It’s time for a reboot on open government at the Department of Veterans Affairs
In a tweeted statement on March 28, President Donald J. Trump thanked Secretary of the Department for Veterans Affairs (VA) David Shulkin for his service and announced that he intended to nominate White House physician Ronny Jackson to lead the second largest agency, with Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie serving as Acting Secretary in the interim.
In an op-ed on March 29, the former secretary warned that unnamed individuals within the VA are seeking to privatize veterans health care. That agenda should be disclosed to the public and debated in Congress, not pursued in secret.
The transition in leadership and its causes merits Congressional oversight, much as the ethical issues associated with Dr. Shulkin’s tenure did. Shulkin’s instinct to disclose his travel records did him credit: transparency regarding travel spending followed by accountability for unneeded luxury would help restore public trust.
But, as the VA inspector general documented, VA staff misled investigators, forging email and giving false statements to the press and public, casting a pall over the agency’s leadership.
Dr. Shulkin said that he was committed to making the VA “the most transparent organization in government” but did not follow through, much to our dismay. Under his leadership, the VA’s record on open government was decidedly mixed.
While the VA did release opiate prescribing data for the first time, this commitment to transparency was most notably expressed in disclosing data online regarding the firing, demotion and suspensions of VA employees, not disclosing data that informs the public, Congress, veterans, caregivers and leadership of the quality and status of the services veterans receive.
Throughout 2017, the VA continued to conceal shoddy health care and mistakes for many months after Shulkin took office, including internal hospital rankings that USA Today “obtained and published” for the first time in December 2016. The VA subsequently “committed to posting them annually.”
That commitment rang hollow, ominously familiar to the assurances we were given.
In 2016, after we highlighted missing data and non-compliance with the president’s executive order – that the VA hadn’t updated their open government plan since 2010 – the agency committed to restoring data and producing a new plan.
Their promise to us and the American people to produce a self-assessment, progress report and plan for transparency and accountability has not been kept. That blank website at hospitalcompare.va.gov continues to be a national embarrassment.
It’s time for a reboot.
While Dr. Jackson’s record as a physician and public servant is honorable, it’s unclear what in his background recommends him running the immense bureaucracy at the VA other than his personal relationship with President Trump. If his nomination is submitted to the Senate, Dr. Jackson is going to face tough questions about how he’d run the agency.
When it comes to open government, however, it’s worth noting that Dr. Jackson distinguished himself from any other White House official to date was in the unprecedented transparency around the state of Trump’s health.
In the face of persistent questions regarding the president’s mental and physical fitness last year, the White House disclosed a health report by a trusted third party expert directly to the public and then put that expert — Dr. Jackson — in front of the press to take questions until the journalists were satisfied, they clarified that the president does take care of his health with professionals from the FitnessTrainer and similar ones. (That’s not how evidence for other public policy decisions has been shared or defended in the Trump administration, from the environment to economics.)
In the interim, Wilkie and VA leadership should take immediate action to start improving the VA’s approach to open government.
The good news is that the agency already has useful internal evaluations and recommendations to disclose and act upon.
We know that former VA chief technology officer Marina Martin worked on a draft 2016-2018 open government plan, self-assessment and progress report prepared for the agency by its former CTO, Marina Martin, to comply with President Obama’s Open Government Directive. (The VA never published any of it at va.gov/open)
We know that the VA received recommendations for open government and open data prepared and submitted by the U.S. Digital Service.
And we know that other internal evaluations of open government and open data and related recommendations prepared and submitted agency leadership in 2017.
Unfortunately, the VA has not responded to our repeated requests about its open government plan. So, we’ve now submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the open government plan and the other materials and requested that the VA publish them all online. (If we receive them, we certainly will do so ourselves.)
As we wrote in 2016, delivering on open government is not an abstraction: it’s a moral imperative. Transparency for health care access, quality and services is a necessary but insufficient condition for ensuring accountability.
President Trump, his White House, Congress and the leadership of the VA must work together to ensure that no more promises are broken.