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Post Bureaucratic Stress Disorder: An Epidemic Not Cured with Departure of Secretary Shinseki

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Jon Stewart riffed on Post Bureaucratic Stress Disorder in a rant about the Department of Veterans Affairs' failure to give veterans the timely access to health care they need and we've committed to provide. Soon after, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki followed the long honored Cabinet official fall guy path and resigned. Guess what? The hospital wait lists didn't immediately disappear. Homeless veterans didn't suddenly find places to live. Employment rates for veterans didn't leap to 100 percent.

Stewart nailed it. He's on to a huge, enormous, urgent problem with our government -- federal, state and local -- that has all of us suffering from Post Bureaucratic Stress Disorder. We've lost our belief that government can serve us well, even when we are all touched by government pretty much every day. (Yep, even the anti-government fringe. Been in your car lately? On public transit? To a school? To your doctor? Government touches you and me and all of us.) Curing it is going to require more than making another agency head take the fall for a broken bureaucracy.

Don't get me wrong. I have no beef with public servants, and I'm not looking for a referendum on bureaucrats. But, I do think we expect too much from government and too little from ourselves.

Part of the problem is our inability to translate civic activism into governance. We can organize for elections and slogans, but don't stay involved in making sure government services meet our public needs in a cost effective manner.

Our elected officials have become so focused on political fallout, compliance and process that they've completely lost track of the outcomes we're seeking to achieve. And we let them get away with it.

The point of setting a 14-day waiting limit on vets' medical appointments is to ensure they get rapid access to care, not so that administrators can meet their numbers. But, because we focus on the number instead of the purpose, we get disasters like the gaming we see in VA hospitals.

No agency head can single-handedly change that. Only WE can.

How? We have to get over the "gotcha" attitude toward our government leaders. First, lawmakers have to stop oversight designed to define implementation failure and devalue government services, especially in Congress. If they want to be responsible for implementing laws, an inherently tough task, then they should get out of Congress and go work at a public service delivery organization.

Second, instead of waiting for epic bureaucratic failures, we need to support our public agency leaders in doing their jobs better. We need to hold them more accountable to focusing on quality and mission over numbers and compliance. This will require those who deliver the services and those who benefit from them to have more productive, more honest and more pragmatic dialogue with government leaders. Instead of demanding more money, immediate change and perfection, we need to help leaders see a better path to service delivery. Of course, we need those public officials to listen, but if we don't give them something they can hear and use, we are the source of the epidemic instead of the cure.