When someone from housekeeping at a VA hospital did a good job promptly, we asked if we should put in a good word to his boss.
He said, "Please don't."
I am a specialist in internal medicine and cardiology. I did five years of residency training after medical school, half of it at the Audie Murphy Veterans Administration Hospital in San Antonio Texas. I remember an incident that made me think that at that time, from 1974 to 1979, the culture at that VA Hospital was hostile not only to whistleblowers but to someone who might volunteer a compliment or recognition of a job well done.
I was on a rotation in the medical intensive care unit and I believe it was a long weekend. One afternoon the secretary and I heard a loud crash from a little way down the hall. We looked to see what it happened, and found that a large stack of (if I remember correctly) dirty meal trays had fallen over in a utility room down the hall from the ward where the patients in the ICU were. I think the trays had piled up there over the three day weekend and weren't going to be taken back down to the kitchen until the next regular workday.
Anyway, the secretary called housekeeping and asked them to send someone up to clean things up. We didn't expect much. (It was at that VA Hospital that I learned the phrase, "That isn't in my job description.") To our pleasant surprise, someone came up promptly and cleaned up the whole mess. We thanked him and one of us even asked if he'd like us to put in a good word to his boss about responding so quickly and doing a good job.
He said, "Please don't."
I didn't ask him why not, but I thought about it a good bit and I think I understand. He may have been worried that his boss might think he was not only angling for a promotion but hoping to replace the boss in the supervising job. Or it may just be that in a hierarchical bureaucracy like the Veterans Administration a commendation for a job unusually well done could end up being interpreted as a criticism of the way the job is usually done. That would be a bad reflection on the boss, which might end up making the boss want to get rid of the one employee who showed everybody else up. I wouldn't be surprised to see a bureaucracy react that way, particularly one that gets only rare and haphazard scrutiny.
I'm no expert on bureaucracies and hierarchies, but I have long been interested in observing how they work, and how they mess up. I started reading the Washington monthly in college, back when the editor was Charles Peters, who had a lifelong interest in how government agencies and bureaucracies work and fail to work. That gave me some idea of what to pay attention to when I got to a Veterans Administration hospital. The VA is probably the largest and most hierarchical agency I will ever work in, and I saw it as a great example of how things can go wrong.
I was motivated to write about this experience of almost 40 years ago by the current fuss about VA hospitals hiding their waiting lists. If the VA had a culture that could make constructive use of criticism this kind of scandalous activity might have been stopped long ago. But from all I have seen (admittedly, most of it long ago) the VA has a culture that usually reacts to criticism with an attempt to blackball the critic. (The ancient Greeks may actually have killed messengers who brought bad news, but bureaucrats don't kill people to shut them up; they blackball the troublemakers.) From what I saw 40 years ago, the Veterans Administration had a culture that not only tried to stifle criticism, rather than learning from it, but that also treated even a compliment with deep suspicion.
With that in mind, I am alarmed by the subpoena that Richard J Griffin, Acting Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs has sent to POGO, the Project on Government Oversight,
a scant fifteen days after POGO set up a confidential and secure way for whistleblowers, including veterans and VA employees, to report abuses without fear of reprisals or repercussions.
The waiting list falsifying has been going on as long as seven years. The VA Inspector General had that long to sniff it out, but didn’t. Now that POGO is competing with them, it took them two weeks to move to try to breach the confidentiality that POGO is providing, and very likely intimidate anyone else from coming forward. There’s a saying, “There are no official channels; there are only official oceans and official sewers.” Things move amazingly fast when the VA Inspector General is trying to push them down the sewer.