It's a pleasure to be here today to contribute to the important work that your committee does to ensure that Canada faithfully repays the debt owed to our veterans of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. They have served with unlimited liability, and we should repay them with fairness.
Although the process of transformation in Veterans Affairs Canada began in 2009, it is only in the last few months that my office has had some visibility in the process. My special advisor regularly attends the field operations advisory committee meetings and thus keeps me informed of upcoming changes.
I would highlight two key challenges when discussing Veterans Affairs Canada transformation. The first is that many changes, although approved, have not yet been implemented. This means that neither the department nor my office is yet in a position to speak to the effects of some of these changes. The second is that activities related to the transformation agenda, particularly in the human resources domain, are taking place at the same time as changes related to the recently announced budget reduction. This overlap may make it more difficult for the department to relate effects directly back to transformation activities.
Overall, my office is encouraged by the proposed changes under the Transformation agenda. The importance of streamlining processes and reducing barriers of access for our veterans cannot be overstated. What is important to remember, however, is that Transformation must be focused on the end result—streamlining services and processes to meet the needs of veterans, their families and representatives. Transformation should not be an exercise focused solely on streamlining infrastructure or counting assets.
I have reviewed the transcripts of the testimonies preceding mine and with your indulgence, I would like to address the issue of Transformation in line with the five themes that Veterans Affairs Canada has identified: reducing complexity, overhauling service delivery, strengthening partnerships, sustaining the New Veterans Charter and aligning with veteran demographics.
Let me now address the transformation themes.
Reducing complexity—how do we get to a point where complexity of access to programs causes unfairness? Brigadier-General (retired) Larry Gollner, who was a member of my advisory committee, puts it this way:
...the answer lays with understanding that whenever public money and/or benefits are available for distribution an accounting system is set up. A system which grows constantly becoming increasingly complex so that eventually it reaches the optimum bureaucratic level of satisfaction. That is when more money is spent managing the system than is spent providing benefit to those the system is meant to serve.
Many veterans perceive this to be true. Transformation must therefore focus on the needs of veterans and their families rather than on the administrative needs of the department. Some of the recent changes announced by the department, such as the upfront payments now being made for grounds maintenance and housekeeping services under the veterans independence program, are good first steps, but the department's responsibility does not cease with system change. Follow-up and continuous improvement must be part of transformation.
My office has also done work in this area. In February 2012, we released a report concerning reasons for decisions, which provided recommendations to the department to assist with their written correspondence. In addition, the Office has developed tools such as the Benefits Navigator to help unravel the complexity surrounding programs and benefits. I understand that the Benefits Navigator is now available to all Veterans Affairs Canada staff, and I have been assured by the minister that by the end of the year, it will be publicly available to all veterans through the Veterans Affairs Canada website.
On overhauling service delivery, testimony presented to the committee thus far has focused on mechanical aspects of the department's planned changes. What is yet to be addressed is how the overall effects of these initiatives are going to change the culture within the department. These cultural changes will need to be clearly communicated, not only internally to departmental staff who are working in a changing environment but also to the veterans community. Employees and clients need to understand and appreciate the efforts being undertaken on their behalf, and staff must embrace these changes and communicate them effectively to veterans.
Veterans Affairs Canada is the agent responsible for paying the debt Canada owes to our injured veterans. It is not a social services program. I believe that the presumptive philosophy that military service affects a veteran's health and wellness should be inherent in the department's culture.
Strengthening partnerships is more than just having a department that works with the Canadian Forces and the RCMP, veterans groups, and other stakeholders. To be truly transformational, veterans must perceive that their interests are seen to be represented at all levels.
There remains a lack of understanding of veterans benefits and services amongst many veterans. This is a symptom of decades of reactive communications whereby veterans had to self-identify before engaging with the department. Veterans Affairs Canada must be more proactive when reaching out to veterans and must ensure that the communication tools they use meet the varied needs of their clients.
Transparency is the key to successful partnerships in a transformational environment. Providing all stakeholders with the necessary information to have informed debate strengthens the system. This is one of the key reasons the office looks forward to the benefits navigator going public. Being proactive in seeking out veterans before they have a need creates positive relationships.
I have spoken in the past about the creation of a national veteran's identification card to facilitate communication and the provision of services to veterans.
As the raison d'être of Veterans Affairs Canada is to serve veterans, meaningful transformation cannot occur without the engagement and full participation of veterans. Delivering benefits and administering programs for injured veterans requires engagement from many governments and from many government organizations and veterans groups. The department, through its transformation initiative, must strive to ensure that the efforts of many are harmonized and coordinated to simplify access and to avoid duplication.
I would now like to address the New Veterans Charter. That charter introduced a new concept, shifting the emphasis from benefits dependency to a transition to a civilian life where the physical, psychological and social barriers are addressed. Having viable options is the key to a successful transition.
To this date, the New Veterans Charter has not been well understood by many. The department should do more to proactively educate the veterans' community about the full spectrum of benefits available so that one can believe that there will be better options for the future than remaining in the present.
This committee had directed that the changes to the enhanced new Veterans Charter be reviewed in 2013. In that light, my team, in consultation with stakeholders, is preparing a complete review and analysis of the new Veterans Charter that will be presented to the government in due time. It does not mean that I will be waiting for that time to pursue change. The new Veterans Charter is a living document. When I see an unfair practice, such as the discrepancy with the earnings loss benefit minimum salary for reservists, I will actively pursue that change, concurrent with conducting the review.
Next is aligning with veterans demographics. The department's transformation initiative currently centres on demographic projections that indicate that the number of Veterans Affairs Canada clients is going to decrease. There are currently over 500,000 veterans who are not yet clients of Veterans Affairs Canada. The department's own life-after-service studies show that two-thirds of Canadian Forces former regular force personnel released between 1998 and 2007 are not receiving benefits. However, 54% of those report at least one physical health condition; 13% report at least one mental health condition; and many report chronic health conditions they attribute to their service. These statistics indicate that there is a potential unknown liability associated with the unmet needs of veterans who are not aware of existing programs.
We need to keep in mind that the number of veterans is but one indicator of workload. Demographics alone do not capture the full extent of future requirements. I would contend that the complexity of managing the case of a modern-day veteran who suffers from PTSD and has a family is much more intensive than that of an older, traditional veteran who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer's or dementia. Significant case management resources are required in both cases to meet the needs of these individual veterans. Future needs are likely to be more demanding, especially when one considers that three decades of high operational tempo for the Canadian Forces have only now started to show their effects.
This is why I'm concerned that between current unmet needs and potential future needs, the assumption that the department's work intensity and client numbers are going to drop is somewhat questionable.
Finally, I believe that it is critical throughout the Transformation process that Veterans Affairs Canada have the means to measure whether changes are having the intended impact and what degree of success has been achieved from the perspective of both the veteran and the administrator. The tools must be in place to measure both the quantitative as well as the qualitative effects of Transformation. The department should be proactive in establishing sound mechanisms to measure effectiveness and wherever and whenever it is possible, the department needs to engage with veterans.
My office is currently engaged with the department to recommend some best practices in the area of performance measurement. For our part, the office has put in place mechanisms within our personal complaints tracking system to detect and highlight complaints related to service delivery and changes in turnaround times or access to services. We will continue to proactively monitor media reports and solicit feedback from veterans groups in order to quickly identify any areas of concern.
Let me conclude by restating the importance of having a transformation agenda that is focused on improving service to veterans, their families, and their representatives. Transformation should not be an exercise focused solely on streamlining infrastructure or assets. Transformation is about people, and the department must ensure that improving service to veterans remains at the centre of these changes.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention. We now stand ready to answer any questions.