This is one in a series of profiles on the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recognize outstanding federal employees whose important, behind-the-scenes work is advancing the health, safety and well-being of Americans and are among the most prestigious honors given to civil servants. This profile features a finalist for the Management Excellence medal Alice Muellerweiss, Dean of the VA Learning University at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Alice Muellerweiss helped design, establish and now heads a new learning institution that provides web-based and in-person leadership, management, technical and professional training to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees nationwide.
Within just nine months of launching its newly developed department-wide approach in mid-2010, the VA Learning University (VALU) delivered training to over 204,000 of the agency’s 320,000 employees, either online, at training conferences or at one of the 50 field-based learning hubs across the country. In 2011, 149, 000 individual employees took advantage of the course offerings.
“The principle that drove Alice’s accomplishment is, when you have well-trained people, they will serve the veterans at the highest quality possible,” said John Sepulveda, the VA’s assistant secretary for human resources.
As dean of VALU, Muellerweiss unified training programs operating independently across the VA, set up a wide array of new courses, and launched an innovative career management program to meet employees’ developmental needs.
These include leadership and executive development programs that for the first time created consistent standards and competency requirements across the department. The Learning University also offers customized training to address mission-critical needs, such as information technology, finance and human resource occupations. All told, there are 30,000 different e-learning options.
“Alice had a single, integrated vision and she implemented that vision tirelessly,” said Joseph Viani, the executive director of VA’s Human Capital Investment Plan. “She had the drive and skills to make this succeed. VALU has become institutionalized and part of the fabric of VA.”
Though new, VA officials said the training received through VALU by information technology employees and by budget and financial analysts has already resulted in significant improvements in performance. Officials also said that VA facilities with high participation in VALU training have had lower employee turnover rates compared to facilities that had less participation.
Muellerweiss set a quick pace for the standup of the new program. She gathered resources from different administrations and offices, and built a collaborative inter-disciplinary team to identify and prioritize essential educational needs. This included identifying a common set of leadership and employee competencies for the entire VA workforce. Before VALU was created, each administration within the VA had its own perspective on these key competency areas.
“We looked at the materials from each administration to develop one model for the entire department,” she said.
Working with technology partners, Muellerweiss created the mechanisms and infrastructure to deliver the training. This involved stepping away from the traditional learning academy format and investing in technology to build a university without walls-one that would allow staff in all parts of the country, and those working alternate shifts or in unpredictable environments, to have equal opportunities for professional growth.
The result was the online Talent Management System and MyCareer@VA. These systems permit employees to determine the skills and strengths needed for open VA positions and choose areas for their own development, either to aim for that position or prepare for future openings.
VA Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould said that MyCareer@VA “allows a VA employee to assess their goals, strengths, weaknesses and future career options at each step in their professional lives.”
“The system helps them decide when to move forward, when they might need more training or when it might be time to take a step back to pursue another avenue within VA,” he said.
Gould also said it is essential for government to invest in the public service. “Alice has given us a way to do that. She is incredibly energetic, persistent and visionary,” he said.
Muellerweiss said she was brought in to head the project in early 2010, and by June of that year had begun to deliver training.
“Everything was happening concurrently,” she said. “It was like running a marathon at a 5K pace. We had to build the team, build the programs and build the technology in innovative ways to accomplish our goals and meet the diverse needs of VA’s dedicated workforce.”
Muellerweiss, an Army veteran, said her motivation came from the VA’s mission to serve the nation’s veterans and their families. “I recognized that there was great talent within VA, but there was a great need for development of that talent,” she said.