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June 9, 2014

On Veterans Affairs: Where’s The Big Idea?

On Veterans Affairs: Where’s The Big Idea?

By: Mike Haynie, PhD and Nick Armstrong, PhD

C. S. Lewis said that while it’s “hard for an egg to turn into a bird,” it’s much harder for the “bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg.” The point is that cultivating discontinuous organizational change sometimes means going back to the beginning­—back to the egg—and applying new thinking to what’s needed for the organization to thrive, and ultimately fly. Our nation’s most accomplished business strategists understand this well; management guru Peter Drucker asserts that “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Turbulent is certainly a word that can be applied to the state of veterans’ affairs. However, it appears those scrambling to fix the problems at VA have missed Drucker’s point entirely. Where’s the big idea?

It’s certainly right and appropriate to take swift action to ensure that veterans receive timely medical care, to correct deficiencies identified by the VA’s inspector general, and to hold negligent leaders and employees accountable – and that’s happening now. That said, over the long term these remedies are akin to thinking a few Band-Aids will stop the bleeding from an amputation.  The VA is a bird that will never fly straight until we muster the political will and moral courage to ask, answer, and act upon fundamental questions and assumptions related to America’s obligation to our veterans and their families. The silver lining in the cloud now hovering over the VA is the opportunity to re-visit the role of the agency—and the role of society—regarding governance and accountability for veterans’ affairs.

Over time, the VA has evolved into a monolithic bureaucracy, assuming real or perceived accountability for every issue or concern that impacts our veterans. Today’s VA is an agency with many disparate missions, far-flung operations, and an impossibly complex governance structure—created so by the confluence of internal and external expectations that the VA alone must shoulder the full burden of the nation’s promise to those who have served.

Why is this so? It’s largely because the knee-jerk reaction to every crisis, failing, or shortcoming related to fulfilling that promise is to mandate the creation of a new program, initiative, reporting structure, or office at the VA. It’s for this reason, for example, that today’s VA has assumed a great many functions redundant to other federal agencies.

Consider that today’s VA maintains its own employment and workforce training infrastructure for veterans, in spite of the fact that Congress tasks and funds the Department of Labor with that same mission for veterans specifically and for all Americans more broadly. There are similar redundancies with the Department of Education (the GI Bill program, and student aid), with Housing and Urban Development (homelessness programs), and with the Small Business Administration (small business certification & training).

On the surface, these redundancies seem inappropriate, inefficient, and ultimately contrary to our veterans’ best interests. It would seem that these redundancies create structural inefficiencies at the VA and across government that undermine effective service delivery. It would seem that if these redundancies were eliminated, and if other federal agencies—or perhaps the private sector—assumed responsibility for some of these functions, the result would be a VA better positioned to focus purposefully and intently on functions core to its mission, like healthcare delivery, mortuary services, and benefits processing.

But maybe not. Maybe there’s another side to this argument. Maybe there is a clear and compelling reason for the VA to maintain this seemingly redundant infrastructure. But the point is, we’re not asking these questions. The point is that it’s beyond time that we stop working to reform veterans’ affairs on the margins, and instead muster the courage to act on real change—and a big idea.

More than a year ago, we highlighted the need for a national conversation about the ways and means through which governing the landscape of veterans’ issues becomes a shared societal obligation—where accountability for the breadth of veteran-related social, economic, and wellness concerns extends beyond the VA, to all institutions and individuals in American society. We argued that just as we have a coordinated national strategy for defense, homeland security, education, and other pressing societal concerns, it’s time we craft and enact a National Veterans Strategy.  Unfortunately, while we beat this drum loudly and repeatedly for the past year, the power of the status quo has been too much to overcome.  And now, to quote President Ronald Reagan, the “status quo, you know, is Latin for the mess we’re in.”

Today there are approximately 1,300 federal and state policies, executive orders, and agency directives that affect veteran services and benefits. A National Veterans Strategy would provide a deliberate framework to reallocate responsibility, resources, and accountability beyond the VA’s core mission and direct limited resources in their first, best use across the federal government, our state governments, in the private sector, and across communities.

How could this process unfold?

It should start with a constructive, inclusive national conversation on veterans’ issues and policy. This conversation could be directed by the President, coordinated by Congress, and collaboratively engage public, private, and individual stakeholders to seed bold recommendations for change, and to frame a strategic planning process aimed at efficient and effective veterans’ policy implementation. To that end, we offer three recommendations:

1)     The President, in partnership with Congress, should establish a National Veterans Advisory Council—with membership representing both government and the private sector—responsible for providing strategic advice and counsel on veteran’s programs and policy to the President, Congress, and implementing agencies. The Board’s charter should include the remit to coordinate and draft the initial, foundational assumptions informing a National Veterans Strategy.

2)     The President should establish a single point of policy and budgetary authority in the federal government, responsible for coordinating and directing veterans’ policy, and for ultimately implementing a National Veterans Strategy.

3)     The President, in partnership with Congress, should direct and institutionalize a forward-looking, periodic, interagency review process—akin to the Quadrennial Defense Review—designed to assess evolving veterans’ policy and programs across the federal government.

A National Veterans Strategy represents far more than a symbolic gesture. First, it’s a mechanism to harnesses citizen- and gov­ernment-wide engagement in the concerns of the nation’s veterans and military families. Second, it will foster more effective and efficient public governance of veterans’ affairs. Third, and perhaps most importantly, a National Veterans Strategy is fun­damental to a sustainable national defense, namely, the long-term recruitment and preservation of a robust, all-volunteer military force. Actual and perceived effectiveness of programs and benefits supporting service members’ transition to civilian life hold sway on future generations’ motivation to serve. Therefore, establishing a national strategic planning process for veterans’ issues not only pays tribute to those who have served, but also signals to future generations that military service will be socially regarded and institutionally supported—for years and decades to come—as our nation’s highest calling and ultimate expression of citizenship.

What’s the big idea? It’s to say that stumbling from one crisis to the next with a box of policy Band-Aids is a fool’s errand. Our veterans, and the nation, deserve better.

Dr. Mike Haynie is the Executive Director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, and the Barnes Professor of Entrepreneurship and Business Strategy, at Syracuse University.  Mike is a veteran of the United States Air Force.

Dr. Nick Armstrong is a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT) at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, and College of Law.  Nick is a veteran of the United States Army.

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