WASHINGTON — President Trump will establish a new accountability office for the Veterans Affairs employees and create a new task force to look for waste and fraud in the sprawling bureaucracy during a visit to department headquarters Thursday afternoon.
The moves could lead to faster firing of problem employees at VA offices and a downsizing of corporate staffs across the 365,000-person department, VA Secretary David Shulkin told reporters on Thursday.
"We're working hard to make sure there is a culture (at VA) where everyone understands their mission is to serve veterans," he said.
Trump's short trip across Lafayette Park from the White House to VA headquarters in Washington is designed to follow his campaign promises to clean up the embattled department, which lawmakers have criticized in recent years for being slow to respond to incompetence or criminal behavior.
The new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection -- which mirrors a proposal from Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., introduced last year -- will help "discipline or terminate VA managers or employees who fail to carry out their duties in helping our veterans" by reviewing existing regulations for dismissing federal workers.
Shulkin said that will include recommending new legislation governing department employment rules, and better enforcement of existing ones.
But it won't create new changes in the appeals processes for dismissal, a safety net that federal union officials have argued needs to be preserved to protect workers' rights.
They've sparred with Republican lawmakers over new accountability legislation already passed by the House (and endorsed by Shulkin) which would shorten appeals times and allow easier firing of employees involved in wrongdoing. That legislation is currently under consideration in the Senate.
Iskason's legislation from last year would have also tackled those issues, but the idea got mired down in congressional infighting over some of the appeals changes and unrelated program expansions. The bill even included the same name for the new office as the one rolled out by White House officials Thursday evening.
Shulkin said the new office will also work to preserve whistleblower rights — "we will investigate any reports of retaliation" — but on a broader scope than past such initiatives.
The new task force will look at VA’s overall national footprint and whether current services are duplicating efforts. But they’ll take a particular focus on the headquarters staffs, with an eye towards reducing the number of department employees who don’t interact directly with veterans.
"We’re not anticipating adding any new staff, but instead using our existing staff in a more efficient way," he said.
Earlier in the day, VA officials announced they planned to leave open thousands of positions left vacant by the recent federal hiring freeze, citing the need for leaner department operations.
Similar efforts on more efficient management were started by Shulkin’s predecessor, VA Secretary Bob McDonald, during President Obama’s administration. But while McDonald and Obama made promises of increased accountability within the department, neither made the issue a public point of emphasis like Shulkin and Trump.
Even before the official announcement, news of Trump’s new executive order drew concern from critics and praise from supporters of stronger VA accountability rules.
"We appreciate that President Trump is taking steps to fix the VA’s toxic culture, but the job will not be finished with just this executive order," said Dan Caldwell, policy director at Concerned Veterans for America.
"This new office will only be effective if it is coupled with strong accountability legislation … identifying bad VA employees won’t do any good if you still can’t fire them."
Shulkin said establishing the new office will incur some costs, but did not offer further details about its employee totals or budget. It will report directly to the VA Secretary with suggestions.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.