“Unmasking [Administrative Evil],” University of San Diego business ethics professor George Reed explained, “occurs when the harmful effects and full scope of wrong becomes widely known and the evil is named.” In other words, there is no more “just doing one’s job” in a broken government system once the consequences of doing so have been exposed to the public and the immorality of such actions, in retrospect, is clear.
For those who are faced with the task of “fixing” the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), whatever that ultimately means, must understand that confronting the problem requires an interrogation of the cultural reality underpinning the agency’s character and what motivates behaviors. To that end, an understanding of “Administrative Evil” may prove instructive to their collective understanding of what is happening in the VA.
In citing the book, Unmasking Administrative Evil by Guy Adams and Danny Balfour, Professor Reed introduced a phenomenon of the modern age, specifically a mode of thought that places morality beneath a process-centric mindset and a hyper emphasis on technological progress instead of people. Put simpler, it forms a bureaucratic system whereby specialized roles and compartmentalized functions shield public servants from accountability for any negative consequences of their actions. What makes it a phenomenon is the fact that the “bad actors,” in many cases, are otherwise well-intentioned employees who do their jobs by following the rules, while knowing full well their rule-abiding acts or complicity, by failing to report systemic breaches of duty, will result in harm to innocent people.
Case in point, the Phoenix VA scandal of 2014 occurred because clerks and administrators did what they were told to do by their supervisors or the VA policies extant when the scandal occurred. They manipulated waitlist data, ostensibly, for the greater good of ensuring the hospital would receive favorable, or not get hit for unfavorable, assessments even though veterans with illnesses and severe conditions would not get the care they needed—and some would die waiting.
Whether those employees were fully aware of the consequences, should have been aware, or were conscientiously ignorant, it is the “diffusion of information and the fragmentation of responsibility,” as Professor Reed put it, which ripened the likelihood of foreseeable harm. Thus it is this foreseeability by those who knew what was occurring yet did nothing to stop it that was, and still is, VA’s biggest problem. The systemic failure of leadership in VA pressures too many frontline employees to choose a path where they know something is wrong, assume senior management also knows, and defer their moral judgment to those in power. That is the essence of Administrative Evil.
We have seen this phenomenon occur throughout recent history, highlighted by cases where all involved could not escape the immorality of “just doing one’s job” along a chain of seemingly innocuous functions that caused harmful downstream consequences. For example, the secretaries at Enron who typed letters, set up meetings, and took phone calls on behalf of corrupt executives engaging in rampant accounting fraud. The junior enlisted soldiers at Abu Ghraib who watched in silence as their superiors abused or allowed the abuse of prisoners, and in doing so compromised their own humanity. The fact that these lower-level players sat at a comfortable distance in their functions from those of the perpetrators provides no moral escape for anyone involved, once those functions are ultimately found to be traceable to the final outcome.
Whether there is moral equivalency between the dilemmas in these cases and what is happening in VA lies in the eye of the beholder, or at least that is the way it is currently perceived. Today, while the majority of VA employees are diligently fulfilling their duties as good public servants, a senior executive somewhere is actively trying to end the career of a whistleblower. An acquisition official is diverting major contracts to cronies. A dead soldier’s mother awaits an answer from a VA facility on why her son was denied potentially lifesaving access to specialized care. All these are occurring in a system in denial about the co-morbidities it suffers—moral hazard, corruption, apathy, disorder, and excess—that is causing it to die a slow death as good people are forced to watch in silence.
The problem is the Enron executives had to be investigated, tried, and convicted in order to stop the harm. Abu Ghraib soldiers had to be exposed in media, court martialed, and discharged from service. The beneficiaries and purveyors of Administrative Evil do not just surrender or suddenly see the error of their ways and change. They have to be caught and dealt with, and the cost is often great. This may explain why some VA senior leaders have yet to demonstrate the management rigor necessary to eliminate the influence, much less the existence, of those who remain invested in a status quo that harms too many people.
It is now up to VA Secretary David Shulkin to break an intransigent VA culture by fairly and dispassionately handling the business of provoking change — by confronting Administrative Evil across the agency, wherever it occurs, whatever the cost. Then, and only then, can he begin to repair VA in those broken places.
Sherman Gillums Jr. is a paralyzed Marine Corps veteran and the Executive Director of Paralyzed Veterans of America