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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Ronald Reagan-era cleanup of General Services Administration shows how to fix Veterans Affairs after Eric Shinseki is gone

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,Ronald Reagan,GSA,Waste and Fraud,Veterans,Eric Shinseki

It is unconscionable for a leader to be so asleep at the switch. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's lack of curiosity is a fundamental flaw.

No leader, especially a cabinet secretary responsible for the well-being of America’s veterans, should be allowed to remain after his inaction caused unwarranted deaths.

Shinseki’s after-the-fact display of concern during a recent Senate hearing is not a sufficient atonement for what happened.

Real leaders are proactive and follow up. No matter how much they trust their subordinates, a real leader random-checks and deep-dives within their organization to verify actions independently, gain important insights and connect with their colleagues. Shinseki did none of these, and lives were lost.

An example of a real leader is Gerald Carmen's tenure as Administrator of the General Services Administration during President Ronald Reagan's first term.

In 1980, the GSA was one of the most scandal-ridden agencies of the federal government. Reagan picked Carmen, a no-nonsense auto parts entrepreneur from New Hampshire, to clean up the GSA.

Carmen immediately took steps to turn around the GSA. He elevated three whistleblowers (who had been ostracized and marginalized under Jimmy Carter) to key positions and began to hold people throughout the troubled agency accountable.

In league with the whistleblowers and investigative journalists, Carmen and his team dusted off mountains of unread inspector general reports, worked closely with the Justice Department and sent 48 corrupt GSA officials to jail.

The signal was crystal clear; GSA was to be an honest agency with zero tolerance for waste, fraud or abuse.

Carmen’s first opportunity for operational change was reducing processing time for federal supplies. The average “work in process” time for an agency supply order to move from order-entry to shipment was 45 days.

Carmen ordered that WIP be reduced to nine days. A new reporting unit, Program Control, was established to monitor operations directly and measure their performance.

Within the first few weeks, the agency's WIP magically fell to nine days in reports from the GSA warehouses. Carmen did not believe it.

An immediate audit of the warehouse reports showed that warehouse managers had redefined WIP to cover only activity related to preparing supplies for shipment.

Just like today at VA, career bureaucrats created a parallel set of measures to make it appear a backlog had been erased.

Unlike Shinseki at VA, however, Carmen and his team ferreted out the subterfuge and fired those who cooked the books.

One Washington, D.C., area GSA warehouse did not “cook the books,” but the warehouse manager complained that he could not reduce WIP unless he had 10 more fork lifts.

Once again, Carmen wasn’t buying it. He made an unannounced visit to the warehouse and found 40 fork lifts, 15 of which were disabled and awaiting long-overdue repairs.

Carmen also reviewed the operational logs and unearthed the fact that there were only 20 certified fork lift operators. No effort had been made to certify new operators after a dozen had left or retired.

The warehouse manager was put on administrative leave and removed from government service within the month.

Shinseki was not confronted with flim-flams over supply chain management; he confronted from the outset of his tenure bureaucratic manipulations that impacted lives. His passivity is unforgivable.

He insulted everyone involved by hiding behind the lamest excuse of all — trying to minimize the scope of his negligence.

Shinseki declared, “Most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care.”

The removal of Dr. Robert A. Petzel, the under secretary for health, is clearly not enough. Tom Tarantino, with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, correctly asserted, “We don't need the VA to find a scapegoat. We need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA.”

That can only happen with a new leader, one who actually knows how to lead.

Scot Faulkner managed the General Services Administration's Office of Program Control under Administrator Gerald Carmen. He also led the clean-up of Congressional operations as the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives under Speaker Newt Gingrich.
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