oversight

Veterans Benefits Administration: Focusing on Results in Vocational Rehabilitation and Education Programs

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-06-05.

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 9:30 a.m.
Thursday June 5, 1997
                          VETERANS BENEFITS
                          ADMINISTRATION

                          Focusing on Results in
                          Vocational Rehabilitation
                          and Education Programs
                          Statement of Cynthia M. Fagnoni,
                          Acting Associate Director
                          Veterans’ Affairs and Military Health Care Issues
                          Health, Education, and Human Services Division




GAO/T-HEHS-97-148
Veterans Benefits Administration: Focusing
on Results in Vocational Rehabilitation and
Education Programs
               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 of 1993
               (known as GPRA or the Results Act). Over the past several years, the
               Congress has taken steps to fundamentally change the way federal
               agencies go about their work, in response to management problems so
               common among federal agencies that they demanded governmentwide
               solutions. The Results Act was passed to require agencies to clearly define
               their missions, set goals, measure performance, and report on their
               accomplishments.

               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 focus primarily on two VBA programs:
               vocational rehabilitation and counseling, and educational assistance.
               These programs accounted for about $1.3 billion of VBA’s $20 billion fiscal
               year 1996 appropriation. In fiscal year 1996, VBA provided vocational
               rehabilitation benefits to 52,000 disabled veterans; provided educational
               assistance to 397,000 veterans, reservists, and service members; and
               provided education and training assistance to 41,000 dependents of
               veterans. My statement will address the progress VBA has made and
               challenges it faces in implementing the Results Act. The information in this
               statement is based on reports we have issued in the vocational
               rehabilitation area and a review of VBA’s strategic plan.

               In summary, VBA has taken an important first step in implementing the
               Results Act, but this process is an evolving one. To date, VBA has
               developed a strategic plan with a mission and goals and has begun
               consulting with the Congress and other stakeholders to obtain their views
               on its plan. For the vocational rehabilitation and educational assistance
               programs, VBA has identified specific goals and measures that are primarily
               process oriented. While these goals and measures are important, the key
               to successful implementation of the act is to focus on results. As it
               continues through the planning process, VBA needs to strive to focus its
               strategic plan on results, as required by the act, such as those related to
               the overall purpose of these programs—to assist veterans in their
               readjustment to civilian life after military service—and not merely on the



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                           on Results in Vocational Rehabilitation and
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                           process used to administer the benefits, such as the timeliness and
                           accuracy of claims processing. In addition, to help it achieve quality
                           service, VBA needs to integrate its strategic plan with VA’s overall plan and
                           with the plans of other key federal agencies that support veterans’ benefits
                           programs, such as the Department of Defense, the Department of
                           Education’s state vocational rehabilitation and Student Financial
                           Assistance programs, and the Department of Labor’s Veterans’
                           Employment and Training Service. Down the road, VBA will also need to
                           ensure that it effectively measures and assesses its performance, as
                           mandated by the act, to determine how well its programs are meeting their
                           goals and making improvements. VBA is aware of the need to focus on
                           results and is currently working through this process.


                           Under the Results Act, every major federal agency must now ask itself
Background                 some basic questions: What is our mission? What are our goals and how
                           will we achieve them? How can we measure our performance? How will
                           we use that information to make improvements? The act forces a shift in
                           the focus of federal agencies away from such traditional concerns as
                           staffing and activity levels and toward a single overriding issue—results.
                           The act requires agencies to set goals, measure performance, and report
                           on their accomplishments. VBA’s vocational rehabilitation and counseling
                           and educational assistance programs are in the process of implementing
                           the Results Act’s requirements.


Purpose and Requirements   The Results Act is the centerpiece of a statutory framework provided by
of the Results Act         recent legislation to bring needed improvements to federal agencies’
                           management activities. (Other parts of the framework include the 1990
                           Chief Financial Officers Act, the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act, and the
                           1996 Clinger-Cohen Act.) As we noted in our May 1997 testimony before
                           this Subcommittee,1 the Results Act is intended to help correct a number
                           of management problems in federal programs. These include (1) lack of
                           clear agency missions; (2) fragmentation of programs among multiple
                           federal agencies; (3) performance measurement based on process instead
                           of on achieving program results; (4) lack of strategies for achieving agency
                           missions; and (5) inadequate information on program results and costs.

                           The Results Act was designed to focus federal agencies’ attention on the
                           results of the programs they administer—not just on program operations.

                           1
                            Veterans’ Affairs: Veterans Benefits Administration’s Progress and Challenges in Implementing GPRA
                           (GAO/T-HEHS-97-131, May 14, 1997).



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                             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. Also, the act 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.

                             The Results Act requires VA and other agencies to complete their strategic
                             plans by September 30, 1997. Future actions required under the act include
                             the following:

                         •   Beginning in fall 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.


VA Vocational                The mission of the vocational rehabilitation and counseling program, as
Rehabilitation and           stated in VBA’s strategic plan, is to provide all services and assistance
Educational Assistance       necessary to enable veterans with service-connected disabilities to achieve
                             maximum independence in daily living and, to the maximum extent
Programs                     feasible, to become employable and to obtain and maintain suitable
                             employment.2 Veterans are eligible for program services if they have a
                             20-percent or higher service-connected disability and they have been
                             determined by VA to have an employment handicap.3 The law defines an

                             2
                              VA defines a suitable job as a position consistent with the veteran’s aptitudes, abilities, and interests.
                             3
                              Eligible veterans are assigned disability ratings ranging from 0 to 100 percent, in increments of
                             10 percent. The rating represents the average impairment in earning capacity resulting from
                             service-connected injuries or a combination of injuries.



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    employment handicap as an impairment of a veteran’s ability to prepare
    for, obtain, or retain employment consistent with his or her abilities,
    aptitudes, and interests. A veteran with a 10-percent service-connected
    disability also may be eligible if he or she has a serious employment
    handicap. The eligibility period generally extends for 12 years, beginning
    on the date of the veteran’s discharge. A veteran found eligible for services
    can receive up to 48 months of benefits during the 12-year period.

    The vocational rehabilitation process has five phases. In the first phase, VA
    receives the veteran’s application, establishes eligibility, and schedules a
    meeting with the veteran. In phase two, a counselor determines whether
    the veteran has an employment handicap and, if so, the counselor and the
    veteran jointly develop a rehabilitation plan.4 The veteran then moves into
    training or education (phase three), if needed, and on to employment
    services (phase four) if training or education is not needed or after it is
    completed. During phase four, VA and other federal and state agencies help
    the veteran find a job. In phase five, the veteran is classified as
    rehabilitated once he or she finds a suitable job and holds it for at least 60
    days.

    The mission of VA’s educational assistance program, as stated in VBA’s
    strategic plan, is to provide education and training opportunities to
    veterans and their dependents, assist the military services in recruiting
    new members for the All-Volunteer Force, and encourage membership in
    the Selected Reserve and National Guard. The vast majority of VA’s
    beneficiaries receive assistance under the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which
    provides financial assistance for attendance at colleges and other higher
    education and training institutions. This program has two major parts:

•   the Active Duty portion, which is generally for veterans who entered
    active duty on or after July 1, 1985, served on active duty for at least 3
    years, have honorable discharges, and have high school diplomas; and
•   the Selected Reserve portion, which is generally for individuals who
    agreed, on or after July 1, 1985, to begin a 6-year commitment (or extend
    an existing commitment by 6 years) to serve in a reserve or National
    Guard unit.

    Those who are eligible for Montgomery G.I. Bill benefits have up to 10
    years from the end of their active duty, or from the beginning of their
    eligibility as reservists, to use their benefits. In fiscal year 1996, VA had

    4
     A rehabilitation plan outlines specific services to be provided to the veteran, the duration of services,
    and a basis for assessing progress toward the program goal.



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                        about 383,000 Montgomery G.I. Bill beneficiaries—281,000 veterans, 16,000
                        service members, and 86,000 reservists. These beneficiaries accounted for
                        about 87 percent of all VA educational assistance beneficiaries.

                        Potential educational assistance beneficiaries must file initial claims with
                        VBA to establish their eligibility for benefits. Also, beneficiaries file
                        supplemental claims to request changes in their education and training
                        programs; for example, to change educational institutions or to extend the
                        time period of training programs. Of the 1.2 million educational assistance
                        claims processed by VBA in fiscal year 1996, about 167,000 (14 percent)
                        were initial claims.


                        In implementing the Results Act, VBA’s planning process has been evolving.
VBA’s Implementation    VBA first developed a strategic plan in December 1994 covering fiscal years
of the Results Act Is   1996-2001. The plan laid out VBA’s mission, strategic vision, and goals. For
Evolving                example, the vocational rehabilitation and counseling goal was to enable
                        veterans with service-connected disabilities to become employable and to
                        obtain and maintain suitable employment. The educational assistance goal
                        was to help provide education and training that would aid veterans,
                        reservists, National Guard members, and veterans’ dependents in their
                        readjustment to civilian life, and to help develop a more highly educated
                        and productive workforce. In addition, a goal of both programs was to
                        treat beneficiaries in a courteous, responsive, and timely manner.
                        However, as VA’s Inspector General noted, VBA’s plan did not include
                        specific program objectives and performance measures that could be used
                        to measure VBA’s progress in achieving its goals.5

                        In 1995, VBA established a new Results Act strategic planning process that
                        included business process reengineering.6 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. Each business
                        line plan supplements the overall VBA strategic plan by specifying program
                        goals that are tied to VBA’s overall goals. Also, each business line plan
                        identifies performance measures that VBA intends to use to track its
                        progress in meeting each plan’s goals.

                        5
                         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).
                        6
                         Business processing reengineering (BPR) is a systematic, disciplined approach for achieving
                        dramatic, measurable performance improvements by fundamentally reexamining, rethinking, and
                        redesigning the processes that an organization uses to carry out its mission. VBA began BPR with its
                        compensation and pension program in October 1995.



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    VBA’s    vocational rehabilitation plan has four goals:

•   Identify the level of satisfaction customers have with the services VBA
    provides and begin setting improvement targets.
•   Increase the relative number of vocational rehabilitation program
    participants who successfully complete their programs.
•   Ensure all employees have the skills needed for their positions in order to
    maintain a highly skilled, motivated, and adaptable workforce.
•   Develop a management tool to identify the cost of delivering vocational
    rehabilitation benefits.

    Three of these goals are oriented toward improving the efficiency of
    rehabilitating clients and improving customer satisfaction with
    rehabilitation services. The second goal, which addresses participants
    completing their plan of services, attempts to measure program outcomes.

    Performance measures that VBA has identified to determine its progress in
    achieving the vocational rehabilitation plan’s goals include

•   the percentage of individuals who file claims for benefits but then fail to
    pursue their claims;
•   the average number of days required to complete the processing of
    veterans’ claims for vocational rehabilitation benefits and to notify the
    claimants;
•   the percentage of veterans who are found to be entitled to rehabilitation
    services and then go on to develop their rehabilitation plans; and
•   the percentage of veterans who become employable (complete the training
    phase and enter the employment services phase of their plans) and then go
    on to acquire and maintain suitable employment.

    Similarly, the four goals for the educational assistance program are
    oriented toward the timeliness and accuracy of claims processing, and
    beneficiaries’ satisfaction with VBA’s services. These goals are to

•   identify the level of customer satisfaction with VBA’s educational services
    and benefits and begin setting improvement targets;
•   improve payment and service accuracy and claims processing timeliness;
•   implement an enhanced training program for the VBA staff responsible for
    administering the educational assistance program; and
•   develop a management tool to identify the cost of administering the
    educational assistance program.




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                           Performance measures that VBA has identified to track its progress in
                           achieving the educational assistance plan’s goals include

                       •   the percentage of eligible veterans, service members, and reservists who
                           are using their Montgomery G.I. Bill educational benefits;
                       •   the percentage of the time VBA determines the correct amounts of
                           educational assistance payments;
                       •   the average number of days required to complete the processing of
                           educational assistance claims; and
                       •   the average administrative cost per program participant.



                           As VBA continues its process of implementing the Results Act, it faces
Challenges VBA Faces       some difficult challenges. If the full intent of the act 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 other VA programs 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 the Results Act mandates for improving 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 vocational rehabilitation and counseling program is to
                           provide eligible service-disabled veterans with services and assistance to
                           help them become employable and to obtain and maintain suitable
                           employment. Given this program purpose, results-oriented goals would
                           focus, for example, on issues such as how well the program assisted
                           disabled veterans in overcoming their employment handicaps to obtain
                           and maintain employment consistent with their abilities, aptitudes, and
                           interests. VBA’s current strategic plan measures veterans’ progress in
                           completing each rehabilitation phase. However, it does not provide an
                           assessment of the program’s overall effectiveness.

                           Similarly, one purpose of VBA’s educational assistance program is to
                           extend the benefits of a higher education to qualifying men and women
                           who might not otherwise be able to afford such an education. A
                           results-oriented goal would focus on issues such as whether the program



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                                  indeed provided the education that the veteran could otherwise not have
                                  obtained. 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.

                                  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
                                  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
                                  the act 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 and state agencies
                                  that support veterans’ benefits programs. For example, our work has
                                  shown that

                              •   state vocational rehabilitation agencies, the Department of Labor, and
                                  private employment agencies also help veterans find employment once
                                  they have acquired all of the skills to become employable;
                              •   VA has contracted for quality reviews of higher education and training
                                  institutions that have already been reviewed by the Department of
                                  Education;7 and
                              •   VBA relies on the Department of Defense for information about veterans’
                                  military service, including their medical conditions, to help determine
                                  eligibility for vocational rehabilitation and educational assistance
                                  programs.

                                  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 and VBA is participating in this effort. In addition, VA has initiatives
                                  under way to improve its information exchange with the Department of
                                  Defense. For example, VBA plans, in coordination with the Department of
                                  Defense, to improve the dissemination of information on Montgomery G.I.
                                  Bill benefits to active duty service members who have elected to

                                  7
                                   VA Student Financial Aid: Opportunity to Reduce Overlap in Approving Education and Training
                                  Programs (GAO/HEHS-96-22, Oct. 30, 1995).



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                              Veterans Benefits Administration: Focusing
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                              participate in the program.8 Participants would receive a letter outlining
                              their benefits and the requirements for maintaining their eligibility.
                              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.9 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 the Results Act,
                              federal agencies must link their performance measures to their fiscal year
                              1999 budget requests, which are to be submitted to OMB this fall. Agencies
                              are also to submit their performance plans to the Congress after the
                              President submits his fiscal year 1999 budget in early 1998. Federal
                              agencies are expected to limit their performance measures to a few that

                          •   best demonstrate how an agency’s goals are met;
                          •   allow agency managers to balance quality, costs, customer satisfaction,
                              stakeholder concerns, and other matters; and
                          •   are linked directly to the offices in each agency that are directly
                              responsible for making programs work.

                              The Congress, in enacting the Results Act, recognized that measuring the
                              results of many federal programs will be difficult and, consequently,
                              permitted the act 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 such as VBA 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. As a result, appropriate
                              performance measures and adequate and reliable performance and cost
                              data will be needed to effectively measure and assess VBA performance.




                              8
                               Upon entering military service, recruits can agree to have their pay reduced by $100 per month for 1
                              year to establish their eligibility for Montgomery G.I. Bill benefits.
                              9
                               Veterans’ Employment and Training Service: Focusing on Program Results to Improve Agency
                              Performance (GAO/T-HEHS-97-129, May 7, 1997).


                              Page 9                                                                          GAO/T-HEHS-97-148
           Veterans Benefits Administration: Focusing
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           Education Programs




           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.




(105753)   Page 10                                               GAO/T-HEHS-97-148
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