Robert A. “Bob” McDonald was nominated by President Obama to serve as the eighth Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and he was confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate on July 29, 2014.
Secretary McDonald led the Department in its ambitious transformational journey to be a world-class service provider and the No. 1 customer-service agency in the Federal government. His goal was to give Veterans consistent, high-quality experiences. That undertaking began by reinforcing the importance of VA’s inspiring mission to care for those “who shall have borne the battle,” their families, and their survivors, and re-emphasizing VA’s commitment to its I-CARE Values of Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence. The Department’s MyVA transformation strategy was its catalyst for change, for modernizing VA’s culture, processes, and capabilities.
Over the course of Secretary McDonald’s tenure, VA expanded Veteran access by focusing on staffing, space, productivity, and VA Community Care. VA continued driving down the disability claims backlog while positioning the Department for sweeping appeals reform. And VA made substantial progress in bringing an effective end to Veteran homelessness. Focusing on proven prevention and treatment services and Veteran homelessness programs—and thanks in large part to unprecedented partnerships and vital networks of collaborative relationships across the Federal government, across state and local government, and with both non-profit and for-profit organizations—Veteran homelessness was cut by half since 2010, and 34 communities and three states brought a functional end to Veteran homelessness.
To put the needs, expectations, and interests of Veterans and their families first—and put Veterans in control of how, when, and where they wish to be served—Secretary McDonald gathered broad input and insights from Veterans, employees, Veteran Service Organizations, and other stakeholders to shape the Department’s five MyVA Transformation strategies. The five Veteran-centric strategies were designed to modernize VA to best serve Veterans in the twenty-first century, and they effectively improved the Veteran experience, improved the employee experience so employees could better serve Veterans, improved internal support services, established a strong foundation for VA’s growing culture of continuous improvement, and enhanced strategic partnerships across the country.
The Veteran-centric approach meant designing and evaluating all of VA’s plans and programs through the eyes of the Veterans they serve. For instance, employees used the VA Innovators Network to test their new ideas and team with partners to improve the way they serve Veterans, and the VA Innovators Network Accelerator provided the path for employees to co-design with Veterans to develop and deploy innovations that create the best possible experience for Veterans and their families. The Diffusion of Excellence initiative put VA best practices on a platform so others could reproduce them locally, and front-line employees adopted a host of simple, smart best practices to improve the quality of VA services.
VA enhancements of supply chain practices and procedures, leveraging the buying power of VA’s immense scope and scale and changed how VA does business. Medical and surgical equipment supply chain reforms achieved nearly $230 million in cost avoidance the very first year. VA’s Veteran-focused Integration Process streamlined the delivery of information technology projects and programs. And VA’s new Enterprise Program Management Office worked to align projects with strategy.
By the end of Secretary McDonald’s tenure, Veterans at all VA Medical Centers had access to same-day services in primary and mental health care when needed right away. In November 2016, nearly 97 percent of Veteran appointments were being completed within 30 days of the clinically indicated or Veteran’s preferred date, 85 percent were being completed within 7 days, and over 22 percent of Veteran appointments were being completed on the same day. And average wait times for completed appointments were less than 5 days for primary care, about 6 days for specialty care, and under 3 days for mental health care. Additionally, Veterans could apply for health care in writing, online, or by phone—whichever the Veteran found most convenient.
Veterans appreciated the difference. Seventy-five percent of more than 100,000 surveyed Veterans using VA services reported that they got the care or services they needed (up 3 percentage points in just one year), 66 percent of surveyed Veterans reported that it was easy for them to get the services they needed (up 5 percentage points in only a year), 68 percent reported that they felt like valued customers at their VA (up 5 percentage points), and 61 percent reported that they trusted their VA to fulfill the country’s commitment to them as Veterans (up a full 6 percentage points).
And employees were seeing the difference. Thanks to Secretary McDonald’s emphasis on the employee experience, employees were thriving in a more thoroughly principles-based culture designed around VA’s new leadership model, a model based on principles of servant leadership and grounded in VA’s I-CARE Values. The I-LEAD model encourages Innovation, Learning, Engaging, Anticipating, and Delivering superior service and care to Veterans, and it inspires others to do the same. I-LEAD advanced a common leadership language and philosophy and a consistent set of behavioral expectations for VA leaders everywhere. To institutionalize and perpetuate these principles, over 24,000 leaders and 111,500 employees benefited from Leaders-Developing-Leaders training that spread best practices across VA. And thanks to VA101 training, over 200,000 employees were brought up-to-date on all the benefits and services VA offers.
These are a just a few examples of the innumerable ways VA achieved irrefutable progress under Secretary McDonald’s leadership. And Veterans Affairs achieved the kind of momentum in its MyVA transformation that could make VA the number one customer service agency in Federal government. The Harvard Business School’s November 2016 “Improving Access at VA” study of VA’s transformation efforts judged that, thanks to Secretary McDonald’s leadership, the MyVA “team had made impressive progress . . . .” And perhaps the most powerful testament on the progress and significant change Secretary McDonald brought to VA comes from 20 Veteran Service Organization national presidents, executive directors, CEOs, and founders. They wrote to the President Elect in mid-December 2016 that Secretary McDonald’s “efforts to transform and modernize the VA are showing early signs of success in the form of a better veteran experience.” They explained that “if continued . . . they have the potential to eventually make VA a model agency. It is therefore of the utmost importance that you select someone willing and able to continue prioritization of this work. We believe that person is Sec. McDonald.”
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