With Shinseki Out, Who Will Obama Tap Next to Lead the Department of Veterans Affairs?

The next VA Secretary will need to press reset on an entrenched bureaucracy with surging demand.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The search for former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s replacement will require finding an individual who understands the plight of today’s veteran, can influence a massive bureaucracy, and, many believe, is willing to assume a high public profile — a person who possesses some of the very qualities that Shinseki did not have — and then getting that person to agree to take a job few would want.

Faced with an increasingly rabid and bipartisan chorus calling for his ouster, President Obama on Friday morning accepted his cabinet secretary’s resignation after an internal VA report found systemic problems among veterans seeking medical treatment. There have been calls for Shinseki to step down for weeks since the problems, first identified within the VA’s Phoenix medical facility, surfaced and began attracting intense media and congressional scrutiny. But a fundamental challenge confronting the White House now is finding someone able to do what is widely seen as a virtually impossible job — and then persuading them to actually take it.

Despite the dedication Shinseki, a wounded Vietnam war veteran and retired Army four-star general, demonstrated in the job, many thought he was not able to grasp the scope of the bureaucracy he led. He was also not seen as being aware of the widespread problems within an entrenched bureaucracy festering at multiple levels below Shinseki’s perch in Washington.

"I think it needs to be somebody who understands what it means to wade through bureaucracies and get things done quickly," said Doug Wilson, who ran the Pentagon’s sprawling public affairs apparatus and now works on many veterans issues. "In bureaucracies, people often speak Hobbit. You need a fluent Hobbit speaker with clout."

Members of Congress, individuals associated with veterans groups and others were disinclined to name publicly individuals who should replace Shinseki, but a handful of names have emerged, including a slew of retired general or flag officers, from Mike Mullen to Stanley McChrystal or Peter Chiarelli. John McHugh, a former Congressman and now the sitting Army secretary, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus were also on the lips in Washington on Friday. And Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, and James Webb, the former senator, Marine, and Navy secretary have all been mentioned as a possible successors. Someone with corporate leadership experience, coupled with a military background, could also be seen as a good fit. That very short list would include someone like Fred Smith, the chairman and CEO of global mailing giant FedEx, who served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966 to 1970.  

As it became clearer that Shinseki would not remain at the VA for much longer, there was speculation the White House would have to name a successor at the same time it announced Shinseki’s departure. But Obama instead tapped Shinseki’s deputy, Sloan Gibson, to run the department while the White House looks for a permanent  replacement for Shinseki. Gibson, just installed in February, arrived at the VA after five years running the United Services Organizations, or USO, the military morale and welfare organization best known for bringing actors, musicians, and NFL cheerleaders out to entertain troops in the field.

But the search for Shinseki’s replacement will likely take time, and Gibson could preside over the troubled agency for several weeks and months. Shinseki had begun the process of removing lower level managers at the heart of the problems in Phoenix and, potentially, elsewhere; Gibson will be expected to continue cleaning house where it’s needed. In the meantime, the Department of Justice will continue its investigation to determine if there was any criminal wrongdoing at the Phoenix facility as well as across the VA.

There is also an important political dynamic at play. Congressional ire over the scandal is continuing to build, and an array of committees in both the House and the Senate are planning to hold hearings probing the VA when lawmakers return from recess. Those sessions are certain to be extraordinarily combative, and the White House will likely want Gibson to assume the difficult job of absorbing those blows now in the hope that some of the political controversy will die down by the time the eventual nominee is picked and sent to the Senate for confirmation.

Tom Tarantino, policy associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said name recognition in a VA chief is a huge plus. The next secretary, he said, needs to be exactly what Shinseki was not.  When IAVA surveyed veterans, more than half couldn’t say who Shinseki was.

"Shinseki’s biggest failing is he was practically invisible to the veterans community," Tarantino said. "In that position, you should be the chief veteran of the United States, you should be the face of veterans, and as popular as the secretary was outside of the VA, if no one can name you, that’s a problem."

In the blaze of press releases from Capitol Hill that followed the president’s decision to allow Shinseki to resign, one thing neither Democrats nor Republicans discussed was money. That’s because many perceive VA’s problems to be about mismanagement and inefficiencies within an already bloated bureaucracy.

"The VA’s budget is not the issue," said Jake Wood, CEO of Team Rubicon, a non-profit organization that helps veterans reintegrate into society. "You can look at the budgets that they’ve gotten for the last 10 years and in a decade of cuts elsewhere, the VA budget has increased every year."

Indeed, the VA’s budget has gone from $98 billion in 2009 to $140 billion in 2013. In that time period, the VA’s staff increased by nine percent. For those reasons, many believe that what the VA needs is a leader with experience streamlining bureaucracies in the corporate world.

"A proven executive with corporate ‘turnaround’ skills," said Norton Schwartz, the former Air Force Chief of Staff, in an emailed response to what characteristic would be best for the VA.

That could mean a corporate executive with a military background, like FedEx’s Smith, might be the right fit. 

"Smith would be a compelling candidate," said Wood. He’s a brilliant guy and has been able to build and run a global organization. He may be approaching that moment in his life that he’s made his money and may be interested in public service."

As a corporate chief, Smith earns millions of dollars – $14 million in 2012. A cabinet secretary  would earn around $200,000 as a cabinet member. 

Lauren Jenkins, vice president of ScoutComms, a veteran’s advocacy and consulting firm, said military experience should be a key qualification for any future secretary.

"What VA really needs from any leader is someone who can fight through the bureaucracy of a large government agency, and that’s where a military leadership background is important because to be a three or four star general, you need to be able to play the game and play it well."

Members of Congress, meanwhile, urged the president to appoint a bold leader who’s not afraid to bring down the axe.

"Right now, VA needs a leader who will take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department’s culture of complacency with a climate of acc
ountability," said Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. "VA’s problems are deadly serious, and whomever the next secretary may be, they will receive no grace period from America’s veterans, American taxpayers and Congress."

In the end, the VA’s leader must be able to articulate, to the White House, Congress, veterans and the American public and the media just how things are being fixed and what progress is being made. But to Wilson, the former Pentagon official, public relations isn’t the only important thing.

There are the "quiet leaders,"  like Shinseki, and then there are the "showboats," said Wilson, who believes the next VA secretary must possess a lot of skills – public relations being only one of them.

"The showboats aren’t going to make much of a difference at all, other than to be invited on the next cable show," he said. "The ability to be glib on Morning Joe should not be the defining qualification."

 Twitter: @glubold

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