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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

What We Talk About When We Talk About the VA

Veterans Affairs Department

This week, GovExec’s sister publication, Defense One, co-hosted a symposium on veterans issues with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The timing couldn’t have been better: the day after House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., reached a deal with his Senate counterpart, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on VA reform legislation, Miller appeared at the event to make the case for a long-range effort to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department.

Outsiders, too, showed their support for veterans. Longtime broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien screened The War Comes Home, a documentary on vets struggling with post-tramautic stress, that is scheduled to run on CNN Aug. 12.

TV personality and actor Montel Williams, a veteran himself, gave a mesmerizing address at which he drew an enthusiastic reaction both from attendees and an even larger audience on Twitter to his attacks on congressional inaction and indignation that VA employees would continue to be eligible to receive bonuses under the reform legislation.

Watch Williams’ remarks:

As I sat watching the event, I tweeted about Williams impassioned call for a “surge” in federal efforts to provide care for veterans. It quickly drew dozens of retweets:

Minutes later, I tweeted Williams’s remarks in support of the VA, in which he noted that  that the vast majority of what the department does for veterans is “amazing”:

That drew a grand total of two retweets, one of them from a Defense One colleague of mine.

Right now, nobody wants to hear about the good that VA is doing. That’s understandable in the midst of a scandal. But we should be very careful about generalizing from a genuine problem with veterans care and patient scheduling to a broad conclusion that VA is failing veterans across the board.

Likewise, we should be very careful about rushing to limit bonuses and make it easier to fire VA executives. Such actions have long-term consequences. Streamlining the firing process, for example, may serve to increase accountability, but it also runs the risk of politicizing an agency that should be insulated from partisan pressure to the maximum extent possible.

VA reform is vital. But it will take a long-term, sustained effort. Rushing into changes in the name of taking immediate action could create unintended consequences. If we demonize the people who work at VA (many of whom are veterans themselves), it won’t have much effect on the bad ones. But the good ones will get demoralized and leave.

VA is a big bureaucracy. That means it tends to come up with big bureaucratic solutions to problems. So a lot of fresh thinking may be required to implement innovations that will improve service to veterans for years to come. In the meantime, we should be careful about making big changes in the name of taking swift action that we'll regret later.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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