WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs leaders say new accountability rules passed last summer are already beginning to reform the culture throughout the federal bureaucracy.

Union officials insist the measure has created a haphazard mess at the department.

“The Accountability Act has proven to be one of the most misguided and counterproductive VA laws ever enacted,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

“It has demoralized and harmed its dedicated workforce … It has deprived veterans who depend on the VA for health care and benefits of the services of employees with extensive training and experience who have been fired under the Act’s new authorities without a fair chance to improve their performance or defend their jobs.”

The measure, signed into law just over a year ago, has been hailed repeatedly over the last year by conservatives on Capitol Hill and White House officials as a key tool in fixing VA, and was a major applause line for President Donald Trump in his State of the Union speech in January.

Among other provisions, the legislation — passed with bipartisan support — shortened the appeal time for VA employees protesting their dismissals and expanded VA leadership’s ability to remove most workers, including senior executives, for misconduct or poor performance.

Now, those changes and the creation of VA’s new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection as the basis of a broader push by Trump for federal service reforms which critics have blasted as his latest attack on federal workers.

Acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rouke, however, told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday that he sees the work as a model for cultural change throughout government agencies.

Earlier in the day, he brushed off criticism from Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that the legislation has largely resulted in the firing of lower-level workers, not managers who set policies and would have a larger impact on office reforms.

So far in 2018, 1,171 VA workers have been fired, demoted or suspended. Of those, fewer than 20 have been senior managers. Nearly half the total comes from food service workers, nursing assistants and housekeepers.

But O’Rouke said the percentage of general worker firings has remained steady in recent years (before passage of the new accountability law) and dismissed concerns about specific firing and turnover figures.

“The intent of the law was not to go fire low-level employees,” he said. “It was to improve accountability.

“It does take leaders to show what are the right things to do. That’s going to take time to get down to our housekeepers and everyone who does work at the point of service. But we’re seeing the change now at the higher levels, and we’ll see that continue to work throughout the organization.”

Cox said he doesn’t believe that is happening. AFGE officials have been critical of Trump and VA for blaming systemic problems on low-level workers, and have said those attacks are hurting the morale and quality of the workforce.

“When you have fear in an organization, you never have the best performance,” Cox said.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee expressed concerns about a lack of consistent, formal procedures for complaints filed through the new office. The issue has been a point of contention between VA leaders and the VA inspector general in recent weeks.

O’Rourke acknowledged the issue — “new rules, everybody is trying to figure it out” — but also insisted that the message of accountability is spreading throughout the department.

“This law is appropriate in that it gives us the tools that we need at VA to address accountability,” he said. “And we have very strong agreement among the administration and Congress that whistleblower protection is very important.

“Putting that together with accountability is going to give us the results, eventually, that we need at VA to make sure we are serving veterans the way we need to.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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