The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 is the poster child for everything that is wrong with today’s hyper-partisan political environment and the damage that this toxic environment can inflict on something as critical as providing health care to our veterans.
The VA Accountability Act was born out of Congress’s belief that the blame for the problems of the VA health care system should be laid at the feet of career civil servants, in particular members of the career Senior Executive Service (SES). Punishing career civil servants might be popular, but it won’t fix the problems at VA in any meaningful way and, in fact, could exacerbate the problems.
To be clear, the Senior Executives Association does not oppose this legislation because we want to protect under-performing civil servants. We oppose the VA Accountability Act and legislation like it because we want to protect high performing civil servants who are frequently the only bulwark between political leaders struggling to handle an emerging crisis, such as 9/11 or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and a worsening of the disaster.
Congress and the Administration in power control the budget and policy levers of government. It’s their job to make the big decisions. Career civil servants implement those decisions. Blaming career leaders for the problems at VA is a convenient dodge for Congress because they, and prior Administrations, are the real culprits in this saga. This is the uncomfortable truth that political leaders don’t want the American public to know.
Paul Light is an NYU professor who studied 41 government failures since 2002. The root causes of those failures, Light notes, were poor policy choices made by senior government leaders. And who were the senior government leaders making those poor policy decisions? As Light notes, “Poorly designed policies come from Congress and the president… and may be impossible to implement regardless of bureaucratic commitment. Moreover, government cannot always do more with less, compensate for poor leadership, and manage the confusion created by duplication and overlap on Capitol Hill.”
Multiple studies and IG investigations have outlined the challenges at VA: a failure to recruit and retain a talented workforce, budget shortfalls, and an operating environment that favored efficiency over premium health care.
And who was responsible for these three failures? Political leaders, not career leaders.
Budget shortfalls can be laid squarely at the feet of Congress. Congress has failed to pass a budget on time for years and the nine-year-long destructive cycle of Continuing Resolutions has eroded the ability of agencies such as VA to make critical investments in infrastructure, people and programs. This is an epic failure that has nothing to do with career executives.
Budget impasses also impact hiring and recruitment, because if you don’t have budget stability, it’s hard to recruit and retain talent. Vacancies are also caused by low morale and an inability to recruit talent to what many healthcare workers believe is a hostile working environment. The constant attacks on VA’s workforce by Congress only further poisons the well.
And the operating environment that favored decreased wait times over health care delivery? That stemmed from an aborted attempt by Obama administration political leaders to develop metrics for budget purposes. The end result was what every management guru said it would be: organizations focus on what is measured as success by their political leaders.
These realities may be less viscerally satisfying than the scandal-driven status quo, but good governance and increased cable news ratings are rarely bedfellows. Recognition of the true causes of government dysfunction is key to meaningful reform, in contrast to what Light describes as “the current approach of Congress searching for the one employee who caused the failure du jure and holding yet another ‘perp walk.’”
None of this excuses the actions of some VA employees who made poor decisions and have since been punished. But it also does not excuse Congress’s blind eye toward their own failures and the continued scapegoating of competent career civil servants.
If Congress and the administration would like to work with us and other groups who care deeply about our veterans and the quality of healthcare they should be receiving, we stand ready to partner with you to develop constructive solutions. Slamming career federal employees for the failures of Washington’s political class may produce headlines, but it won’t produce the meaningful reforms we all know are necessary.
Bill Valdez is president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents senior career federal executives at Senior Executive Services and in SES-equivalent positions.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.