Should We be Surprised to Discover that Bureaucracy Reigns in the Department of Veterans Affairs?

The dangers inherent within a bureaucratic culture are an abundance of rules that strangle options and cripple the urgency to act.

This past week, with little real news and airtime to fill, the media merry-go-round calliope commonly called the “news cycle” fell back on an old and reliable target by focusing on bureaucratic foul-ups at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). With obligatory fanfare, the media dramatically informed us that the VA is hidebound with rules, is as inflexible as set-concrete, lacks a sense of urgency, resists change, fails to meet expectations (set by others) and wastes resources. We also learned that VA employees attempt to hide deficiencies, practice the art of “cover your ass” and shun accountability.

So, should we be shocked, outraged and surprised by this state of affairs at the VA? For all the VA2breathless reporting of the media, isn’t this nothing more than the definition of a bureaucracy?

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the second largest government department, trailing only the Department of Defense (which we all know is free of bureaucratic issues, right?). The VA operates on a budget of almost $100 billion, employs over 300,000 (only 450 of whom are appointed and exempt from Civic Service), manages almost 1,000 various medical facilities spread across the country and is charged with meeting the medical, disability and burial needs of millions of military veterans. In 2013 there were 85,000,000 requests for medical service from the VA.

The intent here is not to condemn or defend the VA, but simply to point out that the ills the media has highlighted are the ills present in any bureaucracy of any size. The reality is that the only way any organization could even attempt to meet the level of responsibility placed on the VA (especially considering budget restrictions enacted by Congress) is by creating rules, process and procedures and generally adopting a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

By its very nature a bureaucracy is not flexible and certainly not perfect. The truth is that for a bureaucracy as large as VA is, with as many obligations as it has, this unwieldy behemoth does a remarkably good job. Of course there are horror stories at the VA, but they are – considering its scope of responsibility – no greater than horror stories we hear about health insurance companies and private hospitals.

The story here is not that the Department of Veterans Affairs is bad, but that bureaucracy is bad. While a bureaucracy can be good at doing the same thing, the same way all the time, it is inflexible, resistant to change, ignorant of innovation and devoid of both accountability and reward. It is for these reasons that bureaucracy can be so damaging when it takes hold in a private organization that must meet competition, respond to change and innovate if it is to survive. And the media uproar should give thinking business managers a reason to explore what it takes to hold bureaucracy at bay, if we want to achieve and retain success.

And for good reason. Bureaucracy is not the exclusive domain of government organizations. It exists to some degree in nearly all businesses. The more entangling it becomes, the more success is threatened because bureaucracy is not intended to create success; at its best bureaucracy is only intended to preserve the status quo. And in business, preserving the status quo all too often means sacrificing a promising future.

The Battle Against Bureaucracy

There is a lot that goes into resisting and fighting bureaucracy, but there are two principles that are essential for the battle:

  • Avoid rules whenever possible, and
  • Always maintain a sense of urgency in all matters.

Instead of being ruled by rules, organizations do better when they are guided by guidelines of engagement. Never lose sight of the fact that rules are for those you don’t trust and guidelines are for those you respect. You give a person a rule and you take away thought and involvement. You give a person a guideline and you stimulate responsibility and accountability.

As a company grows, it’s a tradition to set up rules to tell people what they can and cannot do. Left unchecked, these rules become a crippling straightjacket that stifles the reason why rules were thought needed in the first place. On the other hand, a guideline of engagement defines what a company is about and allows individuals to decide how to go about it to achieve its objectives. Once the guidelines are communicated and agreed upon, individuals are free – actually encouraged – to make their own rules, to operate in a way they feel will best achieve a specific objective.

Bureaucracy_box_artWhen an organization is run by rules rather than guidelines, bureaucracy takes hold, responsibility is shunned, accountability is non-existent and an acute lack of urgency takes hold. The rules of bureaucracy become a molasses in the gears of urgency that slows down and eventually kills forward momentum until the very vestige of creative ingenuity simply withers away.

A sense of urgency does not mean making fast decisions: it means working quickly to get the information needed to make a decision. This attitude is an anathema in the bureaucratic culture where the fear of being responsible or accountable creates a desire to delay a decision. Employees simply wait for answers that will never come. In a bureaucracy, this attitude can work because there is no sense of urgency, but in the real life-or-death world of business this is a path to failure.

The challenge to face-down bureaucracy is to instill and retain a sense of urgency. This requires that members of the organization be imbued with the desire to act and move forward. A sense of urgency comes from the top, but it must filter through the entire organization to become a way of thinking and acting. Having a sense of urgency does not mean there is a lack of organization and planning – nor does it mean shooting from the hip. What it does mean is that there is a determination to get things done.

To achieve this sense of urgency, priorities must be clear, consistent, achievable and staunchly supported. Deadlines must be set – held to and met. Those charged with responsibility must be given the authority to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, and held accountable and rewarded for success. That’s something that never happens in a bureaucracy. And a company without a sense of urgency will soon have a sense of bureaucracy. But with a sense of urgency embedded in the culture of an organization, bureaucracy will never be given the chance to take root.

And the Moral of the Story …

We have seen the media ravage the Department of Veterans Affairs for exhibiting all the signs of an entrenched bureaucracy, all made possible because it is a bureaucracy. Set up as the second largest bureaucracy in government, how can we expect it to be any different? The truth is that as bureaucracies go the VA actually does a pretty good job; especially when compared to the Department of Defense. Certainly the VA is not perfect and some suffer because of that, but that is the essence of a bureaucracy with the same rules and the same size for all is imperfection.

The real lesson to learn here is not the lack of flexibility, the non-existence of a sense of urgency or absence of accountability in the VA, but how to avoid having the same bureaucratic attitudes seep into and control your organization. The best way to achieve that objective and become immune to the ravages of bureaucracy is to set guidelines rather than rules and always demand a sense of urgency.

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