WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2009 - President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs promised senators today that if he is confirmed he will transform the department into a 21st-century organization.
Retired Army Gen. Erik K. Shinseki told the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs he is fully committed to fulfilling Obama's vision to transform the department.

VA is the second-largest Cabinet agency, and has a budget of around $95 billion to serve the nation's 25 million veterans. The department has a wide range of clients, from recently wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an aging population of vets from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. VA oversees medical care, home loans, the GI Bill of Rights, employment and other benefits for veterans.

"Transformation is always challenging for any organization, and I use the term transformation rather than incremental change," Shinseki told the committee. Transformation is particularly challenging for organizations that have complex missions and are steeped in tradition, he explained, and he promised the department will look at fundamental and comprehensive processes as it girds for these new challenges. He noted he served as Army chief of staff as the service began a similar transformation.

"Positive leadership, dedication and teamwork on the part of all in the organization allowed all of us to redefine the challenges we first perceived to be opportunities," he said.

Shinseki vowed to put in place a precise strategy for VA reflecting Obama's vision. He acknowledged he has much to learn about the department, and said he looks forward to "gaining the valuable input and insights from its dedicated employees, the veterans and the organizations that serve those veterans."

The department must have three attributes, Shinseki said. It must be people-centric, results-driven and forward-looking.

"Veterans are the centerpiece of our organization," he said. "We will design, implement and sustain programs that serve them. Through their service in uniform, veterans have sacrificed greatly, investing of themselves in the security, the safety and the well-being of our nation.

"They are clients that we represent," he continued, "and whose well-being is our sole reason for existence."

The department's charge is to address veterans' changing needs over time and across a full range of support that the U.S. government has committed to providing them.

The VA work force must be leaders and standards-setters in their fields, Shinseki said. In some areas, he said, this already is true, while other areas need work.

"From delivering cutting-edge medical treatment to answering the most basic inquiry, we will grow and retain a skilled and client-oriented work force," he said.

The measure of VA's success is the timeliness, quality and consistency of services and support provided to veterans. "We will set and meet objectives in each of those areas," Shinseki said.

He also promised the department will be a good steward of the taxpayers' money.

"We will challenge ourselves to do things smarter and more effectively," he said. "We will aggressively leverage the world's best practices, its knowledge base and emerging technologies in such areas as health care, information management and service delivery."