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The Never-Ending Appeals Process at VA Hurts All Vets

One of the deepest questions philosophers have considered over the centuries is the sometimes conflict between the rights and needs of society, and the rights and needs of each individual member of that society.

The latest point in the debate over fixing the Veterans Affairs Department is a microcosm of that debate.

The claims backlog the Veterans Benefits Administration has been dealing with for years is finally below 100,000, according to numbers from late summer. The agency promoted the backlog reduction then as a sign that its management strategy was working, in contrast to scandals inside the agency’s other main branch, the Veterans Health Administration. The timing was unfortunate, though; whatever good publicity the VBA, and its then-leader Alison Hickey, might have gotten out of the news was obliterated by the scandal surrounding two employees who received enormous relocation benefits after engineering jobs for themselves outside Washington, displacing other VA officials who held those jobs. 

Those numbers look different, though, in light of a Los Angeles Times article on the backlog. Given what the Times reports, it seems unlikely the agency will ever be able to make it go away. The biggest holdup to making the backlog disappear...

Algorithms Make Better Hiring Decisions Than Humans

Managers might like to believe that they have better hiring judgment than a computer, but a recent working paper (paywall) from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests otherwise.

The researchers looked at the employment record of 300,000 low-skill service sector workers across 15 companies. The jobs had low retention rates, with the average worker lasting just 99 days, but researchers found that employees stayed in the job 15% longer when an algorithm was used to judge their employability.

An online test evaluated roughly one third (94,000) of the employees, who were asked questions about their technical skills, personality, cognitive skills, and fit for the job. Based on the results, an algorithm rated each applicant green (for high potential), yellow (for medium potential), or red (for low potential).

On average, the employees who were evaluated by a machine stayed in the job 15% longer than those who were hired without being rated by an algorithm.

The researchers also looked at cases where managers were allowed to use their discretion and go against the algorithmic judgements to hire a different worker. These decisions led to poor results, they found, noting that the “exercise of discretion is strongly correlated with...

Congress Weighs In on Defense Procurement Gaps

There is still a significant schizophrenia within the government generally, and particularly in the Defense Department, over the use of commercial items and services. As arcane as this issue might sound, it is actually one of the core lynchpins to the government's ability to drive innovation and gain access the best solutions from the broadest possible array of providers. In other words, arcane or not, it really matters.

For two years in a row, DOD asked Congress for legislation to dramatically change the statutory definition of a commercial item or service. Both times Congress summarily, and wisely, rejected these proposals. Then in early August, DOD issued a proposed procurement rule that would achieve much the same result as the legislative proposal, albeit in a more nuanced way. And Congress noticed.

In early November, more than 50 members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, signed an unusually sharp letter to the department calling for the proposed rule to be rescinded. In their view, the rule is counterproductive and focused on the wrong issues. Moreover, the 2016 defense authorization bill includes language that pushes DOD to rely more on commercial practices, either directly or through their traditional contractors.


Brain Connections Predict How Well You Can Pay Attention

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On the Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed in a marathon of nonstop typing.

Like the Kerouac of legend, some people possess the incredible ability to focus for long periods of time. Others constantly struggle to keep their minds on task. Individuals diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example, are often restless and easily distracted. Even people without ADHD may find their minds wandering while trying to concentrate at school or work.

Although the ability to sustain attention varies widely from person to person, characterizing these individual differences has been difficult. Unlike intelligence, which has traditionally been measured (though not without controversy) with pencil-and-paper IQ tests, attentional abilities are not captured by performance on a single test.

In a study recently published in Nature Neuroscience, my colleagues and I set out to identify a new way to measure attention. Like IQ, this measure would serve as a general summary of a complex cognitive ability. But unlike IQ, it would be based on a person’s unique pattern of brain...

How to Get More Dads to Take Paternity Leave: Pay Them

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, announced last week (on Facebook, of course) that he is planning to take two months of paternity leave when his daughter is born. In his post, Zuckerberg noted that studies have found better outcomes when parents take time off from work to be with their newborns. He also pointed out that his company offers U.S. employees four months of paid maternity or paternity leave.

Zuckerberg is right: There are many research-backed reasons for parents to take leave. Still, while paternity leave has been expanding at American companies, such as Netflix and Microsoft, it is far from being a mainstream benefit.

Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, live in Palo Alto’s Crescent Parkneighborhood. California, along with Rhode Island and New Jersey, are the only three states in the U.S. that offer paid family leave to workers of any gender. The existence of such laws is evidence of a drift toward gender equality at work and at home, but the problem is that even men who are offered paid leave often don’t take it, for fear of social and professional repercussions in the office hierarchy.

So how do these laws impact...