The Real VA Scandal
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr. (USA-Ret)

A year ago mismanagement of the Veterans Administration was big news, but little has changed since then. Congress is working on two pieces of legislation largely designed to punish perceived malfeasance by senior VA executives while the VA digs in its heels in opposition. One woman who was actually dismissed for dereliction of duty, unheard of in government ranks, has gone to court challenging her dismissal. Meanwhile, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees are pushing legislation to give VA employees even more protection.

The whole VA imbroglio reflects a much larger issue -- the virtual absence of senior management authority in the federal bureaucracy. The previous VA administrator was a senior military officer, U.S. Army General Eric K. Shinseki, who was Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. The current VA Administrator is Robert A. McDonald who was CEO of Proctor and Gamble. Both of these gentlemen brought with them many years of senior organizational leadership and proven management ability.

But McDonald is learning as Shinseki learned that the management techniques they acquired in military and corporate America do not easily transfer to the federal bureaucracy. The heads of federal agencies cannot just move people around and shift resources to where they are needed like they can in the U.S. Army or a private corporation. The agencies are governed by ironclad civil service rules, embellished by union agreements, which render any personnel action an exercise in frustration and futility.

In the U.S. Army or a private corporation, the top guy (or gal) issues orders under the assumption they will be carried out. Everyone down the line knows that to be successful, earn promotion and make a successful career, snappy obedience and performance are the order of the day. If someone drops the ball or refuses to obey instructions, heads will roll. If people are in positions they cannot handle, they will be moved somewhere else. There is a strong incentive to work hard, be a team player and follow instructions. There is also a certain amount of fear.

But managers in the federal government cannot reward excellence or weed out incompetence. The best they can do is issue policy directives and hope for the best. The civil service needs serious reform but there is no political will to do it. It is said that the Democrats do not want to reform the bureaucracy because they are closely tied to the employee unions, and the Republicans do not want to do it because they do not actually want an efficient bureaucracy.

VA mismanagement is not the problem but rather a symptom of a bigger problem. We really do need to find a way to instill accountability in the federal bureaucracy. It can be done but true reform must begin with a will to change the status quo.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.