Robert McDonald, newly nominated to become the next secretary of Veterans Affairs, will likely face little resistance to his confirmation, despite his limited military and government agency experience, veteran and political insiders say.
However, some have concerns that once he joins the VA, he may struggle to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles he likely will face as he seeks to make meaningful changes at the agency. Taking disciplinary actions and possibly dismissing ineffective personnel could prove much more challenging in a government agency environment than in the private sector, they noted.
McDonald is the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, where he oversaw more than 120,000 employees, with operations around the world, selling products in more than 180 countries.
The learning curve McDonald must tackle as he shifts to public-sector life reminded Gail Wilensky—administrator of the predecessor agency to the CMS under President George H.W. Bush—of one congressmen who incredulously asked her during a hearing how complicated it could be to run a federal agency. The lawmaker had previously run a major business enterprise.
“In the private sector, you don't have employees that are subject to civil service protections and a board of directors made up of 435 members of Congress that have oversight over your actions,” Wilensky said.
However, even though McDonald may not be able to deal as swiftly with underperforming employees as he might have in the private sector, that shouldn't stop him from going in on Day One and taking charge, other observers say.
“He needs to assemble all of the top-level managers and say, 'This is the new boss in town and the usual is over,' ” said Douglas Smith, a former assistant secretary for the private sector at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. “ 'You can either be with me or against me, and if it's the latter, feel free to sit in your office and we will work around you.' ”
The Obama administration is lobbying hard for a quick confirmation. The next Senate session is scheduled from July 7 to Aug. 1, so hearings on his confirmation will likely begin shortly.