The Buck Stops… Where? Who Is Accountable in Gov?

It’s been more than eight months since CNN and the Arizona Republic began reporting about veterans dying while they were waiting for medical services—in some cases, on secret lists that clinics were maintaining to hide the long delays from authorities in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since then, Secretary Eric Shinseki has stepped down, bonuses have been cancelled and a number of personnel have been let go.

But the blame game didn’t end with the firings. Frustrated senators from both parties slammed top Department of Veterans Affairs officials for ignoring reports about long wait times and for failing to fire employees who tried to hide the truth.

The scandal brought out some of the fundamental questions in government: who is accountable when things go wrong? Who should be fired? Who should be dragged in front of Congress? Where does the buck stop?

Tom Fox, Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that although the VA had a lot of “watchful eyes” keeping them accountable, someone missed the mark.

“There is plenty of scrutiny, but it seems as though some of the [VA] internal management systems failed,” said Fox. “Leaders need to directly develop formal and informal systems within an agency, that allow for accountability and transparency.”

Fox said leaders should work to create a system known as upward feedback. “It’s incumbent upon the senior most leadership in any organization to make sure that folks are not only held accountable, but feel comfortable sharing critical information that allows for mismanagement – or in this case, people losing their lives,” Fox said.

Although the current situation at the VA looks very bad, Fox said it’ss critical not to rush to judgment. “It’s that same sort of patience and, and understanding that senior leaders need if in fact they want to uncover these things as quickly and as clearly as is possible.”

One of the biggest issues facing the VA right now is the question of bonuses and performance metrics. The Veterans Affairs health system handed out $108.7 million in bonuses to executives and employees the past three years, nearly tripling the number. But Fox warns there is more to the story: “They didn’t talk just because of a fear that their bonus would taken away; there wasn’t a comfort level with which employees felt like they can share bad news with their senior leaders.”

Fox says the VA is not alone on this culture issue. “If you look at the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the trends are not great government-wide, but in the VA in particular, about 50% of employees feel like they can disclose a suspected violation of law or regulation. You are basically flipping a coin as to whether you’re going get bad news or not as a senior leader.”

In the end, Fox said, accountability boils down to trust. Your employee have to be able to trust the senior leaders to make the right decisions, and in order to make the right decisions they have to have the most honest and factual information – even if it’s bad news.

“If you look at the data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, it says that employees are afraid to tell the truth,” Fox said. “The only way to combat this problem is to face it head on. The IRS’s Commissioner John Koskinen is going out on listening tours. He’s visiting virtually every facility within the IRS. The only way to build trust is if your employees feel like they know you. You need to be out there on the frontlines, open and honest with folks.”

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