VA Secretary’s “Call Me Maybe” Fail and the Risks of Empty Gestures


Since the end of the Cold War, our nation has entangled itself in war after war, seldom allocating the resources to fight effectively, much less the resources to take care of veterans after the guns fall silent. Falling short in this regard is nothing new in the American experience. But the wide delta between veteran needs and government ineptitude in modern times has made leadership of the VA an issue of particular interest.

It was against this backdrop of acute interest that I had a chance to hear Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald speak not long after he took the reins of the VA. Like many in the audience, I was impressed at his authenticity and evident passion to turn things around. He took the position after his predecessor, Gen. Eric Shinseki, resigned under pressure resulting from a series of scandals.

Shinseki’s departure continued a well-worn pattern in American government. A massive agency develops organizational pathologies of the sort that occur naturally and cyclically in any government bureaucracy. The problems fester, abetted by political capture and administrative ineptitude, insidious perpetrators and rice bowl guardians intractably barricaded behind regulatory red tape. Politically appointed executives struggle to deal with the issues, sometimes misapprehending their nature and nearly always substituting saccharine rhetoric for the sort of impassioned, relentless, cause-driven leadership required under the circumstances.

Eventually, one of two things happens: either the organization collapses, or it is rescued by a reform movement. Either way, political sacrifices occur along the way when problems become visible enough to the public that accountability can’t be avoided. This is one way of understanding Shinseki’s departure, notwithstanding whether he was culpable for VA pathologies that were pervasive long before he took the position.

With each such change in leadership, an ailing agency either inches closer to ruin or finds a reform champion capable of pulling it back from the brink and instigating change. This requires, to paraphrase Liam Neeson, a particular set of skills. Superb managerial competence, unrelenting focus and prioritization, the ability to build loyalty and inspire employees working in often miserable conditions, and the political ability to influence resource flows … these must all exist in generous measure, along with the shrewd sense of strategy important to outmaneuvering competitors who will try their damndest to protect the status quo.

When Bob McDonald took over the VA, many thought he possessed this particular set of skills. But in the time since, it’s become evident something is not working. Whatever McDonald is doing, it doesn’t seem to be impacting the fundamental conditions faced by ordinary employees or veterans interfacing with the agency. Patients are still waiting too long for treatment. Too many are not getting the help they need in time for it to be relevant. Customers are left in the cold without answers or benefits, often giving up on the agency altogether. Worst of all, trying to get someone — anyone — at the VA to be reliable, accountable, or even present … often feels impossible.

One of the main complaints about the agency is how difficult it is to get a responsive human on the other end of a phone or email. McDonald has heard this time and again, and claims he’s trying to fix it. As a demonstration of his commitment to making the VA more approachable and in an attempt to engender trust, he famously makes his contact information openly accessible and urges anyone having trouble getting results to give him a call.

There’s just one problem, illustrated in the video below.

This is a case study in the risks and rewards of political gestures by people in leadership positions.

When a leader makes a grand gesture and follows that gesture with substantive action, policy, and results, his resources of influence grow exponentially. Followers rally. Customers become more patient and deferential.  Trust multiplies.

Conversely, when a gesture doesn’t get supported with action and is revealed as empty, credibility is hemorrhaged. Trust is obliterated. Deference shrinks. Alienation sets in. Followers — in this case VA employees — absorb even more enmity from customers doubly frustrated by unmet expectations and resentful of leaders who seem to be all form and no function.

McDonald’s attempt to portray himself as accessible has made things worse by injuring confidence in his ability to turn the VA around. It has also exposed the folly of the gesture itself. Veterans and families don’t need a personal conversation with the Secretary. They need the care and benefits they have been promised and have relied upon.

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McDonald isn’t the only leader to make such gestures or to suffer the consequences when they are exposed as hollow. I follow the Air Force closely and write about it regularly. Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s senior leader, regularly invites troops to email him if they’re not getting results from the personnel system or the chain of command. He admonishes crowds to take it upon themselves to stop doing things that are not value-added. During base visits, he tells his airmen he loves them and would do anything for them. Sounds cool, and hits many of them “right in the feels.”

But these gestures have been insufficiently supported with meaningful action and have therefore been perfectly useless. The Air Force’s distressing pathologies have deepened at an accelerating rate during Welsh’s tenure.

There are many parallels between the stories of the VA and USAF in this regard. Each has a massive cohort of employees somehow finding ways to get their jobs done without proper resources. Each is riddled with corruption … evident by the fact that following the rules of the system and operating within its structure produces wrong and often absurd results. Each is led by a charismatic politician possessed of obvious passion but unable to translate it into a means of dealing with institutional problems and unwilling to slay sacred cows or get impaled on political swords.

Will either agency turn itself around before it collapses? Only time will tell. But two things are evident: neither has yet found its reform champion, and neither has been helped by grand but hollow posturing.

Since 9/11/01, nearly two million Americans have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. 52,000 have been wounded and as many as 30 percent suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. All need care. Many others need timely access to earned education benefits to effectively transition into civilian life. World events and foreign policy responses will continue to grow these demands.

Our veterans need a reliable VA. The path to that reliability does not run through Bob McDonald’s inaccessible voicemail.

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