Parsing the VA debate

Executive Editor Troy K. Schneider discusses the reader comments to our story on IT troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

wounded veteran

More than 150 people, so far, have commented on our article about IT problems and leadership changes at VA. (Stock image)

FCW's story on IT troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs has sparked a passionate reader discussion to rival the article itself. More than 150 individuals, including former CIO Roger Baker, have weighed in with everything from -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- "Amen!" to "You couldn't possibly be more wrong."

We have deliberately not pulled any of the comments for response in the Conversation Blog -- it would be impossible to pick in an even-handed way, and readers conducting quite a discussion on their own. But there are a few broader points worth making.

1. FCW moderates comments before publication, and will not post those that are abusive or off-topic.

By and large, FCW commenters are a thoughtful and respectful bunch -- a nice change from the "trolls" that dominate many comment threads across the web. But when a story touches a nerve in the way this article has, sometimes the strong opinions get worded... strongly.

We have taken a hand-off approach as much as possible, but a few comments have been rejected and deleted. Criticizing one party or another for their actions or attitudes is fair game, particularly when one has a suggestion for what should be done differently. Simply labeling someone a "weirdo," on the other hand, adds nothing to the discussion.

So please, critique constructively. And remember that, however much you may disagree with the other side, it's unlikely that anyone has chosen public service for the express purpose of making things worse.

2. Be careful when naming names.

That's not a call for anonymity -- despite what some commenters have suggested, we very much prefer to have sources identified and on the record whenever possible. But when bringing new names into the conversation, as several readers have done, it's very important not to misconstrue or misstate.

In one comment, for example, a Senior Executive Service official is paired with Stephen Warren and criticized for poor leadership. In another, that same invidual is labeled as Baker's "personal secretary."

That SES official's title is executive director for quality performance and oversight. Reasonable people may disagree on her management skills -- I have not met her, and she was not a subject of this story -- but it's unlikely that she is both an abusive overlord and a personal assistant.

3. Comments can be on the record too.

Baker, to his credit, added a clearly identified comment almost immediately after the story was published. There are good reasons, of course, why others might hesitate to publish their full names -- but comments that give at least some sense of the author's role and perspective add valuable context to the points being made.

Also, commenters should be aware that the optional email address field is NEVER published. But if you are raising an issue that you'd like FCW to explore in more detail, including an email allows us to follow up directly.

 

Finally, there was one comment that does warrant a reply. On May 5, an anonymous reader wrote:

I find it funny that FCW spent most of the last four years singing the praises of Roger Baker and Steph Warren (even awarding one Fed 100 Award [to] each). Then once Baker exits stage right and FCW no longer has much of a need for him -- his tenure as VA CIO is an utter failure. Interesting

It is a legitimate question as to whether our Fed 100 judges took an overly top-down perspective in honoring Baker and Warren for their work at VA, or whether our article discounted change management efforts that deserve more credit. I don't think we described Baker's tenure as an utter failure, however, and I'm certain that FCW's "need" for either Baker or Warren did not factor into our reporting. (By that logic, we would have conspired to blame Baker and "protect" Warren.)

In fact, I would frame it very differently. Baker has long been an important and well-respected member of the federal IT community -- FCW has covered him frequently and relied on him as a source, and will need to do so again in the future. But when our reporting pointed to problems at VA that needed public attention, we pursued the story wherever it took us -- including to individuals we have long presented (and seen) as among the "good guys."

And for the record: I still see Baker as one of the good guys. But even the good guys can fail to solve longstanding problems -- or allow new ones to develop.

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