VA Chief Robert McDonald has Bigger Problems Than Mischaracterizing His Military Service

The Good News is, VA and Other Government Management Messes Are Fixable

Official Washington was abuzz this week with news that VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald falsely claimed to have served in the Special Forces (he had Ranger courses in the 82nd Airborne but was never a Ranger). But this black eye isn’t nearly as important as the department’s continuing struggles to shorten the wait times for vets to get appointments, a problem that earlier this month earned the VA, for the first time, a place on a list of the government’s nastiest problems.

In its just-released report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that there’s a long way to go—the VA needs more work on scheduling, better accountability for care, has to get its computers talking to the Pentagon’s computers, and should manage it hospitals better. Overall, there are “serious concerns about VA’s management and oversight of its health care system,” the GAO found.

The bad news: These problems earned the VA a place on GAO’s “high-risk” list, along with the 31 other programs most prone to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. It’s a list no agency wants to be on. Half a dozen have been in GAO’s sights since the first high-risk list 25 years ago—the Department of Defense’s supply and weapons buying programs, the IRS, Medicare, NASA’s contracting process, and contract management in the Department of Energy.

The good news: GAO’s work shows that even the nastiest problems are fixable, with smart management.

The biennial GAO report is always a delight for cynics and insiders—and it’s frightening for those who care about making government work. For those sure government is rife with waste, fraud, and abuse, it’s a catalog of government’s biggest problems. The problems identified in the report cost us hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

More important, though, GAO’s report is an important primer on government’s knottiest problems, as I explore in the updated version of my book, The Transformation of Governance (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Three big issues are looming.

First, this silver-anniversary collection lists 32 programs. Almost all of them are problems that anyone, regardless of political stripe, would agree must be fixed. Raise your hands if you oppose providing good health care for vets, getting good value from defense contracts, keeping toxic chemicals out of the water supply, or reducing waste in Medicare and Medicaid. Even in the most polarized Washington debates, there’s common ground for action, for there’s a checklist here of problems everyone would agree must be fixed.

Second, a careful reading of the report shows how the problems can be fixed. There are the big problems that plague individual programs, like sorting out the risk in NASA’s projects and making sure that weather satellites continue to feed us data. But there are root causes at the bottom of many of the problems on the list: missing performance metrics, information systems that don’t work, and good bridges across government’s boundaries. Food safety is on the list because it’s so hard getting the 15 agencies with a piece of the action to row in the same direction.

Most of all, there’s the problem of human capital: getting the right people in the right places with the right skills to solve these problems. That shoots throughout the entire list—and GAO names strategic human capital management itself as one of the high-risk items.

Third, the problems are fixable. In the last 25 years, 57 different programs have appeared on the list—and 23 have been removed. After the collapse of many savings and loans in the 1980s, the Resolution Trust Corporation tackled the huge pile of assets that tumbled into government control through the federal insurance program. The RTC did its job and then went out of business. EPA’s Superfund program was plagued by contract management problems, but the agency conquered them. The FAA struggled with modernization of the air-traffic control system but got its new systems in place. DOD had huge problems with security clearances for its personnel but solved them. And New Year’s Day 2000 came and went without major crises because a small team of federal officials led an impressive Y2K strategy.

All were high-risk programs that jumped off the list.

These issues might seem dull as dishwater if they didn’t hit so many programs that so many Americans care about—and if they didn’t cost taxpayers so much money. But there’s uncommon good news buried in this truly frightening list of problems. Most of these problems share doable solutions. More than a third of the programs that have appeared on the list have escaped, because smart managers made these solutions stick. And this is one of the rare game plans in Washington that everyone in Washington can agree is a winner.

Donald F. Kettl

Donald F. Kettl is a professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, where he served as dean from 2009 to 2014. From 1990 through 2004, he was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and directed its Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs from 1996 to 1999. He also chaired two blue-ribbon commissions for Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, on campaign finance reform (1996-1997 and state-local government finance (1999-2000).