At the VA, Trump creates office of "Your Butt is Fired"

In this week’s Executive Order news there is one item which will no doubt come as potentially welcome relief to those who have been aghast over the numerous scandals at the Veterans Administration over the past several years. It hasn’t been a case of the government being unable to figure out that bad things were happening… they just had their hands tied in doing anything about it. This was largely due to our inability to fire almost anyone who was failing in their job or engaging in unacceptable conduct. This week President Trump is ordering the creation of a new office inside the VA called the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. (Government Executive)

President Trump this week will sign an executive order to create a new office in the Veterans Affairs Department to increase employee accountability and protect whistleblowers, according to a White House official.

The order will establish the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within VA, which has for years taken heat from lawmakers and stakeholders for failing to quickly root out problematic employees. Details of the office and who will staff it were not made clear in advance of the signing, but the official said it will help VA Secretary David Shulkin “to discipline or terminate VA managers or employees who fail to carry out their duties in helping our veterans.”

The office will also enable the secretary “identify barriers” to his ability to “put the well-being of our veterans first,” the official added.

Much of the language in the official description and the announcement from the White House is on the gentle side, preferring to use terms such as transparency and accountability. But what it comes down to is a mechanism to identify those who need to be given their walking papers and get the ball rolling on that process. It’s very similar to a proposal put forward in the Senate roughly a year ago which didn’t go anywhere because the government employee unions spend a lot of money to make sure such things don’t happen.

While this all sounds great I’m waiting to see how it actually plays out and if it can even be effective. It seems to me that we haven’t had much trouble identifying the worst workers at the VA. Heck, I’ve lost count of how many of these outrageous stories we’ve covered here. The problem is that you generally can’t get rid of them even after you do identify them. Or if you can, the process takes years and it tends to make managers less likely to expend the effort to go after them.

As usual, this all comes back to the underlying structure of the system which was essentially crafted by the government workers unions. At the heart of it is the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which sits like a troll guarding the bridge to ensure that very few workers can be fired on short notice and any punishments which mange to get handed down are frequently reversed. The Senate has paid some lip service to the idea of demanding accountability from the MSPB in the past, but it never went very far.

That’s part of the “underlying structure” problem I referenced above. Before this new office Trump is creating can get much done, it seems as if the fundamental system needs to be cleaned up and run a bit more like an actual business when it comes to employee management. Out in the real world it’s not nearly as difficult to weed out the most severe personnel problems. If you find that one of your workers is spending most of their day watching porn, selling heroin out of their desk or moonlighting as a getaway driver in burglary jobs, they are out the door before anyone has time to blink. At the VA (and in other government agencies) that process can easily take two years or more and even if you fire them the MSPB can (and frequently does) reverse the decision and put them back on the job.

So best of luck to the folks at the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. I wish you well in your mission. But if President Trump really wants to clean up the system he may need to come up with a plan to slay a much bigger beast hiding in the shadows.