VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment:

Better Incentives, Workforce Planning, and Performance Reporting Could Improve Program

GAO-09-34: Published: Jan 26, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 26, 2009.

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In 2004, the Veterans Affairs' Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program was reviewed by a VR&E Task Force. It recommended numerous changes, in particular focusing on employment through a new Five-Track service delivery model and increasing program capacity. Since then, VR&E has worked to implement these recommendations. To help Congress understand whether VR&E is now better prepared to meet the needs of veterans with disabilities, GAO was asked to determine (1) how the implementation of the Five-Track Employment Process has affected VR&E's focus on employment, (2) the extent to which VR&E has taken steps to improve its capacity, and (3) how program outcomes are reported. GAO interviewed officials from VR&E, the 2004 Task Force, and veteran organizations; visited four VR&E offices; surveyed all VR&E officers; and analyzed agency data and reports.

By launching the Five-Track Employment Process, VR&E has strengthened its focus on employment, but program incentives have not been updated to reflect this emphasis. VR&E has delineated its services into five tracks to accommodate the different needs of veterans, such as those who need immediate employment as opposed to those who need training to meet their career goal. However, program incentives remain directed toward education and training. Veterans who receive those services collect an allowance, but those who opt exclusively for employment services do not. While VR&E officials said they believed it would be helpful to better align incentives with the employment mission, they have not yet taken steps to address this issue. VR&E has improved its capacity to provide services by increasing its collaboration with other organizations and by hiring more staff, but it lacks a strategic approach to workforce planning. Although there have been staff increases, many of VR&E's regional offices still reported staff and skill shortages. The program is not addressing these workforce problems with strategic planning practices that GAO's prior work has identified as essential. For example, VR&E officials have not fully determined the correct number of staff and the skills they need to serve current and future veterans. VA does not adequately report program outcomes, which could limit understanding of the program's performance. Specifically, it reports one overall rehabilitation rate for veterans pursuing employment and those trying to live independently. Computing each group's success rate for fiscal year 2008, GAO found a lower rate of success for the majority seeking employment and a higher rate of success for the minority seeking independent living than the overall rate. GAO also found that VR&E changed the way it calculates the rehabilitation rate in fiscal year 2006, without acknowledgments in key agency reports. VA noted the change in its fiscal year 2006 performance report, but did not do so for its fiscal year 2007 and 2008 reports, or for its fiscal year 2008and 2009 budget submissions. Such omissions could lead to misinterpretation of program performance over time.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To better align the program's financial incentives with its employment mission, VA stated that VR&E officials drafted a legislative proposal for consideration by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. This legislative proposal was necessary because the current law does not allow veterans to be paid a subsistence allowance while undergoing a program of employment services only. After VR&E officials drafted the legislative proposal, H.R. 297, the Veteran Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Subsistence Allowance and Improvement Act of 2009, was introduced on January 8, 2009. This bill proposes an increase in the subsistence allowance for veterans participating in VR&E, including the addition of a subsistence allowance for those veterans who are participating in a program of employment services only.

    Recommendation: To ensure VR&E's employment mission is fully supported, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct VR&E to consider cost-effective options for better aligning the program's financial incentives with its employment mission.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, VR&E conducted a work measurement study to document the amount of time vocational rehabilitation counselors (VRCs), employment coordinators (ECs), and vocational rehabilitation officers spend on various activities. The study's final report was released in April 2011. The report made seven recommendations: (1) adopt a workload model as the basis for determining staffing levels; (2) remedy known problem areas to increase efficiencies; (3) allocate routine paperwork and administrative duties to case assistants; (4) determine which best practices are associated with efficient use of time; (5) adopt a work standard for paperwork that is associated with appropriate and efficient allocation of staff resources; (6) when replicating the time allocation measurements performed in this study, include information on the type of case associated with time spent on activities; (7) conduct additional research to determine how contracting affects VRC time. As of August 2011, VR&E has incorporated these recommendations into its Business Process Reengineering project. Additionally, in 2010, VR&E completed a skills survey of managers, VRCs, and counseling psychologists. An action plan was developed to address training concerns identified by the survey.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the current and future needs of veterans are met, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct VR&E to engage in a strategic workforce planning process that collects and uses relevant data, such as information on the appropriate counselor caseload and the critical skills and competencies needed by staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its 2009 Performance and Accountability Report and 2011 Congressional Budget Justification, VA included separate performance measures for the annual percentage of veterans who obtained employment and the percentage of veterans who achieved independent living. In the budget justification, VA indicated it collected baseline data for these measures during 2009 and had set 2010 performance targets of 75 percent for employment rehabilitation and 92 percent for independent living. Based on these actions, we are closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To increase transparency in VR&E performance and budget reports, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should take actions such as separately reporting both the annual percentage of veterans who obtain employment and the percentage of those who achieve independent living, and fully disclosing changes in performance measure calculations when reporting trend data in key performance and budget reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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