As a national nonprofit organization devoted to our nation’s veterans, our members and leadership know the very deep challenges faced by those who have served in uniform. How? Because we live it every day. As veterans, we strongly feel that President Obama must do better than appoint yet another lifelong military, medical or political bureaucrat to lead the Veterans Administration. Once the current controversy passes, General Shinseki will be discovered to have done an exemplary job in what have become impossible circumstances for any leader. From our perspective, what was lacking was not situation specific, but systemic. What failed was the political will and courage in congress and the administration to shake up an organization being inundated by nearly impossible requirements and demands. Given this situation, midlevel career bureaucrats did what they almost always do – obfuscate and pass the buck and spin alternate realities. Now, what is required is a turnaround specialist – not another bureaucrat who hails from a broken system or one closely related.
During the backlog crisis, a senior VA official was urged to consider drastic action and turnaround the entire VA claims system. His response was departments could not be disrupted because of the huge backlog. Turnarounds most often occur during crisis. Few leaders will restructure an enterprise without the stimulus of possible failure.
The VA network is the largest hospital and provider system in the nation. Medical centers alone number one hundred and fifty-two. System wide, the VA operates over 5,000 points of contact and administers over 200,000 daily appointments. A huge system which is independently rated as providing higher or equal patient satisfaction rates when compared to civilian healthcare. The VA system is strained and damaged but it is far from broken.
Congress insulated the VA from heavy political interference. Political appointments are few and the authority of those officials is limited. The law of unintended consequences is now bearing its bitter fruit. Many VA senior bureaucrats appear to have chosen themselves over the veterans they are dedicated to serve. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity.
When bureaucrats are confronted with political pressures that demand results but ignore the costs to achieve those results, the mediocre or disgruntled senior bureaucrat will ignore or simply wait out the political leadership whose influence is limited by both time and politics. The VA/Pentagon medical records fiasco is one example of bureaucratic stonewalling and inertia.
The President should appoint, and Congress support, a turnaround specialist experienced with public and private restructuring. Appoint a mission-oriented expert whose focus is solely on streamlining the entire operation to accomplish the tasks in the most effective manner. An expert experienced with coordinating the sensitivities of various, frequently disparate, organizations with often opposing agendas is required. Military service and/or experience should not be required and may even be contraindicated.
Choose a strong individual with the support of both congress and the administration. Arm that leader with enough legal authority to accomplish a complete and thorough reorganization. The current Veterans Affairs senior leadership must be reenergized. A culture of mission accomplishment, innovation and risk must replace the current stagnation where often the only practical means to remove a failing leader is to promote them.
This is not a task for the inexperienced. For a new leader, President Obama should comb the private sector for the most qualified executive with experience transforming enterprises into proud functional organizations. Two examples of possible appointees come to mind. First, Mr. Kenneth Fisher who established Fisher House, which has saved and improved lives for thousands of veterans and their loved ones nationwide by providing housing and support to families while loved ones receive health care and rehabilitation is excellent. Second, Mr. Bill White who is the former President of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and a tireless fundraiser, advocate and activist on behalf of veterans and active duty servicemembers is another solid example.
Without such an appointee, the VA senior bureaucracy will hunker down; make pleasing sounds and wait for the next administration. Turning a bull loose in the china shop is not President Obama’s preferred style but occasionally this approach is both necessary and effective.