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December 11 2015

VA Official: You Can’t Fire Your Way to Excellence

Patrice J. Lee

Do you want to work in an environment where employees demonstrate a sense of entitlement and at senior levels willfully engage in misconduct, because they are have no fear of any accountability? Some stories lead us to wonder if the Veterans Administration is such a place.

Countless stories of mismanagement, misconduct, and misdemeanors circulate around the federal agency charged with taking care of the needs of our nation’s heroes.  The most famous are "Thelma and Louise," two senior executives who, according to the agency's inspector general,  swindled the agency’s relocation program out of a reported $400,000. Then there are the scandals that plagued the VA including the claims backlog, medical malpractice, failed mental healthcare screenings, and unsanitary conditions leading to disease breakouts. Last year, my colleague Amber Smith summed up that “dysfunctional mismanagement, and the lack of oversight and unethical environment all contribute to the VA’s failure.”

You would think that after all of this VA officials would be contrite and committed to reforming their personnel management system to ensure that wrong doers are punished and the roots of cancerous behavior rooted out of the VA.

Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson’s comments to Congress this week indicate you would be wrong.

Gibson made it clear that Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves (a.k.a. Thelma and Louise) had not been fired but were put on paid leave and that was okay, because what they did wasn’t that bad. Furthermore, the way to change culture is not to fire everybody.

The Washington Post reports:

“In my many years in the private sector, I’ve never encountered an organization where leadership was measured by how many people you fired,” Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“You can’t fire your way to excellence.”

...

The agency’s deputy inspector general found in a report this fall that Rubens and Graves forced lower-ranking regional managers to accept job transfers against their will. The women then took the vacant positions themselves, keeping their pay but reducing their responsibility as regional managers in the Veterans Benefits Administration.

But Gibson, reading from prepared testimony, said the inspector general’s office exaggerated the actions, which the watchdog’s office has referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

“We won’t administer punishment based on IG opinions, referrals to the Department of Justice, recycled and embellished media accounts, or external pressure,” Gibson said. “It’s simply not right, and it’s not in the best interest of the veterans we serve.” He called the cases “failures in judgment” and not “ethical breaches.”

This stance probably would not be accepted in private business, but this kind of defiance goes a long way towards explaining why VA officials pulled down $142 million in bonuses while the agency was under fire for staff who falsified patient wait lists and prolonged delays for veterans to get treatment. Furthermore, VA Secretary Bob McDonald has publicly given conflicting numbers on how many employees have been disciplined and fired since he’s been in charge. There seems to be no rush to boot employees who don't do their jobs (or worse).

Apparently, we’re supposed to be comforted by self-imposed changes at the VA:

Gibson announced two changes to how VA will discipline employees: officials will no longer wait for outside investigations to conclude before moving forward with punishing employees who violate the rules, he said, and the agency will limit the time it places employees on paid leave.

But Gibson testified that VA cannot improve simply by firing its staff. It will focus on “sustainable accountability,” he said, focusing on positive reinforcement of employees who follow the rules.

The chairman of the Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), was furious and as dumbfounded as we are.

This is more evidence that the more things change is the more they stay the same in the federal bureaucracy. There is no incentive to hold employees accountable for mismanagement or misconduct. The people we charge with cleaning up house at federal agencies often become absorbed into the dysfunctional system.

Sadly, sitting by are our veterans who suffer at the hands of bureaucrats more concerned with keeping their paychecks than the welfare of those they’re charged with serving.

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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