Figuring out who is in charge at the Department of Veterans Affairs seems simple enough.
But the VA refused to provide any information when The Washington Examiner sought to determine how much the directors of failing regional offices have been paid in salaries and bonuses.
The newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request more than a month ago and also requested the data through the VA media relations office.
But VA would not even provide a staff list showing who are the regional directors and other high officials in those offices, forcing The Washington Examiner to turn to other means.
The first step was to identify the directors of the VA's 57 regional offices, as well as the top officials in the agency's central office in Washington, D.C. VA and other federal websites list upper-echelon officials in the agency's headquarters.
But with few exceptions, the names of regional office directors were not readily available through the VA website, either by searching the central location or each regional office individually.
To compile a list of current regional directors, the newspaper used Leadership Directories, a subscription-based research site that lists the top officers within each regional office.
With a reasonably current list of regional directors, the newspaper then began tracking their recent individual work histories in order to assess directors' performance in each of their postings, especially as weighed against previous performance bonuses they received.
Leadership Directories included the current positions, start dates and prior postings for some regional directors, but not all. To get more complete work histories, the newspaper conducted Internet searches, checking such things as newspaper articles, LinkedIn pages, prior congressional testimony, VA Inspector General reports and even minutes of local veterans' board and service club meetings where regional directors may have given presentations.
In a few cases, The Washington Examiner was unable to determine exactly how long a current regional office director occupied a particular post. Using the oldest reference, the newspaper's database uses the phrase "at least since" to identify as closely as possible how long that person was in charge of a particular office.
The next step was to determine how much each executive received in pay and bonuses. Last August, the newspaper filed a FOIA request with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management seeking bonus data on all federal workers.
The OPM eventually provided a database, but withheld any information on performance-based bonuses, claiming the release of that information would be an "unwarranted invasion of privacy."
Using the OPM database, The Washington Examiner was able to determine all bonuses not based on performance, including retention and relocation incentives, paid since 2009.
Using other sources, the newspaper obtained a list of performance bonuses paid to senior executive service personnel at VA between 2007 and 2011. SES employees tend to be the highest-level officials in federal agencies, and are outside the general civil-service pay grades.
Salary information was obtained through a database published by the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, which has published federal payroll information through 2011.
To judge each office's performance, the newspaper reviewed data that is posted by VA in its Monday Morning and Aspire reports. Those websites track the number of pending disability claims; how many have been in the system longer than 125 days and are considered "backlogged" by the agency; and how long it takes to process an average claim.
For consistency, the newspaper looked at disability compensation claims, not the larger figure normally cited in media reports, which includes both disability and pension cases.
Also, the agency's database on claims older than 125 days only goes back to October 2009, which is the date at which The Washington Examiner began tracking the backlog in individual offices.