largest
               program—the compensation and pension program—which accounts for
               more than 90 percent of VBA’s $20 billion appropriation for fiscal year 1996
               and provides compensation and pensions to over 3 million veterans and
               their survivors. My statement will address the purpose and requirements
               of GPRA, the progress VBA has made, and challenges it faces in
               implementing the act. The information in this statement is based on our
               past work in the area, a review of VBA’s strategic plan, and discussions with
               VBA officials.

               In summary, VBA has taken an important first step in implementing GPRA,
               but this process is an evolving one. To date, VBA has developed a strategic
               plan with a mission and goals and has begun consultation with the
               Congress and other stakeholders to obtain their views on its plan. For the
               compensation and pension program, VBA has identified specific
               performance measures for such factors as timeliness and accuracy in
               processing claims. However, these measures are primarily process
               oriented. As it continues through the planning process, VBA also needs to
               ensure that its strategic plan focuses on results, as required by GPRA, such
               as those related to the overall purpose of the program, and not merely on
               the process used to administer the benefits. In addition, to help ensure
               quality service, VBA needs to integrate its strategic plan with VA’s overall
               plan and with the plans of other key federal agencies, such as the
               Department of Defense and the Department of Labor’s Veterans’

               Page 1                                                      GAO/T-HEHS-97-131
                      Veterans’ Affairs: Veterans Benefits
                      Administration’s Progress and Challenges in
                      Implementing GPRA

                      Employment and Training Service. Down the road, VBA will also need to
                      ensure that it effectively measures and assesses its performance, as
                      mandated by GPRA, to determine how well its programs are meeting their
                      goals and making improvements. Our prior work suggests that VBA will be
                      challenged in implementing GPRA because it has had difficulties in the past
                      in bringing about program improvements.

                      GPRA  is the centerpiece of a statutory framework provided by recent
Purpose and           legislation to bring needed improvements to federal agencies’ management
Requirements of       activities. (Other parts of the framework include the 1990 Chief Financial
GPRA                  Officers Act, the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act, and the 1996
                      Clinger-Cohen Act.) Under GPRA, executive branch agencies are to set
                      strategic goals, measure their performance, and use that performance
                      information to make improvements.

                      GPRA was designed to focus federal agencies’ attention on the results of the
                      programs they administer—not just on program operations. Instead of
                      focusing on the amounts of money they spend or the size of their
                      workloads, agencies are expected to rethink their missions in terms of the
                      results they provide, develop goals based on their results-oriented
                      missions, develop strategies for achieving their goals, and measure actual
                      performance against the goals.

                      Our reviews of federal programs have found numerous examples of
                      management problems that GPRA is intended to correct.1 Several examples

                  •   Some agencies do not have clear understandings or statements of what
                      their missions are. GPRA requires agencies to articulate their missions.
                  •   In some program areas, responsibilities are fragmented among several
                      agencies, which wastes scarce funds, confuses and frustrates customers,
                      and limits the overall effectiveness of federal efforts to serve customers.
                      GPRA aims to help agencies to address the fragmentation of program areas,
                      and to coordinate their strategic planning efforts with other agencies.
                  •   Many agencies measure performance on the basis of their workloads,
                      rather than on the results of their programs. Instead of the more difficult
                      task of measuring how well programs are serving customers and achieving
                      the results intended by the Congress, agencies focus on such measures as
                      how many applications they process and how quickly they process them.

                       Managing for Results: Using GPRA to Assist Congressional and Executive Branch Decisionmaking
                      (GAO/T-GGD-97-43, Feb. 12, 1997).

                      Page 2                                                                     GAO/T-HEHS-97-131
    Veterans’ Affairs: Veterans Benefits
    Administration’s Progress and Challenges in
    Implementing GPRA

    Thus, agencies do not know, and cannot inform the Congress, how well
    their programs are actually achieving their purposes. GPRA requires
    agencies to develop results-oriented performance measures.
•   Many agencies lack coherent strategies for achieving their missions. In a
    time of budget constraints, agencies need to rethink how they manage
    their programs, and they need strategies for achieving their missions more
    efficiently and effectively. GPRA requires agencies to develop such coherent
•   Many agencies lack adequate information on program results and costs.
    Without such information, the Congress has difficulty making informed
    policy and budget decisions. GPRA requires agencies to develop
    results-oriented performance measures and to report annually on their
    performance. As we noted in a recent report, GPRA aims for a closer and
    clearer linkage between spending decisions and the results of federal

    Also, GPRA requires agencies to consult with the Congress in developing
    their strategic plans. This gives the Congress the opportunity to work with
    agencies to ensure that their missions and goals are focused on results;
    consistent with the Congress’ intent in establishing programs; and
    reasonable, in light of fiscal constraints. The products of this consultation
    should be clearer guidance to agencies on their missions and goals and
    better information to help the Congress make choices among programs,
    consider alternative ways to achieve results, and assess how well agencies
    are achieving the results the Congress intended for programs.

    GPRA requires VA and other agencies to complete their strategic plans by
    September 30, 1997. Future actions required under GPRA include the

•   Beginning in the fall of 1997 (for the fiscal year 1999 budget cycle),
    agencies will submit an annual performance plan to the Office of
    Management and Budget (OMB).
•   Beginning with the fiscal year 1999 budget, OMB will include a
    governmentwide performance plan in the President’s budget submission
    to the Congress.
•   On March 31 of each year, beginning with 2000, agencies will submit
    annual performance reports, comparing their actual performance with
    their goals, to the Congress and OMB.

    Performance Budgeting: Past Initiatives Offer Insights for GPRA Implementation (GAO/AIMD-97-46,
    Mar. 27, 1997).

    Page 3                                                                     GAO/T-HEHS-97-131
                           Veterans’ Affairs: Veterans Benefits
                           Administration’s Progress and Challenges in
                           Implementing GPRA

                           In implementing GPRA, VBA’s planning process has been evolving. VBA first
Progress VBA Has           developed a strategic plan in December 1994 covering fiscal years
Made in Implementing       1996-2001. The plan laid out VBA’s mission, strategic vision, and goals. For
GPRA                       example, the compensation goal was to provide compensation benefits to
                           veterans who were disabled while in the service and to their eligible
                           dependents upon the veterans’ death. The pension goal was to provide
                           pension benefits to veterans of wartime periods who are disabled and do
                           not meet minimum income requirements, and to their eligible dependents
                           upon the death of the veterans. However, in a 1995 report, VA’s Inspector
                           General stated that the goals in the strategic plan could not be measured
                           because the plan did not contain specific performance information.3

                           In fiscal year 1995, VBA established a new GPRA strategic planning process.
                           VBA began developing five “business line” plans corresponding with its
                           major program areas: compensation and pension, educational assistance,
                           loan guaranty, vocational rehabilitation and counseling, and insurance.
                           These business plans were to supplement the overall strategic plan and to
                           specify program performance objectives and measurements.

                           In VA’s fiscal year 1998 budget submission, VBA has set forth its business
                           goals and measures. VBA has identified seven goals for the compensation
                           and pension program that are oriented toward the efficiency of claims
                           processing and customer satisfaction.

                       •   Be responsive to customer and stakeholder needs.
                       •   Maintain a 97-percent accuracy rate for claims processing.
                       •   Reduce the time required to process claims.
                       •   Reduce operating costs.
                       •   Ensure the best value for the taxpayers’ dollar.
                       •   Maintain a highly skilled, motivated, and adaptable workforce.
                       •   Improve communications and outreach.

                           VBA has also identified specific performance measures for the
                           compensation and pension program. For instance, the measures include
                           reducing processing time for original compensation claims from 144 days
                           to 53 days and achieving a 97-percent accuracy rate for claims processing
                           by fiscal year 2002.

                            Office of the Inspector General, Review of the Implementation of VBA’s Strategic Plan and
                           Performance Measurements, 5R1-B18-100 (Washington, D.C.: VA, Aug. 25, 1995).

                           Page 4                                                                         GAO/T-HEHS-97-131
                       Veterans’ Affairs: Veterans Benefits
                       Administration’s Progress and Challenges in
                       Implementing GPRA

                       As VBA continues its process of implementing GPRA, it faces some difficult
Challenges VBA Faces   challenges. If the full intent of GPRA is to be achieved, VBA will need to
                       develop a strategic plan with a clear mission, goals, and performance
                       measures that are truly results oriented. In addition, VBA will need to
                       integrate its strategic plan with those of VA and other federal agencies to
                       ensure quality service, since VBA is not the only agency providing veterans’
                       benefits. Furthermore, VBA will need to effectively measure and assess its
                       performance to fully complete the process that GPRA mandates for
                       improved federal programs.

Focusing on Results    VBA has identified specific goals and measures in its current strategic plan,
                       but again, they tend to be process oriented. While these goals and
                       measures are important, they do not reflect program results. For example,
                       the purpose of the disability compensation program is to compensate
                       veterans for the average loss in earning capacity in civilian occupations
                       that results from injuries or conditions incurred or aggravated during
                       military service. Given this program purpose, results-oriented goals would
                       focus on issues such as whether disabled veterans are indeed being
                       compensated for average loss in earning capacity and whether VBA is
                       providing compensation to all of those who should be compensated. VBA
                       has not yet tackled these types of difficult questions and will need to do so
                       in consultation with the Congress in order to develop a truly
                       results-oriented strategic plan. VA officials told us that these issues are
                       particularly sensitive and that they have begun consultations with the
                       Congress and other stakeholders about the purpose of the compensation
                       and pension program. However, no final agreements have been made to

                       In the past, VBA has not focused on results. For example, in 1984, 1992, and
                       again in 1996, we reported that VBA’s vocational rehabilitation program did
                       not focus on helping disabled veterans find jobs, despite a 1980 law (P.L.
                       96-466) requiring it to do so.4 Instead, VBA continued to focus on sending
                       veterans to training, an intermediate step in finding jobs. Consequently,
                       VBA has placed relatively few disabled veterans in jobs.

                       VBA is aware that it needs to focus more on its benefits programs’
                       outcomes for veterans rather than only on the process used to administer

                        VA Can Provide More Employment Assistance to Veterans Who Complete Its Vocational
                       Rehabilitation Program (GAO/HRD-84-39, May 23, 1984); Vocational Rehabilitation: Better VA
                       Management Needed to Help Disabled Veterans Find Jobs (GAO/HRD-92-100, Sept. 4, 1992); and
                       Vocational Rehabilitation: VA Continues to Place Few Disabled Veterans in Jobs (GAO/HEHS-96-155,
                       Sept. 3, 1996).

                       Page 5                                                                      GAO/T-HEHS-97-131
                                  Veterans’ Affairs: Veterans Benefits
                                  Administration’s Progress and Challenges in
                                  Implementing GPRA

                                  the benefits. In its fiscal year 1998 budget submission, VBA stated that,
                                  historically, VA has engaged in little policy or program analysis of its
                                  benefits programs and that this work is needed if the intended results of
                                  GPRA are to be fully achieved. VBA acknowledges that additional data and
                                  research will be required, including formal program evaluations and
                                  extensive consultation with stakeholders.

Integrating Strategic Plans       As VBA continues its strategic planning, it will need to integrate its plan
                                  with those of the rest of VA and those of other federal agencies that
                                  support the veterans’ benefits programs. For example, in determining the
                                  eligibility of a veteran for disability compensation, VBA usually requires the
                                  veteran to undergo a medical examination, which is generally performed
                                  by a Veterans Health Administration physician. Similarly, VBA looks to the
                                  Department of Defense for information about the medical conditions of
                                  veterans while they were in the military and to the Department of Labor
                                  for veterans’ employment and training experiences. VBA will need to
                                  determine what impact these other entities will have on the success of
                                  VBA’s performance.

                                  Currently, VA is in the process of developing a departmentwide strategic
                                  plan. VBA is participating in this planning effort. In addition, VA has
                                  initiatives under way to improve its information exchange with the
                                  Department of Defense. Furthermore, as we recently testified before this
                                  Subcommittee, the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and
                                  Training Service has developed a draft strategic plan and performance
                                  measures.5 VBA will need to continue to coordinate with these agencies
                                  that are critical to veterans’ benefits programs to ensure overall high
                                  quality service to veterans.

Measuring and Assessing           Once VBA has identified results-oriented goals, it will need to effectively
Performance                       measure and assess its performance. As mandated by GPRA, federal
                                  agencies are required to link their performance measures to their annual
                                  budget requests. Federal agencies are expected to limit their performance
                                  measures to a few that

                              •   best demonstrate how the agency’s goals are met;
                              •   allow agency managers to balance quality, costs, customer satisfaction,
                                  stakeholder concerns, and other matters; and

                                   Veterans’ Employment and Training Service: Focusing on Program Results to Improve Agency
                                  Performance (GAO/T-HEHS-97-129, May 7, 1997).

                                  Page 6                                                                     GAO/T-HEHS-97-131
                   Veterans’ Affairs: Veterans Benefits
                   Administration’s Progress and Challenges in
                   Implementing GPRA

               •   are linked directly to the offices in each agency that are directly
                   responsible for making programs work.

                   The Congress, in enacting GPRA, recognized that measuring the results of
                   many federal programs will be difficult and, as a result, permitted GPRA to
                   be phased in over several years. Measuring results will be a challenge
                   because the link between program operations and results can be difficult
                   to establish. Also, a result may occur years after an agency has completed
                   a task (for example, awarding a research grant). Nevertheless, agencies
                   are expected to use the performance and cost data they collect to
                   continuously improve their operations, identify gaps between their
                   performance and their performance goals, and develop plans for closing
                   performance gaps.

                   VBA will need to develop appropriate performance measures and collect
                   adequate and reliable performance and cost data to effectively measure
                   and assess its performance. VBA will have to balance the costs of data
                   collection against the need for complete, accurate, and consistent data.

                   VBA is aware that it has much work to do to fully implement GPRA. VBA’s
Conclusion         success in implementing the act will depend on how successful it is in
                   ensuring that its strategic plan focuses on results, how well it integrates its
                   plan with the plans of VA and other key agencies, and how effectively it
                   measures and assesses its performance in meeting its goals and bringing
                   about program improvements. The Congress will play an important role in
                   consulting with VBA in developing results-oriented goals and overseeing
                   VBA’s efforts to implement GPRA.

                   Mr. Chairman, this completes my testimony this morning. I would be
                   pleased to respond to any questions you or Members of the Subcommittee
                   may have.

                   For more information on this testimony, call Cynthia M. Fagnoni, Acting
Contributors       Associate Director, at (202) 512-7202 or Irene P. Chu, Assistant Director, at
                   (202) 512-7102. Gregory D. Whitney and Mark Trapani also contributed to
                   this statement.

(105752)           Page 7                                                       GAO/T-HEHS-97-131
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