Evidence of meeting #32 for Veterans Affairs in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was going.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • David Robinson  Director General of Transformation, Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Bernard Butler  Director General, Policy and Research Division, Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Charlotte Stewart  Director General, Service Delivery and Program Management, Department of Veterans Affairs

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Folks, we're convening for the public session.

This is the start of our next study. I'm referring to the wording exactly so that I don't upset Mr. Casey by calling it “transition” or something weird. Our study is called “Transformation Initiatives at Veterans Affairs Canada”.

I want to welcome our witnesses today.

From the department, we have Charlotte Stewart, director general, service delivery and program management, and David Robinson, director general of transformation—there you go, that's the right word. We also have with us Bernard Butler, director general, policy and research division.

Welcome, all. We are pleased that you are going to get our study under way.

You know the routine.

David, I think you're new to it, but you'll love this process. It's as friendly as all get-out.

You have 10 minutes for a presentation.

I understand, David, that you'll be doing that. Then we'll open it up to questions and see how far it goes from there.

Thank you for coming. Please proceed.

4:25 p.m.

David Robinson Director General of Transformation, Department of Veterans Affairs

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Good afternoon, everybody.

On behalf of my colleagues, I want to thank you very much for having us here. We certainly welcome this opportunity to be with you today.

We are here to set the context for the upcoming weeks of presentations and discussions on the significant transformation program that is under way at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The department has decades of commitment to providing quality care and support to Canada's veterans. In order to fulfill this commitment, the department must change as the needs of Canada's veterans and their families change. That is our focus: improving service to Canada's veterans and their families.

Today we'll outline the department's transformation agenda to cut red tape and improve services for veterans. We'll describe the results that veterans and their families can expect to see and outline how we'll measure our progress towards achieving the intended results.

On behalf of all Canadians, members of this committee have been interested for some time in how the department is addressing the fact that the needs and demographics of those we serve are changing dramatically.

In October of last year, Keith Hillier, ADM of service delivery, and James Gilbert, ADM policy, communications, and commemoration, provided this committee with an overview of the context for change that the department is operating under.

I would like to start my overview of the elements of transformation by touching on the key factors that have led the department to this critical juncture in its history.

It is well known that as the traditional veteran population decreases, the number of Canadian Forces veterans who receive benefits and services from VAC is increasing. We know, too, that the future veteran population served by Veterans Affairs will be more diverse and will represent several generations.

VAC now needs simultaneous programs and service delivery systems to address the very diverse and urgent needs of different generations of veterans—those who served in the Second World War and Korea, the baby boomers who followed them, and those Canadians from generations X and Y who are the youngest veterans in the department's care.

We're listening to all our veterans, no matter when they served. They are telling us that we need to do things differently and we need to do things better to meet their needs. With this in mind, the department has launched a five-year transformation agenda to overhaul VAC programming and service delivery to keep pace with the evolving needs of Canada's veterans.

What do we mean by transformation?

By definition, transformation is a process of profound and radical change. Typically, it's associated with fundamental shifts that reorient an organization, taking it in a new direction and to an elevated level of effectiveness. Often, it implies a change in the character or culture of an organization at the most basic level.

This accurately describes transformation at VAC. Transformation will touch all business lines, adjust those that are not working as well as they could, enhance those that do, and create those processes that we feel are missing. It will build on our greatest strengths as a department: employees who care about their work and the people they serve. As one case manager recently said to me, “I'm not here just because it's a job”. Our employees believe deeply in our mission.

When Keith Hillier appeared here in October about transformation, he stated that “we can either fear this change, or embrace it as an opportunity to reorganize the department and to ensure that we have the right people with the right skills in the right places to meet the needs of veterans of all ages”.

Specifically, the vision for transformation at VAC is to be responsive to the diverse and changing needs of veterans and their families by ensuring relevant programs and policies, fast and easy access to benefits and services, professional service by employees who understand the military experience, and seamless transition from military to civilian life. In the simplest terms, we are attempting to create a hassle-free environment for veterans so they receive the benefits and services they need when they need them.

We will define success by the experience that veterans and employees have with the department in this way. Veterans will have access to programs that are tailored to needs and professional services available through multiple channels, and our employees will be supported so they are well equipped to do their jobs and better understand military culture.

The transformation agenda is organized according to five themes: reducing complexity; overhauling service delivery; partnerships; sustaining the new Veterans Charter; and adapting to changing demographics by reorganizing the department. I'll take a moment to describe the activities we're undertaking under each theme.

The first theme, reducing complexity, takes aim at one of our fundamental challenges—that is, policies, programs, and operations that are hampered by a striking level of complexity that has developed over many decades. This work involves modernizing our policy suite so that policies are written in a simpler language and are in a user-friendly format. This will support our front-line staff in making more consistent, effective decisions on behalf of our veterans. We are also simplifying our internal administration of those offerings, clearing out unnecessary steps, rules, or rigidities that impede service delivery.

The second theme, overhauling service delivery, aims at how we deliver: focusing face-to-face services where most needed; moving from paper-based to electronic processes wherever possible; and reducing decision times from months to days or even to hours. The department is eliminating the bottlenecks—cumbersome ways of doing business and outdated technology—that are slowing us down.

For example, by moving to digital imaging and electronic records, we're reducing the amount of paper and allowing veterans to receive better service. By enhancing our online services, we are providing veterans around-the-clock access to services with the department. This service overhaul will be the external face of transformation and will determine how veterans will measure our success.

The third theme, strengthening partnerships, is about fully maximizing existing partnerships and creating new ones. As the care of veterans begins with Canadian Forces, extends to VAC, and goes beyond to the private sector health professionals and service agents, the department needs to maintain and establish an array of partnerships in order to achieve a better outcome for our clients and their families.

We are maximizing opportunities that exist outside of our department. For example, research is under way in other jurisdictions on social determinants of health. These same findings could apply to our veterans who are also seniors, unemployed, or disabled, and will help us better attune our plans to proven needs.

We are looking at new ways to partner with the private sector. Encouraging employment of veterans transitioning to civilian life is an example of that.

Our fourth theme, sustaining the new Veterans Charter, is about maintaining a fundamentally sound and modern approach to disability management. The new Veterans Charter was implemented in 2006 to better support veterans in making a successful transition to civilian life by offering the financial help they need while providing full physical and psychological rehabilitation services, vocational assistance, health care benefits, and one-on-one case management. Recent enhancements to the new Veterans Charter, implemented in October 2011, offer seriously ill and injured veterans additional support.

A significant transformation initiative is to ensure that Canadian Forces members and veterans are better informed about the services and benefits for which they may be eligible. We are actively strengthening our approach to stakeholder engagement, making better use of technology in engaging younger veterans, and broadening our outreach on our major programs and services.

The final theme addresses how we continue to adapt to the changing demographics of veterans by reorganizing the department to respond to shifts in demand for service. As we continue to modernize veterans benefits, cut red tape, reduce the paper burden, clear administrative obstacles, and embrace new technologies, we will also monitor veteran demographics. This includes keeping pace with geographic shifts, take-up rates, and veterans' service needs to ensure the department is appropriately aligned with the right people and the right skills in the right places.

In short, we are refocusing on changing the way we do business and are adjusting the workforce to match. This is not about asking fewer employees to absorb the same workload; it is about tightening our focus on core functions, such as case management, adjudication, and delivery of benefits and services.

Over the coming weeks in this study, committee members will hear from various subject matter experts who will outline our detailed plans and our progress on transformation. You will be provided details on how, in the first year of the transformation agenda, the department has laid the foundation for important improvements. You will hear from VAC subject matter experts and their counterparts in the broader national community. They will talk about consultation and outreach; partnerships aimed at improving service delivery, speed, and accessibility of service delivery, which means cutting red tape; and case management.

I want to acknowledge the important advice and guidance we are receiving along the way. Our employees, those who work daily with our veterans, are bringing their best ideas forward. The department is also building on input from stakeholders and partners.

We are committed to getting this right and we will make adjustments as we proceed.

With that, Mr. Chair, I would like to thank you and your committee for this time. I hope I have provided a useful outline of the framework for transformation and that it will assist you in your future discussions. I note that your work will continue on Thursday, when you will hear from my colleagues Colleen Soltermann and Krista Locke on the subject of outreach and engagement.

My colleagues and I are now happy to respond to your questions. Thank you very much.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you, Mr. Robinson. You did okay for your rookie introduction to this process.

We will now turn to Mr. Chicoine, for five minutes.

4:35 p.m.

NDP

Sylvain Chicoine Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I would like to thank the witnesses for being here to comment on the changes that are forthcoming.

As someone who is new to the committee, I am not yet well-versed in the new charters and all that they entail. You are in the midst of radically changing how Veterans Affairs operates.

I would appreciate it if you would enlighten me on the staff changes that have taken place in the past three years and those that will be made in the months ahead. How many employees did you have not that long ago? And how many do you have now? Were there any layoffs?

4:35 p.m.

Bernard Butler Director General, Policy and Research Division, Department of Veterans Affairs

I'll perhaps commence the response by speaking about changes to the new Veterans Charter and our suite of programs and services available to veterans.

In that context, Mr. Chair, I'll take you back a few years to 2006 and the implementation of the new Veterans Charter. It was a fundamental shift in programming directed towards modern-day veterans. It basically encompassed a fundamental change in how programming was oriented.

We moved away from an old compensation-based scheme, with monthly benefits payable under the Pension Act, to a wellness and re-establishment model that encompasses various program elements, including compensation for non-economic loss, disability awards, rehabilitation, earnings-loss support, health care benefits, career transition services, and related programs.

That's the modern-day approach to disability management and wellness issues captured under the rubric of the new Veterans Charter. That speaks to basic program changes.

I think you may be more interested in actual changes associated with structure, staffing complements, and resources. To that extent, I will perhaps turn to my colleague, Charlotte, who will talk about the service infrastructure in the department.

4:40 p.m.

Charlotte Stewart Director General, Service Delivery and Program Management, Department of Veterans Affairs

I'd be pleased to. Thank you.

Over the last few years, we haven't had a major shift in the number of employees in the department. What we have done, though, over the last number of years, beginning with our pre-transformation work, which we called our “modernization”, was to begin to move resources to the areas of highest need. This meant in some cases that....

As we looked at returning veterans from Afghanistan, we realized that we had to shift some of our resources to the areas where they were deciding to live when released from the military. This led to a couple of things.

First of all, we increased our case managers across the country by 20, and particularly focused on those bases that had the highest activity. In this case we're speaking about Halifax, Petawawa, Valcartier, and Edmonton.

Beyond that, we began to see other shifts. We spoke about one of them at this committee before—namely, the establishment with DND of our integrated personnel support centres. We shifted 100 employees who were working in our district offices and we put them, co-located with DND, in 24 sites across the country. You can imagine what a benefit that was to releasing members when they could walk onto the base that was closest to them and not only meet with the DND case manager but at the same time be introduced to their new VAC case manager.

So that was a shift that we began, and really, it's fundamental to our transformation story. Our shift means that we need to put people, our people, where they're needed most.

Going forward, as we look at the coming years, we have two things that we have to be very cognizant of. Number one, as David has mentioned, our overall number of veterans is going to decline. Number two, we have to modernize. We have to update. We have to become a technological department.

With both of these shifts, we're going to see some changes in our overall employee numbers. You've seen the numbers recently in the media. The department, through transformation, is going to be reducing by 550 employees, approximately, and through budget 2012 there'll be about an additional 250.

That's all about making sure the department is the right size, but it's also about seeing the changes that are coming to us through technology put in place. That will allow us to achieve some streamlining, reduce the red tape, and make it easier for veterans.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you very much, Ms. Stewart.

We're over the—

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

A point of order.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

A point of order?

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

A point of order, yes.

It appears there's a slight contradiction in the presentation from what was just said, and perhaps I can clear it up. You can decide whether it's a point of order or not.

On page 2, Mr. Robinson says very clearly that “the number of Canadian Forces Veterans who receive benefits and services from VAC is increasing”, but Madam, you just gave testimony that the number of veterans is declining.

That indicates, at least to the person who's not listening carefully, that, oh, because we have fewer veterans, we could lay people off or readjust the numbers we have; that's why the 804 people are being laid off now, and others.

So the question—

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Mr. Stoffer, no, it's not—

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

I didn't want them to contradict themselves.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

It makes a great question when your turn comes back around, but it's not a point of order

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

It's not? Okay.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

You want clarification—