- - Thursday, November 10, 2016


This Veterans Day offers an excellent opportunity to review the welfare of veterans, especially those who have suffered wounds — physical and psychological — on the battlefield. Happily, the great majority of wounded veterans seem to be doing fine. They have dealt with their wounds and returned to productive society — proud of their service and loyal to the flag. They will be much in evidence today marching in Veterans Day parades.

But many others are not doing nearly as well, and they are finding it exceedingly difficult to get the help and support they need from the government department that exists for that purpose. It has become abundantly clear that the Veterans Administration is dysfunctional and weak. Clerks fudged thousands of veterans’ appointments to make the system look more efficient. One out of three suicide prevention lines goes over into voice mail. The problems are easy to see, but year after year, administration after administration, nothing is done. The system just continues to degrade, while our veterans are denied the full care they need and deserve.

The standard response to scandals in government departments is to appoint a new secretary who will presumably clean up the mess and impose rigorous standards. President Obama has tried this standard response twice — first with former U.S. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki and more recently with Robert McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble. But Gen. Shinseki was unable to clean up the mess and Mr. McDonald is not faring much better. They are both able leaders with long track records of successful leadership, but they cannot contend with the mess at the VA.

The reason why is no great mystery to anyone with experience in Washington. It is not a problem specific to the VA, but rather to the federal bureaucracy as a whole though the failures of other agencies are not as conspicuous as those of the VA. In a word, the critical problem is management — or rather the lack thereof. In the private sector, when people prove incompetent or unreliable, they are dismissed. People who do well — who demonstrate competence and initiative — are promoted to higher levels of responsibility. Those are the basic components of efficiency, productivity and accountability.

But those components simply do not exist in the federal bureaucracy. It must be acknowledged that in each department and agency there are many self-starters who come to work early and do their best. Were it not for them, the government would not function at all. But it doesn’t take long for federal employees to realize there is no reward for hard work or penalty for malfeasance. In such a vacuum, it is difficult for people to demonstrate initiative. Indeed, creative problem solving can expose one to criticism or alienation from the rank and file who defend the status quo. In general terms, the only people really working hard in federal agencies are the political appointees working directly for the secretary or administrator who can be dismissed, and frequently are.

As a practical matter, the head of a federal department or agency leads only in the sense that the carved wooden figurehead leads the ship. He or she cannot move people around and reallocate resources. Their authority is blocked by Congressional committees micromanaging the agencies for political purposes, and federal employee unions that adamantly oppose any level of reasonable accountability.

For example, Mr. McDonald suggested that 90 percent of VA medical centers should have new leadership. But of 140 VA medical center directors, only eight were hired outside the agency. When the majority of them fail — because they also lack the authority to manage — they are simply moved around.

In a recent interview, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich underscored this fundamental weakness of the federal bureaucracy writ large at the VA. “As the system continues to decay, if you have a system which defends incompetence with bad people, then good people will leave,” he said. “The system gets sicker and sicker.”

I have heard it said that the Democrats decline to clean up the bureaucracy because the federal employee unions are a core constituency of the party, and that the Republicans refuse to take it on because they do not actually want an efficient government bureaucracy. There is truth in both assertions. But there is also an uncomfortable truth about the way our wounded veterans are being treated. We can only hope that the new Congress that convenes in January 2017 will rise above the fray and implement across the board fundamental reforms of the federal bureaucracy that will facilitate efficient management. Congress could begin this process with a radical reform of the VA that could serve as a model for other federal agencies.

David W. Walker is president and chief executive officer of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.

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