Can the next VA leader break the cycle of corruption?
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE’s Cabinet nominees have not had an easy go of things thus far.

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Unlike many of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, for Dr. David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinVA inspector general says former top official steered M contract to friend Schumer demands answers in use of unproven coronavirus drug on veterans Former Trump VA secretary says staffer found plans to replace him in department copier MORE, who has been tapped by the administration to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, the nomination process has been the easy part.

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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 MillerShould Biden consider a veteran for vice president? We need to focus on veterans in need of service dogs For-profit college debate highlights VA's problematic history of paternalism 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.


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