Breaking the Back of Bureaucracy at the VA

The real story behind the appointment of Bob McDonald to lead the VA

When word broke that President Obama had appointed “Bob McDonald” to take charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) my e-mail account and voice mail went crazy. Most of those who made contact wanted to either congratulate me or to inquire why I was dumb enough to take such an impossibly thankless job.

After all, attempting the cure the bureaucratic ills of the VA is not only an unenviable job; it is also an impossible job, especially in today’s polluted political climate. One would have a better chance of solving the Israeli-Palestinian AND the Shiite-Sunni conflicts than in breaking the back of the bureaucracy at the VA.

Of course, the truth is that I may be dumb, but not so dumb as to take the job heading up the VA. But it was a close call: here is a behind-the-scenes look at how things actually transpired.

First of all, the truth is that President Obama did call me and did his utmost to talk me into taking the job as head of the VA. Unfortunately, in a desire not to offend the President, I equivocated in my response and told him that “I would think about it.” The president must have McDonald_3 copymistaken that ambiguity as a “yes” and instructed his people make preparations for my appointment. Well, when I finally got back to “Barack” and respectfully rejected the offer, everything regarding my appointment had been set in motion, the press releases, the acceptance speech, the guest shot on Sixty Minutes. Naturally, the White House didn’t want to embarrass itself with yet another “oops, we made another mistake,” so they kept looking until they found another Bob McDonald who was willing to take the job. And that’s the rest of the story . . ..

Nevertheless, even though fixing the VA is not my job, the least I can do is offer my namesake some suggestions as to how he might slog his way through the VA’s formidable bureaucracy. Since that Bob McDonald is a lifelong Republican, the best place to start might be to explore outsourcing the problems at the VA to a large corporation in the private sector. After all, since the Republicans staunchly proclaim that the “private sector” is so much better at fighting bureaucracy, it seems logical to outsource the VA problems to a private company. The corporation that comes to mind might be General Motors. And lest we forget, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are the reason for the current strain on VA resources were pretty much outsourced to Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and Blackwater Security.


Any chance for McDonald to be successful at the VA also calls for a heroic suspension of reality; stakeholders must come to believe that he will have the time, political support, power and, most important, the cooperation of those working at the VA. But that fantasy is as likely to happen as ordering a heart/lung transplant at a VA drive-thru. McDonald will not have any of those necessary tools or power to break the bureaucracy. Once a bureaucratic culture has become entrenched in either a large government or corporate organization, nothing short of an act of God will stamp it out; and even that may not be enough.

But— if we could suspend reality, here are a few steps that could be taken to thwart and even eradicate bureaucracy at the VA. Even though this is never going to happen at the VA, these concepts can be used by a leader to prevent bureaucracy from creeping in and crippling their organization.

  • Unambiguously define, communicate and reinforce a clear, concise vision and specific objectives of the organization in a way that everyone involved can understand and be held accountable for at least striving to achieve.
  • Push authority and decision making down through the organization, rather than vesting that power in a few at the top of the organization.
  • Eliminate the rules of performance that tell people how to do the job and institute rules of engagement that define what needs to be done and allows the people to decide how it should be done.
  • Always drive a sense of urgency within the organization. Encourage making a decision by defining failure as not making a decision.
  • Provide incentive and reward for success and accountability for failure.

Even a cursory overview would show that none of these bureaucracy-fighting concepts exists in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The “mission” of the VA is so all-encompassing and suitably nebulous – get this, it’s “responsible for providing vital services to America’s veterans” – it is impossible to focus activity and establish clear benchmarks of performance.

Combine this with exceedingly top-heavy management authority – it is estimated that out of more than 250,000 VA employees only about 200 managers have authority to make even limited decisions – and the confused lack of effective action is as understandable as it is predictable. Such a top-down management approach in any a large organization causes the creation of rules and regulations that document corporate process and procedure in such excruciating detail that it prevents any type of flexible response in dealing with individual needs.

The result? Those who deal directly with the “customer” (the veterans) are forced to spend more time straining to comply with rules than solving problems or meeting needs. With no clear-cut benchmarks or standards of performance – other than conforming to the rigid rules – waitlistthere is no sense of urgency to meet the needs of the veteran. (That is why some veterans can be forced to wait 9 months or more for a simple appointment.) In the VA failure is defined as “not following the rules,” not failing to provide needed services to veterans. As a result, there is little incentive to provide timely service and no reward for doing so; and accountability becomes virtually nonexistent. Despite what is acknowledged as a widespread “mess” at the VA, out of 250,000 employees, only three individuals have lost their jobs. But that is not surprising, because true accountability can only be enforced when authority has been bestowed and few if any have real authority at the VA. Considering all this, it is a wonder that the VA functions as well as it does!

But not all is lost. Any leader who seeks to resist the encroachment of stultifying bureaucracy in their organization can study the model of the VA for what should and should not be done.

The Bottom Line

Any organization must have a clear, consistent vision that is constantly communicated and is unambiguous enough to be converted into identifiable actions necessary to achieve the vision. Those within the organization – not just those at the top – must be empowered to identify the actions necessary and vested with the authority to complete them. Leaders may define “what” is to be done, but “rules of engagement” rather than “rules of procedure” must be in place in order to allow others to decide “how” it is to be done. When specific benchmarks and measures of performance are established a “sense of urgency” to complete the task is created. And without a continuing sense of urgency, ultimately nothing is accomplished. Reward for doing the right thing the right way is more important than accountability for failure, but you can’t have one without the other. Put all these together and you have the makings of a successful – bureaucracy-free – organization. Ignore these concepts and you have the makings of another VA.

Good luck Mr. McDonald! Better you than me!

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