My military deployments taught me that when a subordinate fails to perform, the proper action is to determine quickly if his performance can be improved, and if not, replace him with someone who can get the job done right. After all, lives are at stake.
That fundamental leadership principle is lost on the Department of Veterans Affairs, especially under the current administration. In today's VA, there are no consequences for failure, and many of our nation's military veterans are paying the price in long wait times and substandard care.
But there are encouraging signs in Congress that an era of accountability at VA may have finally arrived. And it’s about time.
VA's dysfunction has been well-documented. The most visible emblem of failure is the backlog of claims for disability and compensation, which landed on the media radar in a big way in the spring of 2013.
Leading newspapers began looking into a system that was stranding hundreds of thousands of veterans in limbo, with wait times extending months or even years; cable news channels broadcast alarming Images of offices piled with mountains of untouched paperwork; even "The Daily Show” ran a devastating series skewering VA's dysfunction and bureaucratic malaise.
The torrent of negative reports got results, at least briefly. This was a welcome change for those of us who had been sounding the alarm on VA’s poor performance for months. But then the media storm subsided as VA began reducing the backlog.
Or did it? Now we see indications that VA’s progress was likely exaggerated. And over the last three months, the backlog has even ticked upward again, by about 4,300, according to VA figures.
Various department observers, including respected nonpartisan veterans service organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, warn the VA has misrepresented its progress by playing with the numbers and changing the rules.
In an interview with Military.com, VFW official Gerald Manar explained that one way VA rigs the stats is by not counting claims appeals as part of the backlog. The number of claims appeals has grown over the last year from 252,000 to more than 268,000, which suggests VA is rushing the initial process in order to reduce the topline backlog numbers and pushing those cases into a new larger appeals backlog. That may help the VA in showing progress to the media, but that isn't helping benefits waiting for benefits.
It's not as if VA has been starved of resources. In fact, since 2009, the department's budget grew 56 percent, from $98 billion to $153 billion.
Calls for VA reforms have fallen on deaf ears in the Obama administration. Fortunately, members of Congress are stepping up to demand change.
Both Republicans and Democrats on veterans' affairs committees in both houses have explicitly challenged VA’s leadership. For VA’s management and senior leadership cadre, these challenges are no doubt unwelcome and even unpleasant. But they are absolutely necessary if a sense of accountability is to be restored at the department.
In contrast to VA’s current “see no evil” approach to management, the Miller-Rubio bill would empower the VA secretary to fire underperforming managers. That much-needed reform would be in line with basic principles of effective management and conform to the lesson in leadership I cited above: Managers must perform or risk being replaced. This type of accountability has a tendency to ripple throughout an organization, which is the point.
Replacing poor managers and employees isn’t the only reform needed at VA. But it’s a first step to fixing this broken department and renewing its commitment to serving the needs of veterans and their families.Army veteran Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and a Fox News contributor. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.