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There are few areas as emblematic of a nation’s values than how it treats the veterans of its wars. Upon return, however, the newest veterans face many of the challenges that previous generations have encountered, ranging from re-entering the civilian workforce to rehabilitating broken bodies and treating traumatic brain injuries. While new teams and technologies are being deployed to help with the backlog, a recent report (PDF) from the Office of the Inspector General of the Veterans Administration found that new software deployed around the country that was designed to help reduce the backlog was actually adding to it. Given that context, the launch of a new VA innovation center today takes on a different meaning. The new VA Center for Innovation (VACI) is the descendent of the VA’s Innovation Initiative (VAi2), which was launched in 2010.
We want our workforce to be part of that objective, to be part of coming up with those ideas. In terms of continuity of care, when that veteran comes back to a VA hospital, the techs don’t have visibility into what happened at the other hospital.
The Veterans Treatment Court is a problem solving court focused on addressing the needs of Veterans in the criminal justice system.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is a government-run military veteran benefit system with Cabinet-level status.
A media release from the VA Veterans Service Center in Cheyenne informs us that John Goodell (GOOD-ull), an Army veteran from Sheridan, was hired as the new Veterans Services Representative, or VSR, with an office at the Sheridan VA Medical Center.
Rebecca Sawyer Smith is the Public Affairs Officer from the Denver Regional Office of the U.S. Along with having regular office hours at the VAMC, Sawyer Smith says that outreach will be a part of Goodell's VSR position as well. Prior to accepting the VSR position, Goodell served as a Peer Support Specialist at the Sheridan VAMC. Our goal in allowing public comment on our web site is to provide an arena for open discussion on the issues. Should We be Surprised to Discover that Bureaucracy Reigns in the Department of Veterans Affairs? The dangers inherent within a bureaucratic culture are an abundance of rules that strangle options and cripple the urgency to act.
This past week, with little real news and airtime to fill, the media merry-go-round calliope commonly called the “news cycle” fell back on an old and reliable target by focusing on bureaucratic foul-ups at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Department of Veterans Affairs is the second largest government department, trailing only the Department of Defense (which we all know is free of bureaucratic issues, right?). The intent here is not to condemn or defend the VA, but simply to point out that the ills the media has highlighted are the ills present in any bureaucracy of any size. The story here is not that the Department of Veterans Affairs is bad, but that bureaucracy is bad. Instead of being ruled by rules, organizations do better when they are guided by guidelines of engagement. As a company grows, it’s a tradition to set up rules to tell people what they can and cannot do.
When an organization is run by rules rather than guidelines, bureaucracy takes hold, responsibility is shunned, accountability is non-existent and an acute lack of urgency takes hold. A sense of urgency does not mean making fast decisions: it means working quickly to get the information needed to make a decision. To achieve this sense of urgency, priorities must be clear, consistent, achievable and staunchly supported.
We have seen the media ravage the Department of Veterans Affairs for exhibiting all the signs of an entrenched bureaucracy, all made possible because it is a bureaucracy.

The real lesson to learn here is not the lack of flexibility, the non-existence of a sense of urgency or absence of accountability in the VA, but how to avoid having the same bureaucratic attitudes seep into and control your organization. This entry was posted in Building Better Business Managers, Business Management and tagged Bob MacDonald, bureaucracy, Business Management, Veterans Administration. As improved battlefield care keeps more soldiers alive from injuries that would have been lethal in past wars, more grievously injured veterans survive to come home to the United States.
While high error rates, disorganization and mishandled claims may be traced to issues with training and implementation of the new systems, the transition from paper-based records to a digital system is proving to be difficult and deeply painful to veterans and families applying for benefits.
The scale and gravity of the problems that the VA faces demand true innovation: new ideas, technology or methodologies that challenge and improve upon existing processes and systems, improving the lives of people or the function of the society that they live within. Czerwinski: When we started VAi2, our intent was delving into the projects the secretary charged us with achieving. It’s the way in which we structure ourselves and find compelling new ways of solving problems. We have a Fast Track Initiative, where we’re asking how would you take a process, starting with a veteran, and end up with a decision.
The Veterans Treatment Court will accept defendants that have served, or are serving in the military, that have no criminal history or similar offenses prior to enlistment, and whose criminal activity can be linked to military service.
It is responsible for administering programs of veterans’ benefits for veterans, their families, and survivors. With obligatory fanfare, the media dramatically informed us that the VA is hidebound with rules, is as inflexible as set-concrete, lacks a sense of urgency, resists change, fails to meet expectations (set by others) and wastes resources.
For all the breathless reporting of the media, isn’t this nothing more than the definition of a bureaucracy? The VA operates on a budget of almost $100 billion, employs over 300,000 (only 450 of whom are appointed and exempt from Civic Service), manages almost 1,000 various medical facilities spread across the country and is charged with meeting the medical, disability and burial needs of millions of military veterans. The reality is that the only way any organization could even attempt to meet the level of responsibility placed on the VA (especially considering budget restrictions enacted by Congress) is by creating rules, process and procedures and generally adopting a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.
The truth is that for a bureaucracy as large as VA is, with as many obligations as it has, this unwieldy behemoth does a remarkably good job. While a bureaucracy can be good at doing the same thing, the same way all the time, it is inflexible, resistant to change, ignorant of innovation and devoid of both accountability and reward. Never lose sight of the fact that rules are for those you don’t trust and guidelines are for those you respect.
Left unchecked, these rules become a crippling straightjacket that stifles the reason why rules were thought needed in the first place. The rules of bureaucracy become a molasses in the gears of urgency that slows down and eventually kills forward momentum until the very vestige of creative ingenuity simply withers away. This attitude is an anathema in the bureaucratic culture where the fear of being responsible or accountable creates a desire to delay a decision.
This requires that members of the organization be imbued with the desire to act and move forward. Set up as the second largest bureaucracy in government, how can we expect it to be any different? The best way to achieve that objective and become immune to the ravages of bureaucracy is to set guidelines rather than rules and always demand a sense of urgency.
They all learned, for better or sometimes worse, that individuals and institutions can make prodigious contributions to history by shaping the future, but when they failed to continue to make history, they became history: We know them now for what they did, not what they are doing. The secretary has big goals: eliminate homelessness, eliminate backlog, increase access to care. It’s about changing from a culture where people are incented to manage problems in perpetuity to one in which people are incented to solve problems.

Tech, laws, people factors, process factors, preferences by parts of interest groups all combine to make this hard. The benefits provided include disability compensation, pension, education, home loans, life insurance, vocational rehabilitation, survivors’ benefits, medical benefits and burial benefits. We also learned that VA employees attempt to hide deficiencies, practice the art of “cover your ass” and shun accountability. Of course there are horror stories at the VA, but they are – considering its scope of responsibility – no greater than horror stories we hear about health insurance companies and private hospitals. It is for these reasons that bureaucracy can be so damaging when it takes hold in a private organization that must meet competition, respond to change and innovate if it is to survive. On the other hand, a guideline of engagement defines what a company is about and allows individuals to decide how to go about it to achieve its objectives.
A sense of urgency comes from the top, but it must filter through the entire organization to become a way of thinking and acting.
Those charged with responsibility must be given the authority to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, and held accountable and rewarded for success. The truth is that as bureaucracies go the VA actually does a pretty good job; especially when compared to the Department of Defense. When they apply for benefits, they’re added to a growing backlog of claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The reason why we have a center for innovation is not because we need to start innovating — we have been innovating for decades, at local levels. It’s not enough to reduce backlog by a percentage point or the number of re-admissions with an infection. And the media uproar should give thinking business managers a reason to explore what it takes to hold bureaucracy at bay, if we want to achieve and retain success.
The more entangling it becomes, the more success is threatened because bureaucracy is not intended to create success; at its best bureaucracy is only intended to preserve the status quo.
Once the guidelines are communicated and agreed upon, individuals are free – actually encouraged – to make their own rules, to operate in a way they feel will best achieve a specific objective.
In a bureaucracy, this attitude can work because there is no sense of urgency, but in the real life-or-death world of business this is a path to failure. Having a sense of urgency does not mean there is a lack of organization and planning – nor does it mean shooting from the hip. Certainly the VA is not perfect and some suffer because of that, but that is the essence of a bureaucracy with the same rules and the same size for all is imperfection.
And even as the raw number of claims grows to nearly 900,000, the average time to process them is also rising.
It works enough that it created a new definition for what’s in the realm of the possible. And in business, preserving the status quo all too often means sacrificing a promising future. According to Aaron Glanz of the Center for Investigative Reporting, veterans now wait an average of 272 days for their claims to be processed, with some dying in the interim. But with a sense of urgency embedded in the culture of an organization, bureaucracy will never be given the chance to take root. It’s also a way to create transparency in quality of care, if the hospital has visibility in your healthcare status.

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