The VA Scandal Is a Crisis of Leadership

The Veterans Affairs scandal involves charges of manipulation and falsification of medical waiting lists and systemwide rigging to hide delayed or inadequate treatment, which may have caused the deaths of some of those waiting for care. There are whistle-blowers, allegations of local coverups, and the possibility of criminal charges. Also becoming clearer are two motives for those involved in what appears to have been a racket: their compensation and their career trajectories.

This scandal won’t go away as others have, because all America is united in this thought: We care about our military veterans. We’ve asked a great deal of them, and they have a right to expect a great deal from us. Also, everyone in America knows what it’s like to go to a bureaucracy when you’re in need and get jerked around and ignored.

The scandal also prompts this thought: Barack Obama is killing the reputation of government. He is killing the thing he loves through insufficient oversight. He doesn’t do the plodding, unshowy, unromantic work of making government work. In the old political formulation, he’s a show horse, not a workhorse.

The president’s inattention to management—his laxity, his failure to understand that government isn’t magic, that it must be forced into working, clubbed each day into achieving adequacy, and watched like a hawk—is undercutting what he stands for, the progressive project that says the federal government is the primary answer to the nation’s ills.

He is allowing the federal government to become what any large institution will become unless you stop it: a slobocracy.

The president and his staff don’t seem to know that by the time things start bubbling up from the agencies and reach the Oval Office the scandal has already happened, even if it’s not in the press yet, and the answer isn’t to prepare proactive spin but to clean up the mess, end the scandal, fire people—a lot of people—establish accountability, change bad practices, and make the agency work again.

Department of Veterans' AffairsThe administration’s sharpest attention goes to public relations, not reality. This time even their spin has failed. They didn’t fully apprehend the moment or the media landscape. Media people, cable and mainstream, are very, very interested in showing their respect for and engagement with veterans. They made a mistake with the veterans of Vietnam; they’ll never make it again. They like being helpful to heroes, and it does them good to be associated with regular men and women who’ve served. Vets, their friends and families comprise a significant share of the audience. The VA scandal not only allows journalists to stand up for vets, it allows them to demonstrate, at just the right moment—in the waning years of the administration, with the president’s numbers low and his standing wobbly—a certain detachment from Mr. Obama’s fortunes. They’re independent.

There is another management and accountability question here. It appears that part of the VA story is that local managers and administrators were given bonuses and the prospect of promotions for reducing wait times—so they falsified the records. What was meant to be an incentive to productivity became an incentive to lie.

Have we seen this before? Yes. The VA scandal is starting to look like the public school scandals in which administrators fudge test scores to get more money for themselves and their schools. Higher test scores equal more money and a chance to advance professionally. So they claim higher scores.

The question a good executive in either system would ask right now is: Do such incentives make things better or worse? Do they encourage real improvement or gaming the system?

When you look at public school systems you often see a surprisingly large number of bureaucrats and fewer than expected actual teachers. Is something like that true at the VA? Are there too many clerks filing fraudulent forms and not enough doctors, nurses, aides and examination rooms? If so, why? What steps should be taken to turn this around?

Do you expect the president and his staff are thinking about these things? You do not. You think they’re thinking about the political pickle they’re in, and from all accounts they are.

But the president is an executive, and executives manage. They set a tone, establish accountability, light fires, remind those to whom authority is delegated who’s boss. They set expectations and standards. “If you can’t cut it, you’re out.”

Mr. Obama has never seemed that interested in the management of government. It is completely believable that he read about the VA scandal in the newspapers, where he has learned of other administration scandals. It is believable he had no idea what was going on in a major, problem-plagued agency.

Making sure that things work doesn’t seem to be his conception of his job. Words are his job. He argues for a bill, the bill becomes a program, and someone else will make it work. He talks about health care for three years, it debuts with a terrible crash, and he’s shocked. Why didn’t it work? He told it to! His background was one of some privation, but as an executive he acts like a man who grew up with 10 maids. Let them do it, I’m too busy thinking.

Mr. Obama said, when he first ran for president in 2008, that the VA system was a mess and he’d clean it up. It has gotten worse under his watch. He must be shocked. He told it to get better! He said the words!

And the word is everything. The act, the deed, the follow-through, the making it happen doesn’t seem to loom large on his agenda of concerns. Which makes this progressive era different from those of FDR and LBJ, who appropriately feared scandal and mess and kept a sharp eye on what was happening.

Some of this is surely due to the culture of Washington, where they don’t hold the idea of management in high regard. Managing isn’t interesting, like art or talking. It’s not high-class. It’s what boring people do! Interesting people make speeches and spin the press and smoke out the agenda and flip the narrative.

The interesting people who do that go on to become fabulously wealthy consultants. They’re powerful, part of the Washington establishment. Reporters cultivate them.

Nobody cares what managers know. “I’m a middle-level bureaucrat at the General Services Administration. I take my work seriously. I’m trying to encourage efficiency and make sure the taxpayer’s money isn’t wasted.” “Excuse me, there’s David Plouffe.”

The current lack of serious and effective management damages the progressive project because it presents that project as utterly cynical. It presents progressives as people who don’t really care. If they cared, they’d oversee. They’d make sure it works when the rubber hits the road. They’d make sure the thing they supposedly want to happen (first-rate treatment for vets, for instance) happens.

Instead we have showbiz: the romantic narrative of the knight who wants to help is everything—not actually helping.

Why do Democrats put up with this? It is going to drag them down.