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Corporate manager gets the formidable task of revamping health care for veterans

President Obama has made an intriguing choice to take the helm of the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs. Robert A. McDonald, former chief executive of the sprawling corporate empire of Procter & Gamble, will bring his organizational skills to the sprawling government agency whose critical mission has gone not just unfulfilled but abused.

McDonald will succeed former Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, whose talents and undisputed sense of duty weren’t sufficient to instill a culture of caring and competence in a labyrinthine system that had failed to meet the medical needs of America’s veterans. In the aftermath of two long wars, those needs are often urgent and life-threatening.

The selection of McDonald was unexpected but appears to be the result of a careful evaluation of what the foundering agency needs to right itself. Did it need management experience? Someone with a military background such as Shinseki had? Someone who has already run a gigantic hospital system?

In the end, Obama went with the manager. McDonald worked in multiple management positions for Procter & Gamble from 1980 until retiring last June as chairman of the company’s board. Some observers believed he was having difficulty maximizing the company’s potential, but the company is by any definition successful.

Procter & Gamble is a multinational company headquartered in Cincinnati. It has about 121,000 employees, and posted revenue of $84.2 billion last year. It has served more than 5 billion customers. The Department of Veteran Affairs has about 313,000 employees and a budget of $154 billion.

McDonald is also a manager with a special affinity for the military. He is a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the Army as a captain for five years. He received a Meritorious Service medal. That service should play a useful role in how McDonald approaches his new assignment, assuming he wins confirmation in the Senate.

In confronting the multiple problems at the VA, including deceit meant to conceal poor treatment of patients, McDonald will need all the business skills he developed over his career and perhaps some new ones. Such are the challenges he will confront in an arm of the government that didn’t seem to grow out of control so much as to metastasize.

His job is not simply to fix some problems – severe though they are – but to reconfigure the VA into a manageable, responsive, ethical agency laser-focused on its core mission of serving the needs of the nation’s veterans.

For example, the VA has become hostile to its whistle-blowers – people who are trying, for whatever reason, to focus attention on the agency’s desperate failings. Those failings were the outgrowth of a “corrosive” management culture that has caused many veterans to lose confidence in the agency. Those kinds of problems are not quickly fixed. They took a long time to become ingrained, and it will take some time to sand them out.

As always, this nomination requires the careful scrutiny of the Senate. That’s a serious job, but the Senate can be as dysfunctional in its own way as the VA has been. Here’s hoping it is up to the task of evaluating McDonald’s nomination to this critical post swiftly, fairly and thoroughly so that the VA can get to the task of ensuring the care of those who have served.