Obama’s choice for VA will find fixing it is harder than selling soap


President Barack Obama, center, walks to the White House with former Procter & Gamble chief Bob McDonald, right, his nominee to be the next secretary of veterans affairs, and Vice President Joe Biden. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Joe Davidson
Columnist July 1

Chances are Bob McDonald is about to learn that fixing a government agency can be a lot harder than selling soap.

The retired head of Procter & Gamble is President Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Selling Tide and Pantene is one thing, fixing an agency soiled by scandal is another. VA is not a mess that can be wiped away with a Bounty paper towel.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The department is embroiled in a scandal involving the coverup of long wait for veterans seeking health care. The crisis has already claimed the job of former secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who resigned under pressure in May.

“Bob is an expert at making organizations better,” Obama said Monday, adding the obvious: “This is not going to be an easy assignment.”

It’s not going to be easy because VA is plagued with a “corrosive culture.” That’s Rob Nabors’s term for a situation confirmed in numerous reports. Nabors, the White House deputy chief of staff, submitted a report on VA to Obama last week. Much of it deals with a toxic environment for employees that has been festering for years.

“The extent management will go to keep secrets, and keep control is inhumane,” said Germaine Clarno, a VA social worker in Hines, Ill. “If you speak up . . . they will destroy you, emotionally, mentally, physical health and professionally.”

Personnel problems “are seriously impacting morale and, by extension, the timeliness of health care,” Nabors wrote in the report’s summary. It pointed to “distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels.”

“Morale has been very bad for years,” according to Clarno, who has represented whistleblowers in her role as local president of the American Federation of Government Employees. She said she was retaliated against for disclosing waiting-list irregularities, too.

The current turmoil has made things worse. Yet “most employees are hopeful that things will finally change,” she said, “but are very concerned that this will blow over, and everything will go back to the way it was.”

As bad as things are, VA provides “high quality health care ‘once you get in the door,’ ” Nabors said, confirming what other studies indicate. He praised employees who choose to serve veterans despite opportunities for greater compensation elsewhere.

Quality health care is part of VA’s culture. So is lying and reprisals against whistleblowers.

Breaking bad habits can be tough.

“But it’s also not impossible,” said John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, a government group that studies the federal workforce.

Palguta listed steps McDonald can take, if he is confirmed by the Senate, to make VA a better place for employees and customers.

It “starts with leadership,” Palguta said.

Leadership sets the tone and can really change an agency’s culture. It’s happened other places. But while leadership starts at the top, the top leaders must transmit the proper culture and values throughout the organization, especially to the first level supervisors who deal directly with staffers.

On several points in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey that indicate an agency’s culture, Palguta said VA scored slightly below the governmentwide average. Does that mean there are other agencies with cultural problems yet to be exposed? The Partnership’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” ranked VA 13 out of 19 large agencies.

VA, however, “consistently outperformed the governmentwide average until 2009, when it began to fall behind,” according to a Partnership report. That’s the year Barack Obama became president. His administration has made veterans issues a priority in a number of ways, hiring for example, but the problem with health-care access has Obama’s name on it.

He is working to change that. The values Obama and McDonald communicate must include a welcoming reception for whistleblowers. VA has a bad, yet well-deserved, reputation for whistleblower retaliation. That must change.

VA’s whistleblower caseload “is growing almost every day,” said Carolyn Lerner, the U.S. special counsel. Her Office of Special Counsel handles whistleblower cases from across the government. More than a quarter of all whistleblower disclosure cases that OSC says have a “substantial likelihood” of being valid are VA cases, according to Lerner. She also said VA has more of those cases than the Defense Department, which has about twice as many employees.

“OSC has seen a large increase in the number of both disclosure and reprisal complaints in recent months,” Lerner said.

VA, like many other agencies, has not met OSC’s certification requirements for informing employees of their whistleblower rights.

The best way to change VA’s retaliatory culture is for the department head “to embrace the whistleblowers,” figuratively and perhaps literally, said Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO, the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. POGO sponsors a Web site dedicated to VA whistleblowing.

Brian said VA leaders must do more than issue a memo saying retaliation against whistleblowers is bad.

“Sit down with them and listen to their stories,” she encourages McDonald to do. “Turn them from being a pariah at the agency into being a hero, which is what they are.”

Clarno said the secretary should “give temporary immunity to all employees that want to report wrong doing.”

She added: “This will demonstrate [to] the employees that the VA is truly interested in fixing the problem.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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