Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Eric Shinseki fought for his job until the end, but ultimately had to fall on his sword. Probably most fatal was his initial effort to portray the wait-time scandal as isolated in Phoenix. When the Inspector General report revealed that the problem was systemic, it pulled the rug out from Shinseki and left him with too few allies willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This is a story about resources, but it’s also a story about perverse incentives. By tying people’s annual reviews to their ability to create short wait-times, the VA gave folks a reason to game the reports. We all want accountability, but we have be careful about how we try to measure performance. I think we see some similar problems with our desire to measure how teachers and school districts are performing. Sometimes our efforts to measure performance are counterproductive or create weird or unethical responses.

When we create these systems, we create an atmosphere where people are incentivized to cheat, so dealing with that has to be built into the system from the beginning. It the VA’s case, they have already suspended the wait-time tie to performance reviews. If they are going to revive that standard, they will need an IT solution that is robust enough to forestall cheating.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at