Can Rob Nabors fix the VA? Here’s what he needs.

May 20

The Department of Veteran Affairs has come under fire after reports of the deaths of 40 patients forced to wait for medical care at the Phoenix VA hopsital. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

This a guest post by Boise State University political scientist Justin Vaughn, co-author of the forthcoming “Czars in the White House: The Rise of Policy Czars as a Presidential Management Tool.”

President Obama is “madder than hell” about the alleged scandals emerging out of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although concerns have been present for several years, recent news out of Phoenix has catapulted the issue to the headlines, leading Republicans and at least one Democrat to demand the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. The resignation of the VA’s undersecretary of health care – who was already scheduled to retire this year – has done little to reverse growing impatience within Congress.  The House of Representatives will soon vote on a bill that would give greater power to the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire and demote the department’s staff .

Meanwhile, Obama has temporarily assigned Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to the VA, where the man Obama has described as one of his most trusted advisers will oversee a review of VA practices and help develop reforms. Behind the scenes, there are expectations that Nabors will do more than just convene meetings and craft white papers. But can Nabors actually succeed in fixing the VA?  The answer depends more on Obama than on Nabors himsef.

As John Dickerson noted in Slate, this is not the first time Obama has sent in a trusted adviser to set things right.  There was also Jeffrey Zients’ stint as the  Obamacare Web site “czar.” Countless other examples exist throughout the history of the modern presidency. What is more interesting – and more important – is whether the individuals called out of the bureaucratic bullpen possess the skills and are given the support from the White House necessary to be successful.

In a forthcoming article in Presidential Studies Quarterly, I analyze the experience and performance of policy coordinators in administrations spanning the past 40 years. I argue that their success depends on four central factors:  clarity, access, expertise and analysis.

Clarity. If Obama wants Nabors to be successful, he should first make his role abundantly clear – both to Nabors and to those he will be working with at the VA; otherwise, Nabors will spend more time than necessary spinning his wheels, and retrenched bureaucrats within the department will have greater ability to resist his leadership. Obama should avoid replicating the experience of the three separate AIDS czars who worked under the Clinton Administration, where the lack of clarity and presidential inattention minimized the potential impact of their position.

Access. Obama should also be sure to grant Nabors the type of access to the Oval Office given to those working on the president’s highest priorities. Without clear evidence that he has the ear of the president Nabors could find it difficult to wrangle otherwise disinclined bureaucrats. Obama should consider what Richard Nixon did when he brought in William Simon to coordinate the response to the 1973 energy crisis. In the Cabinet meeting when Nixon introduced Simon, Nixon said Simon’s authority would be on par with Albert Speer’s in Hitler’s Germany. And when the time came, Nixon empowered Simon to make the bold decisions necessary to cope with the consequences of the Arab oil embargo. Obama probably doesn’t want to recycle Nixon’s ill-chosen metaphor, but Nabors could use Simon’s access and authority.

Expertise. Nabors needs to have substantive expertise in the policy areas he is engaging, and if he does not have it, it needs to be supplied to him. Without expertise, key constituencies will question his credibility. When John Negroponte was brought in as the nation’s first director of national intelligence, critics blasted his lack of experience in the field, even in light of his otherwise impressive resume. Of course, one needs managerial experience, too, which Nabors does have in abundance. After all, few Americans had more substantive knowledge about illegal narcotics as Jerome Jaffe, yet his leadership of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse faltered due to his administrative inexperience.

Analysis. This is unlikely, given the political pressures involved, but Nabors needs time to analyze the situation before implementing new policies. Some of the most successful policy coordinators had just such an opportunity, and it allowed them not only to develop better approaches but also to secure support from key stakeholders, including those initially reluctant to do the new (and likely temporary) boss’s bidding.

If Obama wants Nabors’s time at the VA to be effective, and not just a symbolic response to public concern, he must give Nabors the resources and opportunity to be successful. So far, the president has said the right things. Time will tell whether Nabors gets what he needs.

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