Can the next VA leader break the cycle of corruption?
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE’s Cabinet nominees have not had an easy go of things thus far.

Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosWhat the next Education secretary must do Duke-UNC v. DOE: Riding a wave of mutual antagonism Trump administration blocked consumer watchdog from public service loan forgiveness program: report MORE, now secretary of the Department for Education, required Vice President Pence to cast a deciding tie vote for her nomination. The confirmation process of Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attacks Sessions: A 'total disaster' and 'an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama' Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Washington Times after story on her 'high-dollar hairdo' Trump's tirades, taunts and threats are damaging our democracy MORE, now the attorney general, was described as a “bitter and racially charged” battle that “crested with the procedural silencing of a leading Democrat.” And Dr. Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceIndustrial food system is at the heart of biodiversity degradation and climate change Joe Lieberman's son running for Senate in Georgia The Hill's Campaign Report: Impeachment fight poses risks to both Trump, Dems MORE’s confirmation took place in the early morning hours after a 30-hour debate over his qualifications to be secretary of the Department of Human Services.

Unlike many of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, for Dr. David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinVA under pressure to ease medical marijuana rules Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank Senior Trump administration official to leave post next week MORE, who has been tapped by the administration to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, the nomination process has been the easy part.


Contrary to many of his counterparts in the Trump Cabinet, Shulkin “cruise[d]” through his confirmation hearing. Ben Kesling, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, even tweeted that it was “like [his hearing] was happening on a different planet” due to the civility shown by Democrats and Republicans, both toward both the nominee and one another. Shulkin is expected to be easily confirmed on Monday.


But frustration awaits Shulkin on the other side of his hearing.

In recent years, VA’s culture is one that has been described as “corrosive,” and “seriously impacting morale, and by extension, the timeliness of care.” In the last two Congresses, former House VA Chairman Jeff MillerJefferson (Jeff) Bingham MillerSuicide prevention remains a top national priority for the VA Ohio school took hot lunch from 9-year-old on his birthday due to unpaid lunch debt Labor Day 2019: Provide VA whistleblowers with necessary legal tools MORE repeatedly lambasted the department for its “rampant lack of accountability.” And the Independent Budget, authored by several leading veterans service organizations, this past week listed “reform[ing] VA’s culture with transparency and accountability” in its list of top “critical issues” facing the department during the 115th Congress.

Having served as the undersecretary for Health under the Obama administration, Shulkin is of course no stranger to the culture of the agency and the morale issues from which it suffers; however, how he will work to improve these issues remains to be seen.

According to Scott Nier, a retired industrial and organizational psychologist with VA experience, the department is well-funded and the majority of its employees are hardworking and dedicated to its mission. However, many of VA’s challenges are a result of “a deep hierarchy modeled after our military institutions.” Although such a structure has served our armed forces well, it has not translated well into its post-service brethren, which has become bogged down by excessive regulations, outdated personnel practices, and rewarding excessive spending rather than efficient innovations.

As a current VA employee explained to me, “rules-based organizations [such as VA] are the epitome of the faceless bureaucracy that the American public voted against in our most recent presidential election.”

In order to improve VA’s overall culture, the employees both past and present that I spoke with provided the following suggestions to aid Shulkin and other incoming VA leaders.

First, it was noted that VA tends to be defensive and overly reactive to criticism, by Congress and other-stakeholders, and that a leader who sets a tone of stability and better aptitude toward preemptively addressing the department’s traditional strengths and weaknesses would be an initial step in the right direction.

In addition, VA would benefit from greater collaboration with other government agencies — most notably the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management — to improve personnel practices not only within the department but also government-wide. As a result of the outdated practices that VA operates within, many managers felt that it was not worth their time and energy to terminate poor-performing employees, and they became discouraged when the Merit System Protection Board overruled the termination of several Senior Executive Service leaders for abusing their authority, in what appeared to be an open-and-shut case.

Finally, it was noted that in order to truly empower employees to serve veterans, VA must redefine what “success” means.

High-performing employees expressed that they are often frustrated by the time and energy consumed by problematic employees, which often leads to a breakdown in trust between leadership and the rank and file. Exceptional employees need an expectation that they will be rewarded and promoted; similarly, under-performing employees need to know that they may lose their job if they do not meet job requirements.

Currently, the agency tends downplay the success of its high-performing employees and gloss over the problems caused by those at the opposite end of the spectrum, in an effort to appear “fair.” The more that VA goes out of its way to be fair to everyone, the more it ends up being fair to no one. It cannot be emphasized enough that VA requires a strong leader to redefine its internal notions of both success and fairness.

Although there are few things Democrats and Republicans agree on these days, improving the Department of Veterans Affairs under the leadership of Dr. Shulkin appears to be one of them. As Shulkin’s predecessor, Bob McDonald, acknowledged, a turnaround of VA’s culture will not happen overnight — but it does require everyone working together to keep it moving forward.


Rory E. Riley-Topping has dedicated her career to ensuring accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to care for our nation’s veterans. She is principal at veterans advocate Riley-Topping Consulting and has served as in a legal capacity for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs and for the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.