On May 30th 2014, Eric Shinseki resigned as secretary of American Veteran Affairs (a government department that provides benefits and healthcare for American war veterans), amid revelations that employees of the organisation had distorted the information which detailed the month-long waiting times which many veterans had faced when seeking care. The term “resigned”, however, is a likely stretching of the truth; calls for Shinseki’s departure increased with each day following the advent of the scandal, coming from both Republicans and Democrats, and thus it is more likely that he was asked to leave (i.e. fired) by the White House.

But is this fair? Whilst it’s not clear whether Shinseki knew about this malpractice or not (although it looks a lot like he didn’t), he certainly wasn’t the one who committed the crime itself. This also leads on to a bigger issue; whether the principle that leaders should resign for the errors of their staff is a legitimate idea, or an unhealthily entrenched political norm.

One of the main reasons for a leader resigning in a situation like Shinseki’s is for the sake of symbolism and accountability. Those who hear about or are affected by the scandal are often rightly distressed, and seek justice. The fact that there is almost never one person to blame is irrelevant; someone’s got to go. The Westminster convention of individual ministerial responsibility argues that that “someone” should be the person at the top; since they took the accountability for their department’s actions with the job and are the most public representation of the organisation and thus the scandal.

Shinseki’s resignation, but also Obama’s acceptance of this resignation, is a way of the White House communicating that it has recognised the crime, and shares the public view that action must be taken against it. It’s a means by which the government attempts to move on from the scandal and quell dissent, by showing that they intend to rectify the problem starting with Shinseki’s resignation. Is this fair? Perhaps not. Is it politically effective? Undoubtedly.

It also appeared to have been a lose-lose situation for Shinseki. If he did know about the malpractice within the department, then he is arguably as guilty as the employees themselves for intentionally allowing the distortion of information. If he didn’t know, then he comes across as ignorant, out-of-touch and clearly lacking in respect from his staff (a great majority of whom knew what was going on), who didn’t bring the issue to his attention. Indeed, one could say that Shinseki was to blame for the scandal, in that he trusted his staff too much and thus failed as a leader. He assumed that his whole organisation shared his passion for providing veterans with quality care (he is a veteran himself) but, unlike him, many of his staff were just civil servants driven by pragmatism over principle.

However, Shinseki still hugely advocated transparency and honesty during his tenure. Three times a year, he spent a solid week meeting with regional VA medical directors to reflect how open he was to bad news, yet still he was kept unaware. Thus to what extent was this really Shinseki’s fault? Perhaps those who were in the loop theorised that what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. If so, events have just proved them wrong.

Despite those arguments which favour resignation at the top, there are plenty of examples in which the leader figure has not lost their job. Chris Christie is still being questioned about “Bridge-Gate” (and the interrogations will only intensify if he chooses to run for president in 2016), but for now his gubernatorial seating remains more or less firmly in place. This suggests that there are a number of factors which determine whether the principle of individual responsibility wins out when a departmental scandal occurs. Perhaps it is to do with the resilience and popularity of the leading figure themselves; Christie’s approval ratings were at an all-time high before “Bridge-Gate” erupted as a result of Hurricane Katrina, his displays of bipartisanship and his mainstream media appearances. This may have dampened the blow to his credibility once the scandal did hit, and thus there was less pressure for his resignation.

Contrastingly, Shinseki was appointed as opposed to being elected and thus had a presence that was marginally popular to begin with. This appointment also meant he was much more accountable to the White House, unlike Christie. Thus whether such figures end up resigning or not is highly context-bound, which undermines the principle stating that they should, since such a hand-out of justice is clearly rather inconsistent in practice; removing some from office whilst letting others, who are equally guilty according to this norm, hold their power.

So, should leaders resign for the malpractices of their staff? Well it certainly makes sense from a pragmatic point of view, by allowing a swift implementation of symbolic justice. But the quality of this justice is uneven; not only in its persecution of the one figure who often had no idea that the crime was taking place, but due to the fact that some leaders, such as Christie, are able to avoid prosecution thanks to particular circumstances whilst others, such as Shinseki, are left exiled and criminalised.

 

References:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2014/05/30/how-the-va-developed-its-culture-of-coverups/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/05/30/president-obama-finally-bends-to-the-realities-of-political-washington/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/shinseki-apologizes-for-va-health-care-scandal/2014/05/30/e605885a-e7f0-11e3-8f90-73e071f3d637_story.html