Robert McDonald, the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, is working to soften the image of VA employees. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
The rebranding of Veterans Affairs Department employees has begun.
VA scandals in recent months have left its workforce labeled as uncaring and incompetent bureaucrats. But in recent comments, new VA Secretary Robert McDonald has worked to soften that image, refocusing attention on the successes of the system while fixes are put in place.
At the Disabled American Veterans convention in Las Vegas, McDonald called the recent discovery of widespread appointment scheduling problems and data manipulation both “a story of failed leadership” but also of “some dedicated people who have had the moral courage to stand up and help us serve veterans better.”
He praised department whistleblowers for bringing the problems to light to improve operations. He said VA is full of “good people ... working hard to fix that system so they can provide superior service to veterans.”
In hearings over the last few months, lawmakers repeatedly have praised the hard work of those employees, but usually followed up those comments with calls for firings at facilities nationwide to ensure the public sees that failures at the VA will be punished.
McDonald has flipped that idea in his recent remarks, acknowledging the need for accountability but also insisting that good work has to be recognized and used as a model through the system.
“Coming face to face with the reality some veterans have endured isn’t a disaster, it’s opportunity,” he told the DAV convention. “And it’s an opportunity we cannot miss, nor underestimate.”
It’s an effort that points not just to reminding VA employees about their motivations but also to reminding a skeptical public that most of the 300,000-plus VA employees were not directly implicated in any scandals.
During his visit to the Phoenix VA Health Care system Aug. 8, McDonald announced a new outside audit of scheduling practices and several internal reviews to ensure employees are properly trained and focused.
McDonald visited regional medical centers in Phoenix and Nevada in recent weeks, the first two of what he has promised will be frequent trips across the country to gauge both veterans’ concerns and employee feedback. He said both will be critical to fixing the department’s failings.■