2014 Management Excellence

Ronald E. Walters

Honored our country’s veterans by delivering the pinnacle of care and service at their final resting place, while increasing availability and access to burial sites throughout the country.

As the population of those who served in the military has both expanded and aged, the challenge of honoring these veterans at their final resting place and providing support to their families has grown.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that interments of veterans and their eligible dependents in VA National Cemeteries have surged from 37,000 per year in 1978 to nearly 125,000 in 2013, and could reach 130,000 in 2017. The increase has come with the aging of the World War II and Korean War generations, and as more categories of veterans, including some reservists and their dependents, are among those authorized to be buried in national cemeteries.

Despite the sensitive nature of the challenge, the VA’s National Cemetery Administration received the highest satisfaction rating ever for any public or private organization, while also making substantial progress toward increasing cemetery capacity and expanding burial locations.

Ronald E. Walters, the VA’s acting principal deputy undersecretary for memorial affairs, implemented a series of innovative management practices that have contributed to the high performance rating among next of kin, while simultaneously tackling the growing need for additional burial space.

The cemetery administration received a score of 96 out of 100 in the 2013 American Customer Satisfaction Index. This score was 28 points above the average of 68 for all federal agencies, and the highest score in either the private or public sector in the history of the survey, which was developed by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The survey polled next of kin or others who had arranged for internment of a loved one.

“Ron is in charge of the whole evaluation, monitoring and improvement process, and has been instrumental in securing and more importantly maintaining great customer service scores,” said William Tuerk, a former undersecretary for memorial affairs.

Colleagues said Walters leads the cemetery administration’s internal organizational improvement and assessment team, which looks at how well programs and staff are performing, works to make operational changes to improve outcomes and follows up to ensure the issues are being solved. The effort includes data collection to track performance, the setting of clear operational standards and measures, working closely with managers at each of the cemeteries to identify and address shortcomings and risks in their business practices, and providing constant training opportunities.

Walters also has played a pivotal role in analyzing veteran population data and service gaps, leading to revisions in the criteria for locating new national cemeteries. As a result, 550,000 veterans will have burial access through construction of new cemeteries in Colorado, Florida, Nebraska and New York.

He also led the development of a new burial policy for veterans in rural areas. The VA will establish a cemetery presence in eight states that lack an open national cemetery: Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming, a move that will serve 132,000 additional veterans.

In addition, Walters led an assessment of client survey and cemetery utilization data and developed an innovative policy that will enhance access for 2.4 million veterans in urban centers. Through this initiative, the VA will build columbarium-only national cemeteries in five cities where easy access to burial sites has been limited—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Indianapolis and San Francisco. (A columbarium is a place where urns holding cremated remains are entombed and where loved ones can pay their respects.)

VA officials said Walters’s leadership has increased access to VA national cemeteries for more than 3 million veterans and their families, facilitated land acquisitions totaling 1,600 acres that prevented interruptions in burial service across the country and produced the highest client satisfaction scores ever achieved for a public or private organization.

The ability of the VA to more quickly address expansion needs was made possible by a proposal from Walters that led Congress in 2009 to establish a line item in the VA’s budget for national cemetery land acquisition. This gives the National Cemetery Administration, responsible for the operation of 131 national cemeteries, the flexibility to act quickly when land becomes available and has helped avoid interruptions in burial service. In the past, the VA could not always purchase land for cemetery expansion when an opportunity arose due to the timing of the federal budget process.

Walters’s focus on veterans is also evidenced in an apprenticeship program for homeless veterans he developed that allows individuals to obtain employment at VA national cemeteries with education and training assistance opportunities. To date, 53 veterans have been selected as apprentices.

Walters said that as a manager, his mission is clear.

“We are focused on veterans and their families at a time when they are most vulnerable,” he said. “If you ever visit our sites, you will see that it’s not just a job for our staff, but a vocation. Our employees care for the gravesites like they would look after their own relatives’ final resting places.”