Time to break out the brass knuckles on public executives

A rash of preventable deaths has put the Department of Veteran Affairs under intense scrutiny. The tragedy highlights the need to do better by veterans by revamping outdated federal personnel policies.

The VA has an annual budget of about $154 billion and more than 340,000 employees, including roughly 360 senior executives. It serves some 8.3 million veterans enrolled in the largest integrated health care system in North America, with 1,700 hospitals, nearly 1,400 community-based outpatient clinics, community living centers, nursing homes, and other facilities. In recent years, the VA has seen its customer base grow at an unprecedented pace, with a new wave of injured and disabled veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The VA is engulfed by a growing controversy over allegations that perhaps more than 40 veterans allegedly died while awaiting medical care in a Phoenix, AZ facility arid that government employees falsified data and created secret waiting lists to hide the long delays. Equally serious is the charge that the VA was aware of the delays but did little to address the problem.

Government agency heads operate under handicaps largely unknown in the private sector. For example, onerous rules governing procurement, budgeting and personnel that were originally adopted to prevent public sector wrongdoing have created workplaces that are often inflexible.

Recent scandals have further undermined Americans’ confidence in government. When these institutions fail, the breach of trust is devastating, especially when government staggers from one disaster and mistake to another.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, it overwhelmed the levees protecting the city and left nearly 1,000 people dead.. Eighty percent of the city flooded, whole neighborhoods were devastated, producing a repair bill at least 1,000 times larger than it would have cost to provide the kind of levees that would have prevented such a disaster.

The 911 Commission found that a year before the terrorist attacks, poor communications, poor coordination, and competition between multiple agencies contributed to the government’s inability to anticipate and respond to attacks.

More recently, Americans witnessed the botched rollout of healthcare.gov and the Benghazi attack in which four Americans died in an assault on the American consulate, which took place on the anniversary of 9/11 despite prior warnings.

Then there was the IRS targeting of conservative organizations. These are stark examples of the price of government’s failure to perform as it should and then not being held accountable for its failures. Antiquated civil service rules mean there is little threat of anyone being fired. Many public servants perform heroically, but these ghastly events dramatize the need for better performance from government agencies that deal with life-and-death situations.

It’s no secret that many public-sector employees feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to their jobs. Why shouldn’t they? They have virtually guaranteed lifetime employment followed by generous pension benefits from agencies that almost never go out of existence.

There is little incentive to focus on the taxpayer as a customer and mediocrity becomes institutionalized, creating a culture of complacency. Transforming a civil service mind-set to focus on the customer is profoundly difficult.

Now the uproar over VA treatment delays is triggering heated debate in Congress about whether it is too difficult to fire senior federal executives. Current law allows those who report directly to presidential appointees to be disciplined and fired, but the process can drag on for years.

The House of Representatives has passed legislation giving the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs authority to remove senior executives whose performance warrants firing. Given the recent history of government mismanagement, it is time to break out the brass knuckles.

The average American does not have guaranteed lifetime employment and has witnessed massive private-sector layoffs, pay cuts and benefit reductions.

Meanwhile, all the usual suspects made the obligatory Memorial Day visits to Arlington National Cemetery. They expressed outrage at the treatment of veterans and pontificated about honoring the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms.

originally published: May 30, 2014

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