The latest news focusing on the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to portray an agency allegedly awash in preventable deaths, cooked-book appointment lists, poor internal communications, lengthy delays in benefits processing, and system-wide internecine bickering and backstabbing.
President Obama expresses outrage and sends a White House staffer to Phoenix to assist VA with its own investigation, even as other VA facility problems bubble up to the already churning surface of public opprobrium. Secretary Shinseki says he's "mad as hell" about the problems, but does not give Congressional committees or the media the real meat they crave: mass firings and/or his own resignation. Meanwhile, most of the 320,000 VA employees (those that are not whistle blowing), are caught in the crossfire, and are doing their best to keep their heads and rear-ends down below the flying bullets of blame and denial.
Having retired from VA last September, after 12 years there as a speechwriter for four secretaries, and another 20 years in other lanes of federal service, including tours in the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, I look at the scene from a distance through the strong field glasses of professional experience with many of the players. Viewed from my safe remove, the battle zone I observe is a beachhead as ugly today as it was on my last day in government service, except now it is being laid out in the press and social media with all the fervor and furor of an arena of blood-craving Romans.
I felt the pressure as far back as 2009, on the day of Virginia elections, when a superior sent me a simple email, using the VA's email system: "vote democrat." That blatant violation of the Hatch Act (he was a political appointee, I was a career employee), set the tone for the five years that followed: new management was going to call the plays their way, and if you were not of a like mind -- or if you did not wear Army green in a past life -- you were slowly excised from the corporate body.
Before any of my VA-Army colleagues turn away at that last line, let me make it clear that neither I, nor any of my civilian co-workers, hold anything less than complete respect for your service. I am the son of a veteran -- a West Pointer many classes ahead of Shinseki, for whom the school motto, "Duty, Honor, Country" was sacrosanct. One-third of VA employees are veterans, and for an agency whose mission it is to help America's citizen-soldiers, that's as it should be. In my office, there were very fine men and women whose service in Iraq, Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, and Vietnam merits high praise; as VA employees, they brought -- and continue to bring, I'm sure -- their battle-earned perspective on what our nation's veterans need.
But at the higher level of leadership, the military notions of responsibility and accountability seem to be sorely lacking, replaced by a culture infused with such hubris that reason and rationality run a distant second and third behind imperiousness. It makes no sense to me that the problems now being exposed in Phoenix and in other VA locations are just now finding their way into Secretary Shinseki's office. Were he just taking over, I could understand the vacuum of information; but Shinseki has been there for five years, and in that five-year period, the skulduggery and deceit that was being perpetrated on veterans waiting for care -- and on their families -- was going on and on and on.
Administrators and managers in the field who were complicit in any of these activities did not act alone; their orders to subvert the system, their memos, their meetings with subordinates, were known by many in their facilities and regions, and were probably shared around the office water coolers and backyard barbecues on weekends, or whenever staff got together to shoot the breeze and pass along the scuttlebutt. Nothing that happens in VA hospitals or clinics happens behind solid curtains of silence. Nothing. Some light eventually seeps through. It took the courage of a few senior staff who could no longer stand behind those curtains to step out and expose the flaws in the system.
How is it possible that the VA secretary, or his most senior leaders, were blindsided by these revelations? It's possible only in a system where coming forward, being truthful, being completely candid, is penalized by thinly-veiled threats of ostracism and ridicule. Fear of being honest with your leadership is a sure sign that leadership has made it very clear that it does not want to hear the truth and will punish whoever dares speak it.
Where has Secretary Shinseki failed if, in fact, the inspector general's report documents deceptive medical appointment practices, collusion to hide such practices, and a continuing culture of delay and concealment?
Failure to know anything about the problem in advance of the news media's reports will call into question the secretary's lines of communication from top to bottom. Failure of VA managers to listen to and pass along the concerns of staff through a transparent and supportive chain of command will call into question management's confidence in the secretary's willingness to identify, pursue, and address sources of bad news. Failure of the secretary to inspire VA personnel nationwide to have the confidence to report any abuse or gaming of the system will call into question Secretary Shinseki's credibility as a fair and accessible leader to whom any matter can be addressed without fear of professional or personal reprisal.
On this last point, let me be clear: whether the secretary does not inspire his subordinates' confidence to report the agency's failings, or his senior staff stifles negative news in order to shield the secretary, the burden is still on Secretary Shinseki's shoulders. He simply cannot say, "I was not aware of this problem" and expect to hold on to his job.
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