Robert McDonald, the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has announced his plans to reform the Veterans Administration in the wake of a national scandal. The whole thing began when it was discovered that veterans experienced excessive wait times for care at VA hospitals and that VA employees falsified documents to cover the delays. At least 35 of these employees will be fired outright, and as many as 1,000 will receive “aggressive” disciplinary action.
In all of the media coverage of this story what we’ve seen has been vague information about the actions of a few unnamed VA employees, often accompanied by predictable phrases of hyperbolic outrage against them, including repeated charges that “veterans have died waiting for care.” What I haven’t seen is an interpretation that tries to understand the environment and motives that led to the scandal; in other words an analysis that might actually allow the VA to avoid a scandal like this in the future. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the media stories or in the VA’s response that indicates that anyone will learn the lessons that should have been rather obvious.
In many ways the VA scandal is very similar to last year’s story, and media coverage, of the scandal involving standardized testing in the Atlanta public schools. It is also evident that the official response to the VA problems will be similar to the response to the Atlanta story—a few people will be fired, but there will be no overt recognition given to the systemwide environment that actually led those individuals—largely scapegoats—to do what they did. In both cases the rules set by the top echelon made deception virtually inevitable, primarily because those rules ignored the reality experienced by anyone in the working levels of the bureaucracy.
What were those rules? First, look at the Veterans Administration. Through the 2000’s the agency experienced a multi-year reduction in overall funding levels, with the largest single hit coming from the sequestration agreement that resulted from congressional disfunction (the Budget Control Act of 2011). That meant, of course, cutbacks in critical personnel; doctors, nurses, and support staff. This meant in turn that the VA could not provide services for the veterans who needed them, and this inevitably increased delays in appointments. The leadership of the VA responded to this reality by refusing to accept it; imposing a blanket requirement that all veterans applying for assistance would be seen within 14 days. This was a rule that almost everyone out at the VA hospitals knew was impossible to achieve. Even worse, the 14-day rule was made an integral part of the evaluation process that determined employee benefits and future employment decisions.
In the case of most public schools, including the Atlanta district, there has been a multi-year reduction in overall funding levels since the recession of 2007, with the worst cuts coming in states controlled by Republican legislatures. This has meant reductions in teachers and support staff, requiring increases in average classroom sizes, which reduced the ability of teachers to respond to student needs. At the same time, Federal testing requirements (in the No Child Left Behind Act) became increasingly stringent. NCLB has, every year, applied increased demands by raising the percentages of students who must test as proficient in math and reading. Administrative and teaching staff at almost all schools recognize these requirements as unrealistic, impossible to achieve even at schools that have a high percentage of affluent students. In many states, including Georgia, the standardized test scores are also an integral part of the evaluation process that determines school funding and future salary and employment decisions regarding both teachers and administrators. A school that fails to reach the NCLB test threshold can be disbanded and all of the employees fired.
In short, what we had are two nationwide service systems under insanely simplistic and unrealistic mandates. In both of them the facilities and employees were being provided with inadequate resources, then were being evaluated according to very specific expectations that were impossible to achieve and that had been set at the highest level. The environment and expectations were inaccessible to adjustment by the employees who were expected to achieve them. In both systems, service-level employees were faced with a choice between two difficult options: a) they could be honest, which would result in punitive measures being applied, including likely loss of salary, benefits, and employment; or b) they could fabricate positive results on official documents, which would result in increased benefits, official praise, and continued employment. What could possibly go wrong?
What did go wrong in the case of the VA was that many veterans who couldn’t be accommodated within the required 14-day window were removed from the official records, moved to secondary lists or ignored altogether. To have kept them on the books would have ruined the job evaluations of the facilities and the personnel that otherwise were doing everything they could to serve as many veterans as possible. Some veterans were put off for months; some never did get treatment. This was not the fault of the VA hospitals and clinics. It was caused by the top-level demand that took away personnel and tried to replace them with unrealistic schedules.
As for the Atlanta schools story, some commentators tried to hype the scandal by framing it as a threat to student futures, but there is no evidence that students were harmed by having their test scores altered. The fact is that none of the major standardized tests are structured in a way that would provide useful feedback to the classroom, so, unlike the veterans, the Atlanta students were unaffected by the district’s fraud. What is undeniable, however, is that for years students all over the United States have had their educational experiences narrowed, severely constricted by the environment that led to the scandal, the dual political impulses that have trimmed school budgets and enforced a test-centered curriculum.
What is also undeniable is that the unrealistic mandates applied to both the VA and the public schools have greatly increased stress levels among employees in both systems. In a survey by the National Education Association 72 percent of teachers reported moderate to severe pressure from administrators to increase test scores, and 42 percent noted that the emphasis on testing had a negative impact on their classroom. Predictably, if you apply unreasonable demands regarding the outcomes to be provided by workers, and threaten them with serious consequences if they don’t comply, they will experience higher stress levels and will respond by cutting corners. Their responses will sometimes cross the line into outright fraud. In other cases, as in the Seattle schools, the response will be open opposition.
In both the Veterans Administration and the Atlanta school district, mid-level workers and managers are being fired. They are the scapegoats. The media has gone ahead with the meme that both stories are about small groups of bad apples in local facilities who inexplicably chose to defy the system and who deserved to be punished, their careers ended. In both cases, the top-level administrators and political leaders who actually created the problem with their inane rules are not being disciplined. Without adequate media coverage and appropriate accountability, the problems will continue.