Charles Dharapak/AP

What Does Running the VA Have to Do With Selling Soap?

From Procter & Gamble to one of government’s biggest bureaucracies.

On Monday, President Obama nominated Robert McDonald, former chief executive at Procter & Gamble, to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The choice was generally greeted warmly.

McDonald, after all, is a West Point graduate and former Army ranger.  And “he knows the key to any successful enterprise is staying focused on the people you’re trying to serve,” Obama said. “Bob is an expert in making organizations better.”

But there are organizations, and then there’s the VA. P&G is a huge company, with 120,000 employees. But that’s not even half the size of the VA. And the VA is in a very different kind of business -- in fact, it’s in several different kinds of business:

  • Running the nation’s largest health care system, including more than 1,700 hospitals, clinics and other care facilities.
  • Overseeing a host of benefits programs for veterans, from disability compensation to home loans.
  • Operating 131 national cemeteries.

Right now, the first of these missions is the burning platform, with the national scandal involving cover-ups of long wait times for appointments at VA medical facilities. But VA’s other units have had their share of management issues in recent years. The department, for example, has struggled mightily to reduce the backlog of disability benefits claims.

There simply isn’t an executive (other than former VA secretaries) with experience in all three of VA’s lines of business. But McDonald doesn’t have direct experience in any of them. What he does have is a well-earned reputation as an effective executive at a large company known for focusing squarely on customers. That makes him the kind of nominee that Republican presidents typically choose. (And no doubt, McDonald was a choice partly aimed at winning support from GOPers on Capitol Hill.)

But it also means that his learning curve for running an organization as huge, diverse, and bureaucratic as the VA is going to be steep. Especially when that organization has become known for its “corrosive culture” -- and in which some of its problems, including setting unrealistic goals for appointment waiting times, originated at the the top of the department.

“Let me state the obvious: This is not going to be an easy assignment,” Obama said in introducing McDonald. Indeed.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly linked the management of Arlington National Cemetery with the VA. The post has been updated to correct the error.