Bureaucracy in Washington DC has become a sitcom of sorts. There are many different ways that you could take that statement so let me clarify. The phenomenon of the 80s sitcom was that it was all so simple. The plot is revealed, the clock ticks and in 30 minutes it’s all over, problem fixed, fade to black.
The most recent glaring example of this was the scandal at the Veteran’s Affairs Department. It turns out the federal computer system that was supposed to track healthcare waiting times was being circumvented, which meant that veterans were waiting too long for care and dozens died. That is a very real problem, it is widespread and it is a scandal.
Veterans Affairs is a huge agency. It runs 1,700 facilities, treats millions of people and has a budget of $164bn. How do you turn that behemoth around if the problem is systemic across the country?
In Washington, you fire the boss and everyone moves on. That is what President Barack Obama did with Friday's dismissal of General Eric Shinseki. He didn’t look like he wanted to accept the resignation.
The President said it was because his Cabinet Secretary would be too much of a distraction if he stayed. So the bottom line was about turning off the noise and not fixing the problem.
This has become a familiar plot in Washington. A headline from one cable channel this week asked, “What does it take for the president to fire someone?” That is the impartial Washington news media at work. It would have been more subtle if they said the guillotine has been empty for far too long. A scandal demanded someone’s head and this town decided it was time.
I’m not writing this in defence of the general. I don’t know if he was a good manager, ignored warnings or took long lunches. I do know that the person who has been running this massive bureaucracy and is intimately familiar with it is now cleaning out his desk. The Obama Administration will have to find a new Secretary. That nominee will have to try to get up to speed. That could take time. How much will that slow down the reform process?
Human stories behind incompetence
So the thing to watch as the weeks pass is will this town move on to something shiny? Will the media stay with the story, keep investigating, tell the human stories behind the incompetence? Perhaps they will instead focus all of their energy on the political game of who will take his place and whether he or she can get confirmation. Everyone will have an opinion and want to share it on TV.
Will Congress come up with new ideas to fix the problem that has apparently been prevalent for years? Can they agree on stricter oversight, or even on setting up a hotline where people can complain? Perhaps they’ll have an in-depth discussion about setting up a system where veterans can opt out of VA healthcare and be provided with private insurance instead. Or is it more likely they’ll call a whole host of hearings so that individual members can get caught on tape yelling at VA bureaucrats?
Official Washington struggles to accomplish the most basic functions these days. That probably won’t change for quite a while. What we saw Friday is that they still can do one thing perfectly well, the players all have their parts rehearsed perfectly – and that is the play of “accountability” the Washington way.