The Mystery Caller dialed the Department of Veterans Affairs help line 1,089 times in 2002. And it created quite a problem.
The problem wasn’t about the questions, but the answers. The VA’s Veterans Service Representatives gave answers that were often totally wrong, most often partially wrong, rarely completely accurate — sometimes embarrassingly unprofessional and occasionally downright rude.
— MYSTERY CALLER: My father served in Vietnam in 1961 and 1962. Is there a way he can find out if he was exposed to Agent Orange?
— VA SERVICE REP: He should know if they were spreading that chemical out then. He would be the only one to know. OK (hung up laughing).
The Mystery Caller was no mystery at all to the VA’s top brass. It was a department exercise — officially titled "Mystery Caller Telephone Service Quality Assessment" — to evaluate the information veterans received when calling the VA’s 57 regional offices.
But the results mystified the VA’s top brass, because they were unacceptably awful. Only 5 percent of the callers in the 2002 study received answers that were "completely correct" from the VA’s supposedly well-trained service reps. The story of the VA’s Mystery Caller exercise — and the problems that continued to plague the VA afterwards — is told in my new book, "Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors those Who Fight Our Battles" (Thomas Dunne Books).
In the 2002 Mystery Caller exercise: 22 percent of the callers got information that was "completely incorrect," 34 percent got information that was only "minimally correct," 29 percent got information that was only "partially correct," and another 10 percent got information that was judged "mostly correct" but still not entirely accurate.
Each Mystery Caller episode also received a VA evaluation. The VA’s evaluation of calls about exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange noted that the service representative had been "completely incorrect" because the rep provided none of the information that was supposed to be provided. The evaluation added that the VA service rep was also "rude and unprofessional."
The Mystery Callers in the study asked the sort of questions that are asked daily by veterans or their family members.
— MYSTERY CALLER: My brother is being discharged in two weeks from the Marine Corps. Are there any veterans’ preferences for state or federal jobs?
— VA SERVICE REP: No preference. Everyone is a veteran. With government, you get points if you’re a veteran. For a disabled veteran, there’s points. Nothing out of the ordinary.
VA’s Evaluation: Completely incorrect (wrong information). Tone discourteous; unwilling to help.
You might think that the VA’s top officials were so embarrassed by these abysmal results that they immediately instituted an all-out effort that fixed the department-wide problem. But by now you know better, having seen and read, here and elsewhere, so many tales of our government-in-action that turn out to be government inaction.
Indeed, when the VA did its follow-up study in 2004, with another 1,089 Mystery Callers dialing VA service reps, once again 22 percent of the callers received information that was judged "completely incorrect" — yes, identical to the 2002 result.
But this wasn’t your classic case of government inaction — because in some key areas the VA’s help line service had gotten even worse. The 2004 study’s Executive Summary reported that: "conveying the willingness to help declined significantly from 92 percent in 2002 to 78 percent in this study." In categories of courtesy, professionalism and prompt service, favorable ratings for the VA’s service reps were listed at 90 percent — "down significantly from 97 percent in 2002."
There were a few dollops of measurable progress, but it hardly merited bureaucratic bragging. While an abysmal 5 percent of the VA service reps’ answers had been completely correct in 2002, two years later the percentage of completely correct replies had inched up to 19 percent.
But think about that: After two years of remedial work, only 19 percent of the VA’s service reps were giving out information that was completely accurate. Veterans need and deserve accurate information every time they call the VA for help in navigating the labyrinth of government rules, regulations and procedures.
The full solution cannot be to just demand that the VA get brainier and kinder service reps. What the VA clearly needs is simpler rules — a complete revamping and unraveling of its complex tangle of policies and procedures, which are often insisted upon by Congress.
Let’s make the VA’s rules so clear that even a VA help-desk rep can understand them.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)