Veterans’ Administration Performance Measures Gone Haywire: A City Manager’s Take on the VA Scandal

Veterans’ Administration Performance Measures Gone Haywire: A City Manager’s Take on the VA Scandal


By Gary Rawlings

I just finished reading Richard E. Mallory’s post, “The Tools We Need to Measure Quality in Government.” He states, “Without auditable standards, quality in government cannot be measured.”

I also happened to have just finished Innovative State – How New Technologies Can Transform Government by Aneesh Chopra. It was interesting, especially for me (an amateur history buff) with its references to the history of certain programs that have adapted to innovation.

Many pages were devoted to innovations made at the Veterans’ Administration (VA) since the founding of our country. Processing time for Post 9/11 GI Bill claims is one example cited in the book where the author was part of the fix. It’s not Mr. Chopra’s fault, but, of course, many of the innovations made by the VA now pale in the wake of the scheduling scandal and the manipulation of records that occurred and cost General Eric Shinseki his job.

So how does the VA scandal tie into the tools we need to measure quality in government or how new techniques can transform government at the local level? None of the tools or techniques for improvement means anything without human integrity. Somehow, the organizational culture at the VA went haywire, and bonuses became more important than the delivery of service.

Measuring work performance dates back to Fredrick Taylor and his theory of scientific management. Remember the Hawthorne Experiments? Workers’ productivity increased no matter what stimuli was used, because the workers were responding to the attention given to them by the researchers. I can relate to that on a personal level, because my father was a time-study technician at a local manufacturing plant in Connecticut. Maybe that’s where my interest in performance measures got its basis.

Mallory’s blog on auditable standards gets at the heart of the matter. Accountability and transparency are great concepts that have come to the forefront in the last decade. They add credence to performance measures. I labored in state and local government for years without a clear picture of accountability for performance.

Michigan is one state that is trying to take performance measures to the next level. Using “value for money” budgeting allows the Michigan Military and Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) to track the performance of each department on a quarterly basis to ensure that tax dollars are being spent wisely. The approach has been used to improve the outreach program. The MVAA has connected with at least 200,000 veterans statewide though its outreach program (according to Lonnie Huhman’s July 22, 2014 article in Hometown Life titled “State Committee Vows to Do Better on Veteran Affairs,” which appears to no longer be online).

There is nothing wrong with rewarding performance, especially as those performance measures become auditable. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that the human element plays a key role in the outcome of performance-based operations. Performance measures on their own will not carry an organization’s need to improve efficiency or effectiveness. Managers need to weave an element of accountability into their leadership by encouraging active participation in the process. In my experience, knowledge-based power works much better than coercive power when accomplishing organizational goals.

The last thing local government needs is a scandal involving performance and pay. One scandal will set back years of progress in developing auditable performance measures. Let’s all be diligent in our use of performance measures and tying them to bonuses. Remember the “Hawthorne Effect,” and make it an integral part of the fine-tuning of performance measures. History does repeat itself. Let’s make sure local government does it in a positive way.

About the Author

Gary Rawlings has more than 30 years of experience in local government as a manager and consultant. He has managed cities ranging in size from a few hundred people to 35,000 people. He holds a Bachelor’s in Business Administration from the University of Notre Dame and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Hartford. Gary has authored several articles on public administration and a book entitled Risk Management for Small Cities. He also has completed many organizational and feasibility studies relating to city services, covering such topics as human resources, risk management, feasibility studies, and strategic plans. He has five grown children and 12 grandchildren. He enjoys golf and reading in his spare time.