The recent scandal within the Department of Veterans Affairs has left the nation rightfully appalled. Story after story of veterans unable to receive necessary medical treatment — and the secret waiting list used by officials to keep this information hidden — have given the American public graphic and personal images of just how badly the government has failed our former and current military personnel. As the government’s largest employer, with 323,208 employees as of December 2012, a scandal in the VA is a particularly notable problem. The systemic issues that caused it, however, are not specific to the VA; the scandal is indicative of managerial problems throughout the government.
Dr. Jose Mathews, chief of psychiatry at the VA St. Louis Health Care System, told the Los Angeles Times that the data put out by the VA is “garbage … designed to make the VA look good on paper.” He described a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding poor management in the VA to cover up not only the horror stories of patients unable to receive care for life-threatening illnesses, but problems with inefficient bureaucracy, inadequate staffing and corruption as well. That a department as essential as the VA is managed so poorly is cause for grave concern, but even more unsettling is that, as the largest department in terms of employees, we are only just now uncovering problems that go back decades.
According to the Washington Post, only 56.9 percent of VA employees feel as if they can bring up legal violations without worrying about backlash from the department, and only 37 percent reported being satisfied with the policies and management styles of the senior leaders in the VA. This seems to make sense, given the backlash against the VA for what has happened — other departments, however, show similar numbers that might indicate similar problems. The government as a whole did only slightly better, with 58.4 percent of employees feeling safe reporting violations and just 38.8 percent approving of their departments’ senior leadership. The less than two percent difference in these numbers shows that the VA is not the “bad” department in our government — it is simply the one being noticed due to its size and the inhumane consequences for a universally supported group: veterans.
Some departments in the government, such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Justice, are more polarized in the eyes of the public than the VA. Citizens differ in their opinions on taxes or on how our government should enforce the law, so when one group opposes a department’s policies there is often another group that supports them. Veterans, however, are a different situation; regardless of one’s political leanings, it is difficult to make the case that our veterans should not have their basic medical needs met. The wide coverage of this scandal can be attributed to the universal disgust it has elicited from Americans, and its particularly inhumane impact on such a highly regarded and important group. Fixing the VA, however, is only one piece of the puzzle — there needs to be a fundamental change in the model of how our government departments are run.
It should not take dozens of deaths over several years for government employees to feel they can speak out against the problems they see in their leadership. To solve the problems that plague multiple facets of government, such as the corruption, lying and inefficiency that prevented veterans from receiving the medical care they needed, employees must feel safe addressing the problems they see in their departments. Whistleblowing, however, is only the first step — we must be able to hold our government accountable for its actions, and change the parts that are not working the way they should.
Although many are calling for the resignation of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, and he may rightfully deserve it, removing him would do little to change the systemic problems in our government’s bureaucracy. Without a system to keep these officials in check and to prevent the manipulation of data, scandals such as the one within the VA will continue to be an issue. Political gridlock cannot be entirely blamed on Congress or the president; the lack of accountability for thousands of government employees across several departments are a huge factor in causing the more specific problems seen today.
You can blame President Barack Obama’s hiring practices, Eric Shinseki’s leadership abilities or the individuals within the VA who refused to speak up, but the real problem here is the structural flaws in the government on a broader scale that allow such corruption and inefficiency — until this begins a process of change, more and more scandals like this one will be revealed.
Burke Gibson is a senior majoring in economics and is the Daily Trojan’s editorial director.