The leader in charge of veterans benefits devotes himself to serving those who served.
Discipline, service and honor have been enduring themes for Dr. Paul Lawrence. He was raised in a military family; his father, a career Army officer, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and six uncles on his mother’s side served in World War II. Today, Paul leads the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), one of three administrations within the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In between, he served in the Army, earned a doctorate in economics and excelled in a career that included time as a partner with Ernst & Young LLP’s Government & Public Sector practice. Paul spoke with us recently about his career and his drive to provide the nation’s warriors with the benefits and services they earned.
Tell us where your passion for helping veterans comes from.
I grew up in a military family, and I joined the Army through ROTC when I graduated from the University of Massachusetts. Before my current position came open, I talked to my son about where he would do his residency after optometry school and asked him, “Why didn’t you think about applying for the VA?” I talked to him about our family’s history and the importance of service. Later, someone asked me to send my resume for this [VBA] job. I figured they get thousands of resumes, but I remembered this conversation with my son and thought, “How could I ever look him in the face if I didn’t at least send my resume?”
What were some of your priorities as you considered this role?
I wanted us to provide veterans their benefits with excellent customer service, have strong fiscal stewardship and focus on collaboration. Our team works with veterans directly and administers almost $120 billion in benefits every year. You have to be good with money and strike the right balance between what’s fair for veterans and for taxpayers.
You’ve written about the need to listen to our veterans. What are some of the things you’ve learned?
I wanted to talk to people outside of Washington, and I started with the veterans service organizations. Town hall meetings and visits to American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts helped us understand what veterans were going through. I also remembered something I had learned in the private sector: when an automaker was having a hard time, the executives were asked, “Are you aware how hard it is to buy a car from the dealership?” And they weren’t, because every year they got a free car – their assistants just handed them a brochure. If you don’t live the experience, you don’t know what’s going on. Meeting with and listening to the veterans gave me a chance to do that.
What stands out when you think about EY?
What stands out is how strong the brand is. Also, some of the other consulting firms seem to be moving toward products or offerings. EY moves toward ideas, and that strikes me as interesting. I think of the focus on strategy and culture, and how powerful that can be in explaining why we’re all working together and what we’re doing. I remember [EY Americas Vice Chair – Strategy] Bob Patton saying, “Culture beats strategy every day of the week.” And back to collaboration: today when I interact with consulting firms, I can see the ones that are not globally wound together. It frustrates me, because a lot of them can’t access other people and resources the way I know EY can.
Who were some of the EY people who made a difference to you?
When I joined in 2009, the Government & Public Sector practice had just gotten off the ground again. Marc Andersen watched over my onboarding, and I never forgot all the attention he paid to that process. In the government practice, the partners were really smart and stimulating. Two people I recruited and sponsored into the partnership were Alexandra Gurney and Karen Shrum, and another key member of our government practice team was Roberta Mourao. I’m still in touch with each of them.
How has your private-sector experience influenced how you approach your current job?
At VBA, we do several things. We award disability claims to those injured in service – this year, we’ll complete almost 1.5 million claims. My prior experience executing projects for clients in the insurance industry has been crucial. We also manage GI Bill benefits; in that sense, we’re really an educational bank. I’ve worked at the Department of Education and with financial institutions for a long time, and that experience serves to inform my work today. We also run the Home Loan Guaranty, through which a veteran may purchase a home with no money down.
I have done a lot of work with HUD during my career as well, and I’m an economist by training. So I see VBA as a financial institution inside the federal government. We’re a bank; we’re a lending company; we’re an insurance company. We deal with risk and internal control – all these things we focus on within the professional services industry.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered at VBA, and how have you and your team addressed them?
We struggled to implement a law that passed before I arrived, the Forever GI Bill. It had a new way to pay student veterans where they would get a housing allowance, and it involved a large technology transformation project. By the time I showed up in the summer of 2018, it was clear that the path forward would not be the path we were on. We decided to change course on the project and start over. That resulted in congressional hearings, and it was a difficult time. My mom called and said, “I saw you on the national news.” I asked, “How did it look?” and her response was, “Not very good.” We promised to get it right, but it would take time. The Secretary [VA Secretary Robert Wilkie] was supportive; our team was awesome; and we worked to redo it: different service providers, different approach, different leadership. And on the day we said we’d have it, we turned on the new software and started paying student veterans using the right rate. We delivered on our promise, and it was very satisfying.
Another victory, which was really historic in nature, happened last June, when the president signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act. This provides benefits to members of the Navy who were off the coast of Vietnam during the war and exposed to Agent Orange. Those benefits were provided to people on the ground in Vietnam and in the ground waters, the rivers, but not the blue water. The new law said that on January 1, 2020, we would begin granting those benefits. People were skeptical we could do it on time, but we did. And we began what I call fulfilling the last promise America had made to the Vietnam veterans.
Have you had moments that touched you in a way you didn’t expect?
Absolutely. When I called the first recipient of the Blue Water Navy benefit, I was really excited. We’d worked for six months and achieved mini “victories” along the way, including finding the ship logs of every ship in the Navy at the time of the Vietnam War and digitizing them. When I told this proud veteran that he would receive his benefits, he thanked me, but then was ready to go on with his day. I thought a lot about that call, and it was very grounding for me. The first US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the VA, Omar Bradley, said, “We are dealing with veterans, not procedures.” They’re the people we’re supposed to be helping. It’s easy to get excited as we see the metrics, the process achievements. But it’s more important to think hard about what it means for the veterans who are on the other end.
What motivates you each day?
We have the most noble mission in government: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle,” as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address. The more I’ve been here, the better I feel about that. What motivates me is this quest for what else we can do for veterans and how much better we can be.