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The Right Choice for VA

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In a May 27 blog post I wrote:

What VA needs today is a leader who understands the dynamics of, and has a positive track record in, a large service network that can respond quickly -- with agility and accountability -- to myriad needs of several million consumers. That is, at the heart, what VA is supposed to do. ... [T]he leader of such a system must have a track record of running a 21st century, technology-forward, consumer-oriented organization. ...

Should a VA secretary have a military background? It would be a plus on the resume, but it should not be the defining factor toward selection.

On Monday President Obama nominated Robert McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. As a West Point graduate, a veteran, and the son of a World War II veteran, Mr. McDonald may finally bring to VA the corporate credentials necessary to embrace the values, sensibilities, and 21st-century business acumen necessary to unmire an agency sunk to its axles in the mud of lies, subterfuge, management failure, and whistleblower suppression.

When former secretary Eric Shinseki departed VA on May 30, he admitted to a character trait that is honorable but ultimately self-sacrificial in the federal government: He said he did not expect anyone in VA's workforce to betray his trust in their honesty and integrity. He never saw what hit him. Shinseki was blindsided by a cadre of system-savvy players who gamed his faith in their performance.

Shinseki was not the first VA secretary to be played by mid-level or senior executives. For decades whistleblowers, or simply those staff seeking to right the wrongs they saw, were punished. Senior managers directed subordinates to carry out questionable orders -- including shredding incriminating documents. There is even a case of a top-level supervisor initiating a personal investigation into the legitimate after-hours activities of VA headquarters employees.

None of the news about bogus waiting lists and agency-wide management collusion to manipulate data and garner bonuses came as any surprise to the majority of long-time career VA employees. What was surprising is that it took so long for the wheels to finally come off the train.

Mr. McDonald's nomination may bring to VA what it has needed for so long: a secretary drawn from the ranks of no-nonsense, bottom-line business leaders who measure achievement not by the metrics of shifty paperwork tailored to fit unrealistic deadlines but by the simple -- and hard-to-achieve -- goal of customer-verified satisfaction. Sleight-of-hand bonus-driven performance must not be rewarded at VA under McDonald's leadership, nor should McDonald be distracted from his mission by senior managers who attempt to shield their new boss from bad news. The next VA leader must not tolerate any rose-tinted veils separating his office from the most remote VA hospital, clinic, regional office, or cemetery.

Mr. McDonald has the blood of a veteran running in his veins, and that is commendable. He also has the skillset of a corporate leader familiar with 21st-century business principles necessary to assess core problems, address management deficiencies, alleviate veterans' doubts and attend to their needs, and that is altogether crucial.