Call-Center Follies: More Evidence of Veterans Affairs Dysfunction

by Pete Hegseth

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a seemingly endless series of unflattering reports about poor performance and mismanagement at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It’s hard to escape the conclusion that our nation’s military veterans are poorly served by the department charged with looking out for their interests.

That conclusion is only reinforced by a recent report from the VA Office of the Inspector General (IG) detailing how one VA program squandered millions of dollars on under-used call centers. It’s the latest exhibit in the case that the VA, the second-largest federal department, is long overdue for fundamental reform and management oversight.

Here’s the background: In July 2011, the VA established the Veteran Employment Services Office (VESO) with the goal of recruiting, hiring, and retaining military veterans for careers with the department. In support of this effort, VESO opened call centers in Pennsylvania and Virginia in October 2011, staffed with contract personnel, to assist veterans with employment questions.

From the outside, this surely looked like a positive step, since at that time post-9/11 veterans were facing an unemployment rate of over 12 percent; for the youngest of these veterans (aged 18–24), the jobless rate was an astounding 30.4 percent. Anything the VA could do to help get veterans into good jobs had to be welcome.

Unfortunately, it ended up being an expensive disappointment, thanks to poor administrative oversight on the part of the department. Millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted with not enough to show for it. While the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans has slowly improved since 2011, this report suggests that VESO’s contribution to that improvement was negligible.

According to the IG report, in their first year of operation, the call centers were handling about 180 calls each day – which worked out to 2.4 calls per employee per day, the IG report concludes. (The report is unclear on what staff members were doing when they weren’t taking calls, which evidently was most of the time.)

So faced with a lack of demand for services, what did they do next? They expanded the call-center hours, the IG report notes:

In October 2012, VESO expanded the hours of operation for these call centers to 24/7 based on contractor projections that the call centers would support an average of 2,189 calls per day. These call centers are staffed with more than 70 contract staff. VESO paid $2.2 million from October through December 2012 to operate both call centers. . . .

Our analysis of VESO-provided data determined inbound and outbound call volume was so low that individual call center staff handled an average 2.4 calls a day.

The IG report notes that at least “$13.1 million will be spent through FY 2015 on excess call center capacity,” and that the VA has been “paying for services that were significantly underutilized with no known effect on veterans’ employment outcomes.” In response, VA officials have promised corrective action, but only after squandering millions of dollars to no real effect.

From the mountain of pending claims for VA disability and compensation benefits (more than 797,000 as of last week, with more than 519,000 waiting more than 125 days) to wasteful spending on employee conferences at luxury resorts, we have ample evidence of the VA’s record of dysfunction. This most recent IG report on the waste and inefficiency of the VESO program only adds to the impression that the VA is ill prepared to serve our nation’s service members as they seek to reintegrate into the civilian world.

What will it take for the Obama administration to demand real accountability and reform at the dysfunctional VA? Our veterans – and taxpayers – deserve better performance from federal agencies.

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