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The rebranding of Veterans Affairs employees has begun.
Department scandals in recent months have left the VA’s workforce labeled as uncaring and incompetent bureaucrats. But in comments over the last few days, new VA Secretary Bob McDonald has worked to soften that image, refocusing attention on the successes of the system while fixes are put in place.
At the Disabled American Veterans convention in Las Vegas on Saturday, McDonald called the recent discovery of widespread appointment scheduling problems and data manipulation both “a story of failed leadership” but also of “some dedicated people who have had the moral courage to stand up and help us serve veterans better.”
He praised department whistleblowers for bringing the problems forward to improve operations. He said the department is full of “good people … working hard to fix that system so they can provide superior service to veterans.”
Lawmakers in hearings over the last few months have repeatedly praised the hard work of those employees, but usually followed up those comments with calls for firings at facilities nationwide, to ensure the public sees failures at the VA will be punished.
McDonald has flipped that idea in his recent remarks, acknowledging the need for accountability but also insisting that good work has to be recognized and used as a model through the system.
“Coming face-to-face with the reality some veterans have endured isn’t a disaster, it’s opportunity,” he told the DAV convention. “And it’s an opportunity we cannot miss, nor underestimate.”
It’s an effort that points not just to reminding VA employees about their motivations but also to reminding a skeptical public that most of the 300,000-plus VA employees were not directly implicated in any scandals.
During his visit to the Phoenix VA Health Care system on Friday, McDonald announced a new outside audit of department scheduling practices and several internal reviews to ensure employees are properly trained and focused.
He also announced a more symbolic move — a new “ICARE” acronym button that department employees will wear, emphasizing the department’s core values of “integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence.”
Earlier this month, McDonald directed senior leaders to have every department employee “reaffirm their commitment to both our mission and our values” by Aug. 22, and said similar mission reminders will take place every March (the department’s anniversary) in years to come.
McDonald visited regional medical centers in Phoenix and Nevada in the last few days, the first two of what he has promised will be frequent trips across the country to gauge both veterans’ concerns and employee feedback. He said both will be critical to fixing the department’s failings.
“We are on their team, and they have our support,” he said.