Veterans Affairs

Obama's pick to lead the VA led a private-sector digital revolution

Wikipedia image; official from his P&G profile: Robert A. McDonald.

As CEO of Procter & Gamble, Bob McDonald used technology to cut costs, improve efficiency and empower customers -- lessons that could translate well to the troubled Veterans Affairs Department.

The former head of the company that makes Tide detergent and Crest toothpaste might seem like an odd pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Bob McDonald, a former Army captain and business executive who headed Procter & Gamble from 2008 to 2013 brings leadership skills and  military credibility as a West Point graduate, but he lacks the medical experience of Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove, who was under consideration for the secretary of Veterans Affairs post. But McDonald led a digital transformation at the world's largest consumer packaged goods firm that could have lessons for the VA.

That transformation at P&G also offers some clues about how he might lead an agency that needs to improve its business culture and the way it manages the technology behind its health records and scheduling system.

McDonald placed a lot of value on enabling end-to-end communications and logistics inside the company, and out to their network of retailers. As a global supplier, P&G maintains relationship with retailers down to the level of small rural grocery stores in the developing world.

McDonald explained in a November 2011 interview in McKinsey Quarterly that P&G provided retailers with smartphone applications that allow them to order wirelessly, and access information on how to optimize their store to maximize sales of company products. The company reduced its transportation costs in a time of rising fuel prices with a program called "control tower," which mapped together deliveries of raw materials and finished goods to maximize the efficiency of its shipping by eliminating "deadhead" loads. The company runs a similar program with its network of distributors that links into P&G systems and helps manage transportation logistics.

McDonald also sees technology as a way to empower customer feedback.

As social media channels developed, McDonald sought to incorporate consumer comment from blogs, Twitter, online retailers, and elsewhere into the workflows of brand managers. A "consumer pulse" tool filters comments about P&G products in real time to company employees. Maintaining the real time flow of business and consumer data looms large in making business improvements, according to McDonald.

"For companies like ours that rely on external data partners, getting the data becomes part of the currency for the relationship. ... We have analytic capabilities that many retailers don’t have, so often we can use the data to help them decide how to merchandise or market their business in a positive way," he said in the 2011 interview.

VA watchers should take note of McDonald's insistence that top executives understand the technology that drives these business practices.

"We established a baseline digital-skills inventory that’s tailored to every level of advancement in the organization," including senior managers, McDonald said. "We've got to have the standards for everyone because otherwise we’ll dumb the organization down to the lowest common denominator."

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson issued a report on June 27 warning that "a corrosive culture had led to personnel problems across the department that are seriously impacting morale and, by extension, the timeliness of health care." McDonald has focused on culture in his leadership philosophy, noting that "ineffective systems and cultures are bigger barriers to achievement than the talents of people."

And those who want to see an overhaul of top managers at VA might take heart from another of McDonald's leadership tenets – "there will be some people in the organization who will not make it on the journey."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the About.com online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.

Featured

  • Ellen Lord - Textron DOD ATL USD

    Lord tapped to lead DOD acquisition

    The Trump administration has nominated Ellen Lord, president and CEO of defense contractor Textron Systems, to serve as undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

  • Soraya Correa, DHS Chief Procurement Officer

    Confronting the culture of fear in government

    Steve Kelman gives kudos to DHS' Soraya Correa for facing the FLASH cancellation head-on.

  • DHS: Russia tried to hack voting systems in 21 states

    DHS officials confirmed for the first time that Russian hackers tried to penetrate voting systems in 21 different states in the run-up to the 2016 election, but said the hacking did not affect election results.

  • VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin speaking at a June 20, 2017 Monitor Breakfast. Photo credit: Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

    VA expects to add an integrator to health record mix

    After coming to terms with Cerner on a price for its electronic health record system, VA expects to pivot to finding an integrator to handle legacy interoperability and change management.

  • Soraya Correa, DHS Chief Procurement Officer

    DHS execs own FLASH fail

    The department's failure to launch an agile services contract can serve as a teachable moment, according to DHS procurement officials.

  • Is it time to rethink the TIC?

    Current restrictions on internet gateways complicate agencies' move to the cloud, so the Office of Management and Budget is exploring new security architectures.

Reader comments

Tue, Jul 1, 2014

It may have worked for him in private industry, however he will be faced with an exceedingly slow and rule bound procurement system, endless delays and vendor protests, and a very complex computing environment upon whose proper functioning many patient lives depend. He will likely not accomplish much in the three years until the next change in management. Good luck to him though. Lots of his predecessors have also come into the job promising great things.

Tue, Jul 1, 2014 Jenn

Blah, blah, blah. Whatever. OMG look, a evil capitalist CEO running a major govt agency. Obama has lumped together and vilified the entire 1% of this country. Now he appoints one of them. I'm confused. Are they as a group evil or not? This is pure hypocrisy.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group