Saving the VA from itself

In recent years, it’s become blindingly obvious that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is plagued with serious performance issues, due to the department’s calcified bureaucratic culture.

Whether it’s the massive backlog of disability claims, long waits for health care appointments, or substandard care leading to worsening health outcomes or even death for veterans, evidence of VA’s dysfunction is plain for all to see.  

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Our veterans and their families are paying the price for these management and performance failures. The question is, how can we fix those problems?

We now know who doesn’t have an answer to that question—VA’s current leadership team. At a March 25 Congressional hearing hosted by the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee, VA representatives made it clear they will defend the department’s unsatisfactory status quo. That’s bad news not only for the veterans who rely on VA services, but also for department employees who would like to see VA evolve into a high performing agency.

I testified at the same hearing on behalf of Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), along with representatives from multiple veterans organizations—including the American Legion. Our organizations, representing military veterans and their families across America, made it clear we would like to see enhanced management accountability at VA.

To that end, we offered testimony in support of the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014, bipartisan legislation that would empower the VA secretary to cut through red-tape and fire underperforming Senior Executive Service leaders. At CVA, we believe this common sense reform is a necessary first step toward bringing accountability to VA leadership.

The VA’s representative at the hearing spoke against this reform legislation, arguing that the department secretary has the tools he needs to enforce accountability. But if that’s the case, why isn’t the secretary using those tools?

Not a single VA senior manager has been fired under this administration (early retirement with full pension and job transfers don’t count), while the department’s metrics over the last five years have gone from bad to worse—and then to much, much worse.

As one who aims to see VA fixed, I was disappointed to hear the department leadership argue against reform. Disappointed—but not surprised. It’s rare that any bureaucracy would demand greater accountability for itself. But given VA’s critical mission of caring for those who have borne the burden of military service, the department’s stubborn resignation to its own inefficiency is particularly disheartening.

VA argues that making it easier to remove poor performers would have “negative effects on its ability to recruit and retain managerial talent.” But this is a highly disputable claim—if anything, organizations with high levels of managerial accountability tend to thrive and attract the best talent.

Talented people want to work at places—whether private sector, government or nonprofit—that get results and facilitate a culture of excellence and achievement. Compare, say, the culture of Silicon Valley to that of VA. Which does a better job of competing for the best talent, finding innovative solutions to problems and offering high quality products and services? There’s simply no comparison.

Of course, the preferences of VA leadership are not the best measure of what the department needs to improve its performance. If we want a fuller picture of the quality of leadership at VA, we should rely not on the testimony of the leaders, but learn what the employees think.

According to a 2013 survey of VA employees by the Partnership for Public Service, VA employees ranked the department’s leadership near the bottom for effectiveness and fairness. Those findings suggest VA workers would welcome reforms that would allow the best employees to prosper while holding poor performers accountable.

As a military veteran, I highly value the role VA plays as a service provider, but the department has lost sight of its mission to serve veterans. Instead, today’s VA has embraced a bunker mentality and appears determined to protect its managers from being held to basic standards of performance. It’s time for that to change.

From April 1-3, CVA is holding our Vets on the Hill 2014 outreach initiative, bringing military veterans and families to Washington to meet with Congressional members and staff, urging VA reform. These are the voices our leaders need to hear if we are going to save VA from its own dysfunction. The department’s current leadership long ago forfeited their credibility on what needs to be done to save VA.

Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and a FOX News contributor. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

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