Our Unfireable Federal Employees

We know from the recent scandals about the poor care received by our veterans that the Department of Veterans Affairs is a poorly administered mess.  Now the VA may be helping to illustrate a deeper problem with our federal bureaucracy — the lack of accountability on the part of federal employees, and the inability to mete out disciplinary action that is a standard part of most regular, non-governmental jobs.

The VA story is about two administrators who were accused of manipulating the agency’s hiring processes.  The VA’s acting inspector general concluded that the two officials forced lower-ranking managers to accept job transfers and then took the vacant positions themselves, keeping their  pay while reducing their responsibilities.  One was accused of using the reassignment to obtain nearly $130,000 through a lucrative government relocation stipend program, while the government paid $274,000 to relocate the other from her position in Washington, D.C. to the job in Philadelphia.

us-deptofveteransaffairs-seal-largeThe VA demoted the two — rather than firing them outright — but the officials appealed the demotions under the federal government’s civil service system.  In both cases, administrative law judges with the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled for the officials, finding that they had not tried to hide their actions from their own supervisors, who had done nothing to stop the actions, and that other VA officials had engaged in similar conduct without being disciplined at all.

In short, the VA is so poorly managed — or so removed from the pressures of normal jobs — that officials looked the other way when employees gamed the system, and the failure to act or discipline those other employees sets a precedent that protects employees who engage in later, similar misconduct.  It’s a topsy-turvy world that would never be tolerated in a normal business.

The American civil service system was developed in the years after the Civil War to try to shield government jobs and career employees from cronyism and politicization when new Presidents were elected or new Congresses took office.  It was a good idea, but the system has become calcified, and in many instances now serves to protect employees from being held appropriately accountable for their actions.  The VA’s example tells us it’s time to take a fresh look at the civil service system.

PTSD

We were in a small neighborhood bar in San Antonio on a Saturday afternoon in November, sipping beers and getting ready for the kickoff of the Ohio State-Michigan game.  There were only the three of us in the place with the bartender.  The door to the bar opened and a guy in his 20s walked in.

He looked at us and began talking . . . and talking, and talking.  Was that our car right outside the door?  Where were we from?  Columbus?  Hey, he was from Whitehall!  Watching the Buckeyes?  Well, he was a Buckeye fan, too.  What did we think of Jim Tressel?  Who did we think was the best Ohio State quarterback during the last ten years?  What did we do for a living?  Where did Russell go to school?  How did Russell like being an artist?  Kish left to do some shopping, and still the questions and running commentary kept coming.  What were we going to do while we were in San Antonio?  Did we know that we were there during the San Antonio bad weather period?

the-bonds-of-battle-ptsd-sebastian-junger-vfFor brief instants the guy would watch the game and root for the Buckeyes, but for the most part he was a chatterbox who simply would not stop talking or let us just watch the game in peace.  We answered his direct questions politely because that’s what people are supposed to do, but also because I didn’t want to do anything to provoke him.  My guard was up, because people don’t normally walk into a bar and begin a rapid-fire conversation with complete strangers.  Was the guy on drugs?  Was he getting ready to ask us for money?   What was his angle, really?

Halftime came, and the guy got a call on his cell phone.  When he took the call he walked around, seemingly agitated, and talked loudly to the person at the other end of the conversation.  A minute or two later he ended the call and announced he was leaving, and after we said goodbye he vanished into the rainy San Antonio afternoon without incident.  I admit that I breathed a sigh of relief.

We looked over at the bartender, and I asked if he knew the guy.  He said no, he’d never seen him before.  Then he shook his head sadly and said, “PTSD.”  The bartender explained that the San Antonio area is home to a lot of different military bases, and therefore to a lot of returning veterans who were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.  In fact, there was a Veterans Administration facility across the street, and he suspected the guy had come from there.

The bartender himself was a veteran, he said, and he’d seen the guy’s kind of behavior before.  He said that when he returned from overseas, struggling with what he had seen and done, the VA’s first response was drugs, because “drugs are easy.”  So he took the drugs the doctors gave him, but he later decided that the drugs he was prescribed, and the kinds of mood swings they provoked, were just too much, so he stopped.  The talker’s behavior, the bartender explained, was showing the signs of the drugs he was prescribed for his PTSD.  His behavior wasn’t his fault.

We had no way of knowing for sure, of course, whether the talker in fact had PTSD as a result of his military service, because he hadn’t talked about it — but the bartender’s comments had the obvious ring of truth.  It turns out that the bartender’s view of the VA’s actions isn’t unique; it’s not hard to find news stories that talk about the VA’s approach to prescribing drugs to returning veterans and question its value.

I felt bad for doubting a guy who had served his country, been scarred by the experience, and wasn’t getting the help he really needed to deal with his issues and return to civilian society.  And I wondered just how many returning veterans deal with PTSD and why the government that sent them over to fight hasn’t come up with an effective approach to a common problem.

It’s just not right.

The CDC And The Mass Breakdown Of Governmental Competence

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability.  Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.

That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling.  In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria.  In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab.  The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards.  The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.

Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic.  But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue:  a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies.  In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country.  And those are just a few of the stories.

For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties.  The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation:  is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do?  In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question. 

The Best Way To Say Thank You On Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, we remember those who have given their lives that we might live in freedom and we express our gratitude to those who have served on our behalf.

This Memorial Day, what better way to say thank you to those who have perished, those who have served in the past, and those who are serving now than to ensure that we show our appreciation in tangible ways when their service has ended?  That means hiring veterans and helping them when they have returned to civilian life, thanking members of the military whenever we see them, and — above all — committing our nation to providing a Veterans Administration that serves our returning veterans as capably as they have served this country.

The current VA scandal is shameful.  Fixing the VA and its broken culture so that our veterans receive prompt and top-quality medical care is not a political issue, it is a matter of fulfilling a fundamental moral obligation.  Whether we do it by cleaning house from the VA secretary on down, getting rid of administrators who think it is appropriate to falsify data and cover up the terrible failings at their facilities, and starting over, or by scrapping the VA hospital and medical system entirely and giving veterans coverage that allows them to receive medical care from the same hospitals and doctors as the rest of us, we must do something to solve this problem.  We should thank the whistleblowers who called attention to the VA’s problems, and we should hold President Obama and his Administration accountable and demand that they stop the endless studies and act.

On this Memorial Day, we thank our veterans and men and women in uniform, but the best thank you is for the United States to fix a broken system that has let our veterans down.

A Scandal In The Truest Sense Of The Word

In a world where “scandals” often seem to be invented and overhyped, the recent news about the medical care provided to veterans by the Veterans Administration actually qualifies for the name.  It’s an embarrassment, and an outrage.

The issue has to do with the quality and timeliness of health care.  In a number of VA facilities across the country, there have been reports that veterans face long delays to receive care — and VA employees are acting to hide the truth or falsify statistics so the wait times don’t look so long.  The most notorious news came from Phoenix, where CNN reported on allegations that veterans died waiting to receive care, that a VA facility maintained a secret waiting list, and that VA personnel were trying to cover up the fact that more than 1,000 sick veterans were required to wait for months to receive treatment.  Those allegations are now being investigated by the VA and by Congress.

The world being what it is, many people focus on the politics of this scandal and its potential impact on the upcoming elections.  Those inevitable stories, however, are part of the problem.  They reflect our apparent, growing inability to respond to these stories as human beings as opposed to hyper-political partisans caught in the endless spin cycle.

So here’s a reminder of the reality.  People become veterans by serving their country in the military, risking their lives and health to keep us safe, perform essential services, and fight our wars.  We owe them our gratitude, but we owe them more than lip service — we also have to keep our word to provide them with excellent medical care.  If veterans are waiting for months while they move slowly up a waiting list to see a doctor, we obviously aren’t meeting that sacred obligation, and we should be embarrassed as a nation.

As is so often the case, the bureaucratic reaction is just as deeply disturbing as the underlying reality.  Rather than doing something that might actually help the men and women they are supposed to serve, employees at the VA facilities thought about making themselves look good — which is how they came up with the coverup schemes and secret lists in the first place.  Their CYA attitude is infuriating, but by now we shouldn’t be surprised, because it seems to be the default reaction of bureaucrats everywhere.

One VA official has resigned, but veterans groups say that doesn’t mean much because he was supposed to retire this year, anyway.  The Secretary of the VA, Eric Shinseki, says he’s “mad as hell” about the scandal and is on a mission to get to the bottom of the problem.  But Shinseki has been the head of the VA for years, since the beginning of the Obama Administration.  What’s he been doing about the wait time issues during that time?  Why should we have confidence that he’s up to the task of changing the bureaucratic culture of an agency that may well have lost sight of its true mission?

I’m hoping that this scandal doesn’t just fade from the front pages, as so many scandals do.  I’m hoping that — for once — the Administration stops spinning, our elected representatives stop bloviating, and we collectively get to the facts and take action to fix the problems at the VA.  We owe our veterans that much, and so much more.