Mickey Mouse Deal

The Veterans Affairs spends a hefty sum to hire Disney to train staffers

Editor's Note: Due to misleading information provided by Veterans Affairs, the original version of this story reported that the VA had spent $92,000 for the Disney Institute to train its regional concierge staff. The truth is more surprising: The VA is spending millions to train all of its regional employees. Here's the corrected version.

A visit to Tucson's hospital for veterans—officially known as the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System—is a bit like time travel. Amid the banal abundance of modern architecture, you'll find elegant buildings dating back to the hospital's origins in the late 1920s.

These gems offer a nostalgic daydream. But they aren't the only fantasy to be found on this 285-bed campus serving some 50,000 vets each year: You'll also find a bit of fairy dust, in the form of the Disney Institute.

Created in the 1980s as an educational arm of Disney's entertainment empire, the institute specializes in selling its management approach to companies and government agencies.

And so Disney’s vaunted trainers landed here recently to train Tucson’s VA staff in the fine art of customer service, under an estimated $4.5 million contract over five years with a Goodyear-based firm called Sonoran Technology and Professional Services. The plan is to “integrate and align a common service goal to achieve superior service stands and effect a culture change across the network,” according to VA spokeswoman Jean Schaefer.

In plain English, they were aiming to make the VA more efficient and customer friendly. The training affects 2,200 staffers—from receptionists to doctors and nurses—across the agency's Southwest region. Volunteer greeters were also invited to sit in.

The VA Southwest Health Care Network is in the second year of the five-year contract.

"The VA nationally has made it a goal to be more patient-centered, more veteran-centered," says Schaefer. "We looked at our employee-satisfaction data as well as our customer-satisfaction data, and there was some room for improvement."

But in these austere times, critics question why the VA would spend $4.5 million in the Southwest on a program that could be done in-house.

"It raised my eyebrows," says Marilyn Park, legislative rep for the American Federation of Government Employees, the primary union for federal workers based in Washington, D.C. "I've seen what happens when the VA goes outside to the private sector. And I've seen them wasting money that is so much more urgently needed in the hospital in direct care to veterans.

"They're saying that our hospitals are out of money and have to close beds. They can't hire nurses when there are vacancies. Veterans have to be diverted to non-VA hospitals that don't really understand (their needs). And then they have money for things like motivational speakers?"

The Disney allure—even in the face of belt-tightening—must be intoxicating to otherwise-prudent administrators. Consider the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, which paid Disney $13,000 for a two-day training session on the proper "arrival experience" for patients. The instruction involved some 200 employees—nearly identical to the number of jobs the hospital had recently cut.

Schaefer says there have been no cuts or layoffs at the Tucson VA hospital. Still, the timing is odd, given the Obama administration's push to "in-source" tasks at government agencies, rather than hiring private contractors, as was promoted by the administration of George W. Bush.

Now it seems the VA is playing both sides of the fence, says Park. "What bugs me is that, on the one hand, they go to Congress and brag about all the things they've developed internally. They have the best tele-health; they have the best research; they have the best expertise to arrange contract doctors when they need to. Then suddenly, they're hiring other people to do this stuff."

At the same time, there may be a less-than-perfect meshing of Disney's corporate culture and the culture of a government health-care agency. The match "seems completely bizarre to me," says Susan Davis, a communications professor with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has written extensively about Disney. "I don't see why an organization the size of the VA can't do this in-house. And I don't see why people can't be trained to be friendly greeters without the expertise of a theme-park corporation."

Still, Davis notes that Disney is known for its octopus-like diversification, and suggests that business training may buttress the recession-era theme-park trade. "It sounds like they've figured out that government contracts are the way to go," she says. "This might be part of a larger pattern of shifting things that the government can do—and is very good at doing—to the private sector. But we've invested a lot of money in agencies over the years to be able to handle some of these things" on their own.

Schaefer rejects the criticisms outright. "The VA has a long tradition of being a learning organization," she says. "Whether with internal or external resources, that has been one of the hallmarks of this organization. Sometimes developments happen in private industry that we have to be aware of—and we have to go outside the organization to learn about them."

Still, it remains unclear just how much Disney was paid for its portion of the five-year, multi-phase, taxpayer-funded contract. Jean Schaefer would not provide a number. Nor would Sonoran Technology CEO Paul Smiley, citing a nondisclosure agreement with Disney.

At the same time, there may be a few conflicts in teaming the very self-assured entertainment giant with a sprawling government agency. Indeed, a bit of attitude emerged in comments made by Disney spokeswoman Stacey Thomson.

"The general principles behind how we deliver customer service are very well-paired with health care and government," Thomson told the Tucson Weekly. "If you think of the image most government agencies have, it's not great. You might think of the DMV and waiting and dealing with surly people at the front who act like you're the worst thing that ever happened to them."

The institute was charged with changing that "image" at the VA, Thomson said. "It's more about helping those frontline employees with their attitudes, frankly. ... A big portion of what we teach, in terms of service training, is that it's really easy to look at something and think, 'That's not my job.' But what we try to instill is that everybody has to step outside their comfort zone sometimes and help another person."

Not surprisingly, Thomson's disparaging view of public employees doesn't sit well with Marilyn Park. In a subsequent e-mail to the Weekly, she responded fiercely to Thomson's comments.

"I am almost speechless," Park writes, "at the suggestion that VA needs an outside contractor to teach front-line employees to relate to veterans, and specifically, to stop saying 'that's not my job' and to 'step outside their comfort zone.'"

Park continues: "Given VA's track record of achieving high customer-service ratings long before Disney got into the picture, I think it's pretty clear that the agency run by veterans for veterans, not a 'professional development corporation' ... knows best how to achieve customer satisfaction."

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