President-elect Donald Trump has said he would “fire everybody” in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which he called “probably the most incompetently run agency in the United States.”
But following through on that campaign observation made months ago will require dealing with a byzantine maze of civil service rules and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union that too often put the interests of VA’s unionized employees above everything else, including providing quality care and service to America’s veterans.
Career federal civil servants can be fired for cause, but it requires mountains of documentation and the will to see a process through that can take years. Trump certainly has the will, but he knows that won’t be enough, so he plans to appoint a commission of experts to fire documented poor performers by the book.
“Right now, when VA employees fail our veterans, you can’t discipline them. That’s because of outdated civil service rules in need of reform. I am going to appoint a commission to investigate all the wrongdoing at the VA and then present those findings to Congress as the basis for bold legislative reform,” he said.
If there is one man in the nation’s capital who knows VA’s tricks and why hundreds of specific VA employees can and should be fired, it is Rep. Jeff Miller, a retiring Republican congressman from Florida. Trump has said he is considering Miller for appointment as VA Secretary.
While Trump is a political outsider, Miller has lived and breathed VA for years as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He announced his retirement earlier this year, seemingly tired of the way that the department’s bureaucracy repeatedly managed to sabotage Congress’ reforms.
Now, in what could be the ultimate odd couple, the man who has relentlessly exposed and criticized VA’s problems for years could soon become its chief executive.
If that happens, career civil servants of the Senior Executive Service (SES), many of whom have “fallen upwards” as the VA removed them from often-self-inflicted scandals by promoting them to new jobs elsewhere, would report to Miller, serving between him and the department’s 300,000 employees.
Between Miller and a career SES managerial corps that could be antagonistic and averse to reform would be a small cadre of political appointees tasked with carrying out policies at VA that Trump promised voters on 2016 campaign trail.
The Trump-Miller team would have to work quickly, as the government union/bureaucratic culture at VA favors victory by delay: Drag your feet, do the bare minimum, and wait for political headwinds to pass. In 30 years, you’ll get a pension. If someone tells you to work harder, file a complaint with the union or the Merit Systems Protection Board and appeal, appeal, appeal.
Newly arrived political appointees and congressmen can be distracted from their policy changes and programs by entrenched civil servants who bog them down with impenetrable bureaucratic jargon and delays, but Miller would start the job with years of experience in dealing with VA that would enable him quickly to recognize such tactics.
Robert McDonald, the current VA secretary, is a military veteran who came to the job with a professed desire to change VA after a career in corporate business as CEO of Procter & Gamble. Within months, however, McDonald was co-opted by the bureaucratic establishment in VA. He quickly began taking Congress’ criticisms of the agency personally, as an affront to his own management, even though he could hardly know what 300,000 employees were doing.
“Procter & Gamble had a world-class operating model and was recession-proof. He goes from that to a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has more red tape,” said Dan Caldwell of Concerned Veterans For America.
“Chairman Miller is someone who for years now has been overseeing the VA, played a key role in exposing the scandals, knows all the tricks they use to hide it from the press. He’d be a hard guy to fool, whereas McDonald was an easy guy to get to buy the lines.”
Caldwell cautioned that Miller would “need a very strong deputy secretary because you have an extremely entrenched class of upper and middle management that will fight any reform tooth and nail. He will need a team of type-A personalities.”
Caldwell said breaking AFGE’s blockade against needed changes requires congressional passage of multiple civil service reform acts, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) aggressively litigating court challenges to establish precedents, which Obama’s DOJ wasn’t willing to do.
Prosecutors at DOJ will also have to stop declining to prosecute employees who steal from the government, as they currently do most of the time after the VA Inspector General forwards them proof of criminality.
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