Anyone who works for the federal government for a few years has an intuitive feel for actions or policy decisions that are likely to create controversy. As a federal employee, controversy can be a good thing for your career. But, usually, it is likely to do more harm than good. A policy decision that will ignite controversy usually makes someone look bad. And, when that happens, there is a tendency in any organization to run for cover and point fingers, if necessary, in the direction of another target.
Here is an example of a controversy unfolding in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The National Cemetery Administration issued a memo in late September about restricting the role of religion in military funerals at VA cemeteries. Someone wrote the memo but there was no press release and it is not available on the VA website. The memo, according to a VA public relations person, noted that the memo is "an internal working document not meant for public distribution."
The result was predictable. Some VA officials may have hoped that the new policy outlined in the memo would not become controversial because no one would know about it.
There is no doubt the new policy would fuel controversy–undoubtedly there will be intense controversy from some veterans. Religion is an important part of the lives of many people. That is especially true when someone has died. And, when the person who died is being buried in a national cemetery for veterans, one can assume that religion may be important to the family. One of the honors that accompanies the burial of a veteran is the folding of a flag that is then provided to the family.
As we always do in public events, there is a ceremony that has evolved over time and that can be very meaningful to those who are involved. When the government decides to use its tremendous power to take away tradition and to minimize or delete an especially important part of this emotional event, it is not hard to understand why VA officials may be running for cover or hiding their names and documents from public view. In this case, there is a recitation that accompanies the folding of the American flag. The 11th fold celebrates Jewish war veterans and "glorifies the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob."
Apparently one complaint prompted the National Cemetery Administration to ban the entire recital at all 125 national cemeteries. One veteran told a news reporter that the VA decision was "a slap in the face to every veteran." The American Legion of California is advising memorial honor details to ignore the new government edict, even if it means being kicked out of national cemeteries for veterans.
So now the new policy in the secret, hidden memo has become public and the controversy is in the open. The VA is now stepping on religion and has infuriated veterans in a time when American troops are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. The agency has jumped into a debate that it wanted to avoid and certainly wants to control before it becomes a national issue featured on cable news programs.
Perhaps the noble thing to do would be to outline the new policy, explain the rationale and give the public a chance to comment. In this case, if that were to occur, it would undoubtedly make some officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs uncomfortable. Who wants to take the blame for throwing away tradition and making a policy that will tromp on the most sensitive, important beliefs of grieving Americans? But while opening up the rationale and decision making process may have been the noble thing to do, noble acts can be harmful to a career and make the workday much more unpleasant.
If there is a controversy that makes the national headlines, someone will have to take the heat. If an agency can avoid controversy, a new policy can be implemented, no one will be held accountable, and no one will have to take any blame.
Seasoned federal employees can usually spot controversy a mile away-especially those who have risen to the upper ranks. To rise to the upper levels in an agency, a person has to be sensitive to political trends and spot problems before they can be harmful. The lack of a press conference, the absence of a press release or the lack of any document available to the public can be very significant to someone who sees a change being quietly implemented. When agency officials are running for cover, don’t expect to see a senior "leader" of an agency emerge at a press conference, take responsibility for the new decision and then explain the rationale. Instead, the intial reaction is likely to be obfuscation or denial–usually by a public affairs person who had nothing to do with the decision and whose primary function is to protect those who may influence his paycheck and career prospects from suffering public humiliation and embarrassment.
So far, the scenario is playing out. Reportedly the author of the new policy was the VA’s director of field operations. Mike Nacincik was given the task of talking to the press. He is a designated spokesman who is speaking on behalf of the National Cemetary Administration. His official response to the new policy. "We are looking at consistency. We think that’s important." That, no doubt, answers any questions any member of the public may have about changing a long-standing tradition that was apparently not that important, regardless of what the deceased veterans or their families may think about the new policy. And, if they have questions about why their beliefs are being trampled, too bad. It’s an internal document and they apparently don’t deserve any more respect than the agency has already decided to give to them.
Hiding information from the American public is not part of a larger conspiracy. Keeping information away from the press, Congress and even from agency employees is often not illegal. Rather, some in government see stealth and caution as a desirable trait necessary to keep moving up in the bureaucracy and for protecting the agency’s reputation.
Unfortunately, stealth and caution are often the most prized assets. Our system often rewards people who avoid controversy and are successful at hiding behind the layers of bureaucracy while the long arm and big budgets of federal agencies makes decisions that controls the lives of American citizens. These are not noble actions. The approach taken by the Department of Veterans Affairs certainly does not speak well for the character of the people willing to make decisions without showing respect for those subject to the whims of government policymakers.
If the controversy starts getting traction on national news programs, we will probably see the emergence of one or more senior VA officials as the heat builds up. But, if it remains an isolated controversy hidden from the majority of our citizens, it will go away quietly and the stealth approach to changing government policy will again be effective. Perhaps we are getting the kind of government we deserve.