View 826, Saturday, May 31, 2014
John Quincy Adams on American Policy:
Whenever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She the champion and vindicator only of her own.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
Fourth of July, 1821
The VA Situation
As I expected, General Shinseki resigned before his threat to fire all the officials involved in the Phoenix Office could take effect, and his request for authority to actually manage the VA and fire incompetent senior VA officials everywhere was never sent to Congress. We will see what the outcome of his “firing” the Phoenix officials will be, but since it will be vigorously resisted by both the Civil Service Commission and the public employees unions, we can safely predict that it will be a long time before anyone actually starts packing his office memorabilia into bankers boxes.
If anyone had been serious about reforming the bureaucracy, his resignation would not have been accepted before US Marshals or the VA Police Service escorted a dozen officials out into the street while the news media broadcast their shame to the world. Of course that did not happen and won’t happen. The Civil Service knows it will be protected from incidents like that, although given the popular demand for swift and immediate remedies there were moments of actual terror within the VA.
Some military publications are taking the firing seriously: http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/05/30/shinseki-fires-phoenix-va-leaders-others-to-follow.html I would like to think they are right, but absent any reports of actual departures – surely some local with an iPhone would get something up on the net if there were — I remain skeptical. And his threat to go through the bureaucracy with fire and sword is now nullified, to the vast relief of the bureaucracy and the White House. This was, after all a crisis, with genuine public anger. It could not be ignored, and Shinseki, having retired as a four star general, had no reason not to carry out his threat. For the VA bureaucrats who participated in the recent activities, the threat was real, and they knew General Shinseki’s anger was not only real, but fired by guilt for not having discovered earlier just how much wool had been pulled over his eyes.
Everyone has known that there were problems in the VA’s performance. Candidate Barack Hussein Obama, having served on the Veterans Affairs Committee from 2005 to 2008 was in a position to know more than most, and in several campaign speeches chided the Bush Administration for not doing enough for Veterans. Congress enacted the “performance bonus” system in an attempt to give VA officials an incentive to get the lead out and get to work. VA appropriations have risen as number of veterans served fell (due to deaths of aging WWII and Korean vets) so that the dollars/ vet available to the VA has doubled in recent years. The increased money was spent. Much of it was spent on performance bonuses to the VA officials – and of those many cooked the books, keeping secret lists of veterans with long wait times while officially reporting reduced wait times. Assuming the facts now being reported are even partly true, some of those senior officials seem to have been rewarded for their superior service to veterans while in actuality the veterans were dying while awaiting treatment.
Of course the real problem is that the entire Civil Service is improperly organized.
The intent of the Civil Service was to replace the hordes of people seeking government employment at each change of administration with stable and competent long service technicians who would carry out the orders of the political appointees, and do so professionally without regard to their own political views – and to insure that, they were shielded from political demands. Under the old Hatch Act, government employees could not contribute to any political campaign in any way. They could not donate money, they could not raise money, they could not hold political meetings, and they were discouraged from engaging in any political activities whatever. Their compensation for this restriction on their political freedom was that they could not be coerced into contributing to or supporting political campaigns.
They could not form unions, either, nor would the government serve as a collection agency for any employee association: if they wanted to donate money to a non-political association which proclaimed itself a non-partisan civic betterment group, they had to make the donation themselves; they couldn’t ask the government to withhold the money.
This worked reasonably well. The theory was that if you made a career in government service, you gave up your political rights while you did it. You could vote, but that was pretty well the extent of it; and you didn’t need a union because the Civil Service Commission protected you from unfair labor practices, and did that more efficiently than any union ever could while maintaining the wall between Civil Service and political activities.
Over time this changed.
We now have a unionized civil service whose members can participate in politics, and in California the unions pretty well run the state, governing in their own interest, and are a very large source of political contributions. Union dues are collected by employers and paid directly to the union.
But with all those protections the VA wasn’t getting the job done, so Congress raised the VA appropriations, and authorized performance bonuses for VA bureaucrats. The result was predictable and has been predicted.
The VA system contains some excellent facilities and there are outstanding VA organizations. It also contains officials who cooked the books to deny veterans needed care while showing that the bureaucrats had ‘earned’ bonuses. It was apparently this which so infuriated General Shinseki. I won’t apologize for his not knowing about this earlier. As a former Chief of Staff he must have been aware of the general staff practice of “directed telescopes” – junior officers sent to look at field operations and report directly to the commanding general – but apparently never deployed any such mechanisms. Of course the pressure within the White House to support the President is enormous.
But I can’t help thinking that allowing General Shinseki to resign without visiting Phoenix with fire and sword and armed VA police was very bad for the veterans, however good it was for the White House.
It’s dinner time. I’ve been working on other stuff. I’ll try to get another installment of the assessment of the Eastern Europe situation. Remember: when Moscow hears European Union, she thinks, with good reason, NATO, an explicitly anti-Russian alliance; and when Moscow hears about international law and state sovereignty, she remembers that both the EU and NATO recognized Serbia as a sovereign state, but chose to back the Albanian insurgents in Kosovo.
Faced with an alliance like NATO while deprived of the WTO, Moscow sees the increasing power of the bureaucracy in Brussels which ignores the democratic opinions of the people; and remembers life under nameless bureaucrats and their nomenclature leaders. And recalls that NATO was an alliance formed to destroy the Soviet dragon, but stays on, moving ever eastward.
Shenseki, The VA and Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great observed the people are either intelligent or stupid and either industrious or lazy. He found the intelligent and lazy made the best commanders because they would always figure out the easiest way to accomplish their mission. The intelligent and industrious made the best staff officers for the obvious reasons. The stupid and lazy are ever with us and with supervision you can always find a place for them. The one group he advised to avoid at all costs are the stupid and industrious for these are the source of virtually all of your problems.
Unfortunately, the stupid and industrious seem to be attracted to government service and are embedded in the bureaucracies, usually in the mid-level.
Shenseki is an army commander, intelligent and lazy, but he seems to have lost track of his mission, so in the 5 years or so he held the office he hung around Washington and although it appears that he was aware of problems in some VA facilities he did nothing about them. This may be because he was working for one of the least competent leaders to ever hold the office of president. One of the most significant duties of a leader is to give his subordinates a mission and directions to accomplish that mission.
Competent officers know this, General Shenseki certainly knew this. If he has forgotten it perhaps it is because he spent so little of the latter portion of his service actually leading troops.
I was a platoon leader and a battery commander. One of the things you learn quickly is that the unit does best what the boss checks. If there are deficiencies it is the duty of the boss to get the deficient back on track. Most often this is done by additional training and direction. Sometimes it involves removing that individual entirely from the organization. If, for whatever reason, this is either not possible or undesirable at least that person can be re-assigned to some place where they can do no harm.
The VA is a large, complex organization, but so are army divisions, corps, and armies. The size of the organization does not make it unmanageable, only the incompetence of its leaders can do that.
The problems with the VA do not lie with those actually providing the services – the doctors, nurses and technicians – but rather rest exclusively in the bureaucratic management. Moreover, the most egregious problems seem to be regional. My own experience is in central New York and I have observed no neglect, delay or abuse. I have yet to meet anyone in the clinic or the hospital who I did not admire for their competence and like as a person.
I had two genuine emergencies, both spontaneous pneumothorax, a life-threatening condition, and both were treated promptly at non-VA facilities at no cost to me. There was no delay and no paperwork problems.
Virtually all of the recent major scandals (VA, IRS, Abu Ghraib, etc.) are the result of the boss being MIA. The new head of the VA would be well advised to organize a small group of inspectors and spend a few days every month actually visiting, unannounced, VA facilities – something that Shenseki never did.
When deficiencies are noted immediate corrective action is called for. In many cases this can be no more than verbal correction. If replacement is called for perhaps reassignment to supervise the bed-pan cleaning unit would be desirable.(In the army, the threat was transfer to the 118th Mess Kit Repair Battalion in the Aleutians.) In the event false reports are filed to obtain unearned cash bonuses criminal charges are called for and must be promptly filed. To paraphrase Voltaire, we should hang a bureaucrat from time to time to inspire the others. At all times the stupid and industrious must be identified and either fired or moved someplace where they have no authority and can do no harm.
Palatine Bridge, NY
Thank you for an informed analysis. I agree on just about every point.
I have known of the General Staff classification of officers as brilliant or stupid, industrious or lazy, for most of my life, but I only knew the origin as being in the Great General Staff of von Moltke the Elder. Col. Joseph Maxwell Cameron makes this division an important part of his theories on military management, in one of the most important books on that subject that I know of. (The Anatomy of Military Merit.) I have also used that theory in much of my fiction.
I have already said I am not writing an apologia for General Shinseki. I can appreciate the difficulty of serving as a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, but as DeCamp observes, Shinseki could not have been entirely unaware of the tendency of non-combat bureaucracies to shift to cover your ass mode, and that some of the complaints of the friends of veterans were legitimate. He had the power to do something about all this, and he did not use it, and his resignation was inevitable and appropriate: but I do regret that he as not given a few months to apply drastic remedies.
Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.