A hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this week took a look at the use of official time at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The hearing focused largely on a new report from the Government Accountability Office which noted that the VA lacks an accurate methodology for tracking the use of official time by its employees.
FedSmith.com author Ralph Smith wrote about the GAO report and noted that it found nothing new in the sense that agencies have previously been found to be unable to accurately track hours spent on official time for years now.
“No one really knows how much is time and money is spent by federal union representatives on union activity,” Smith wrote.
He cited figures released by OPM in 2012 which appeared to be quite precise; however, another GAO report released at that time found that the figures were actually not accurate.
Regarding the latest GAO report on use of official time at the VA, Smith said, “It should not surprise anyone the situation has not changed with regard to official time. The report concludes that the VA cannot accurately track official time usage. It does not have a standardized way for its facilities to record and calculate official time.”
So what is to be done?
The House hearing looked at this question and included testimony from several individuals representing various groups.
One person who testified was the Acting Executive Director of Labor-Management Relations at the VA, Kim McLeod. In her testimony, McLeod acknowledged the problems the VA has with tracking official time and said the agency concurs with GAO’s recommendations from its latest report.
Two Time Keeping Systems
One problem the VA has, according to McLeod, is that it uses two different time keeping systems.
The legacy system, the Enhanced Time and Attendance System (ETA), remains in effect at some VA facilities while other facilities have implemented VA’s new time and attendance system, commonly referred to as the VA Time and Attendance System (VATAS). ETA, the legacy system, does not have codes for employees and supervisors to record the local use of official time. VATAS, however, does have that capability. McLeod said that the full VATAS multi-facility rollout is scheduled to be completed by July 2018.
She also said that the VA has updated and expanded timekeeper training on the collection and reporting of official time in its final ongoing VATAS nationwide roll out, and training now includes consistent guidance on the proper method of inputting official time codes into VATAS.
Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), who led part of the hearing, questioned McLeod on why it would take so long to roll out the new timekeeping system.
“I don’t know, sir. It’s not a program that my office is responsible for,” said McLeod. She said that the Office of Management is responsible for the rollout and it had assured McLeod’s office it would be done by July 2018.
A Burden to Taxpayers?
Another testimony presented at the hearing was from Trey Kovacs, Policy Analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. In his testimony, he said that official time is actually wasteful and harmful to taxpayers.
“Hundreds of federal employees spend 100 percent of their time performing union activity instead of any public service,” said Kovacs. “It is impossible for a federal employee who never conducts any public service to promote the public interest, contribute to effective performance of public services, or achieve efficient government operations. Activity performed on official time benefits only labor unions and their members, not the public.”
He went on to say that official time should be funded with union dues rather than taxpayer money.
Testimony was also given at the hearing by J. David Cox, Sr., the National President for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
Cox appeared to dispute in his testimony what Kovacs said, noting that unions protect taxpayers through a clearly defined statue governing the use of official time.
According to Cox:
The statute clearly states that all non-representational activities of the union must be performed while in a non-duty status. That is, the same individual who has volunteered and been elected by his or her co-workers to provide representational services cannot do any of the following while on “official time” or while in duty status:
- solicitation of membership;
- internal union meetings;
- elections of officers; and
- partisan political activities.
Correlating Official Time and Veterans’ Care
Cox also defended the GAO report and said that it found that use of the elected union representatives improved decision making and helped to resolve problems within the VA, thus ultimately improving care for veterans.
Meadows took issue with Cox’s testimony. At one point he said to Cox:
You said that all of this official time is to drive quality. There is no direct correlation in terms of the amount of official time with regards to grievances or quality; I can’t find any linear correlation there. So until you can show me that official time can be directly correlated to the quality of healthcare that our veterans deserve, we’ve got to reform it. How long will it take you to get me that kind of direct correlation?
Cox said, “I can’t give you an answer today, but I will be glad to respond and give you an answer.”
Meadows ultimately pressed Cox to provide an answer to his question within 60 days, or if he was unable to get him an answer, provide a “very detailed explanation” as to why he was unable to find the information Meadows was seeking. Meadows asked McLeod for the same information as well.
Meadows concluded the hearing by saying, “We can’t afford to get this wrong, and quite frankly, we’ve been getting it wrong for far too long. We have a responsibility to serve our veterans, and any abuse of a system is not only not tolerated, but is going to be looked at in such a finite way that we will correct it.”