Policy, Politics, Religion and Death: Could There Be Any Controversy Here?

Sometimes agency policy decisions can create a strong emotional reaction from the public.

There are probably a number of ways to make policy decisions for a federal agency and different situations require different methods.

When an agency makes a decision that can impact large numbers of people, it obviously needs to carefully consider the impact. If an agency makes a decision that is likely to impact its constituents, does not explain the decision or rationale, and then initially refuses to release the document that implements the decision, it can probably expect a strong public reaction.

That appears to be how a recent decision was made by the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding a new policy surrounding the ceremony involving the American flag for burial ceremonies in national cemeteries. (See “Not Meant for Public Discussion“)

When a change in the policy of a federal agency is going to invoke the emotions surrounding the death of a veteran while American troops are fighting another war, a national symbol with the patriotic symbolism of the American flag, and the role of religion during a funeral ceremony, it would be hard to think of a policy that can have much more emotional impact.

No doubt, the officials at the National Cemetery Administration are smart, hard-working, successful people. They make a decent salary, have good benefits and can probably look forward to a good retirement. It is also likely that very few Americans have as much knowledge about veteran burials than those that are working in this organization.

What is a mystery is how the intelligent, caring people in a federal agency could be so tone deaf when making a new policy decision that is going to fly in the face of tradition and involve very emotional issues for a large number of Americans.

As noted in the article earlier this week, “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.”

The story got traction and started speeding up by the hour. The new VA policy made national news shows and was the topic of discussion on the internet. The House of Representatives got involved after hearing from angry constituents and introduced a resolution condemning the new policy and dozens of Congressmen reportedly contacted the VA about the decision.

Predictably, after the political heat increased, a senior official emerged from within the agency to “clarify” the original policy. From a press release on the VA website: “”Honoring the burial wishes of veterans is one of the highest commitments for the men and women of VA,” said William F. Tuerk, VA’s Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. “A family may request the recitation of words to accompany the meaningful presentation of the American flag as we honor the dedication and sacrifice of their loved ones.”

Obviously, the smart folks in the Cemetery Administration started to focus on the new policy and its implications and issued a statement that will probably curtail the howls of indignation from around the United States all directed at the VA’s Vermont Avenue Headquarters in Washington.

It would have been quicker, easier and smarter to “clarify” the policy when it was first issued instead of hiding behind the argument that a new policy document was internal to the agency and “not intended for public distribution.” Instead of portraying a workforce that is sensitive to the issues that surround the death and burial of an American veteran who has served his country, the agency created an image that the senior officials are a cadre of arrogant policymakers with primary concerns of politics, career advancement and being politically correct.

Sometimes policy decisions are made and the public’s reaction is a surprise. The reaction in this case could not have been a surprise. The only surprise is that the officials responsible apparently did not have the foresight to see the publicity deluge headed their way.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47