July 3, 2014 Updated: July 4, 2014 at 7:55 am
President Barack Obama's nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs may indicate a serious presidential desire to fix the embattled agency.
Robert A. McDonald, former CEO of corporate giant Proctor & Gamble, isn't without his critics. He resigned from the company after investors and former executives complained he wasn't improving it fast enough. But few argue he created a much better trajectory after the great recession put the company in dire straights. And inside the company, most followed his lead during tough economic conditions. P&G is known for its recruiting, training and ability to develop world-class talent, and McDonald worked his way to the top over 30-plus years there.
McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Army paratrooper, stands out as a nominee because he is a bona fide executive. Traditional picks to lead Washington bureaucracies are politicians or other Washington insiders.
"My life's purpose has been to improve the lives of others," McDonald said as he stood this week next to Obama in the White House Rose Garden.
As quoted in the Washington Post, McDonald joined the Army out of a desire "to help free people who were living in non-free societies . " and "to improve the lives of the world's consumers."
"The question facing McDonald and the Obama administration is how well those decades of experience selling Tide, Pantene and Pampers translates into helping veterans," the Post article explained.
Soap and Pantene aside, McDonald will succeed if he instills a customer-service attitude among VA employees. McDonald needs to make one thing perfectly clear: Veterans are customers, they deserve excellent service, and those who can't embrace this doctrine will be shown the door in nanoseconds.
We know the VA is poorly run because of all the stories about false reports of fake appointments and veterans who've been left to suffer without the care they earned. It's the essence of a self-serving government agency concerned foremost with needs of its own executives and employees. It is a national disgrace and an abysmal insult to the people who keep this country free.
As if overwhelming media evidence were not enough, The Gazette's editorial board was treated to its own minor taste of the VA's disregard for the public service. At the suggestion of a veteran, The Gazette tried to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act on June 9. We inquired about the salaries of all VA employees at the Denver hospital. The employee in charge of FOIA fulfillment, Marie Zaepfel, insisted repeatedly we send our request to an email address that could not possibly work. It contained spaces and no .com, .gov or dot-anything-else. It was gobbledygook. After multiple calls to VA officials, we finally received a working address and filed our request June 10. Our first response came July 1 - 21 days later - with Zaepfel explaining she's working on it.
Regarding McDonald's customer service attitude, the Post wrote: "He was the kind of boss who would regularly reply to a 5 a.m. e-mail just minutes after it was sent." Not 21 days. A few minutes. That's public service.
"He's a transparent guy," said Gil Cloyd, who worked with McDonald for 20 years at P&G, as quoted in the Post.
As an entity paid by the public to serve the public, the VA must be transparent. It must tell the truth. It must do somersaults for veterans who need care. It must view veterans as customers, not subjects for the benefit of VA employees. By all appearances, McDonald is the right person at the right time to enact essential change.