Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald says he understands skepticism that he can reform and rebuild his embattled department.
In fact, he welcomes it.
"A leader's job is to create a vision for winning, and to rally people around it," McDonald said.
Outside advocates, he noted, "are appropriately skeptical, because they're not with me every single day. And that's OK. VA can't do this job by itself. We need help. ... But it's easy to dramatize the problem. It's harder to dramatize the solution."
McDonald's comments, in an exclusive sit-down interview with Military Times, come at a time of increasing scrutiny for the secretary, finishing up just his fourth month in office.
Veterans groups and lawmakers have voiced concerns in recent weeks not only about the lack of firings related to the department's care delay scandal but also about the slow pace of reform.
But McDonald insists the department is moving deliberately on significant cultural changes. He pointed to news this week that the Merit Systems Protection Board upheld VA's firing of a former Alabama director as proof that department accountability efforts are both swift and effective.
"The most important message is the outcome of these cases," he said. "As these things come out over time, I believe they will reinforce we have done things in the right way."
That cultural reform also involves plans for a massive internal reorganization of VA operations, including creating a new customer service branch and simplifying behind-the-scenes administration to better veterans program access.
"We are approaching this reorganization as quickly and aggressively as I've ever done anything before," the former Procter & Gamble CEO said. "It's going to take time, but I'm bringing in to help us corporate and business leaders from the very best, and academic leaders who have a track record of having done this.
"This has never been done before in government."
McDonald expects much of the simmering criticism to die down as the reorganization plans ramp up, and outsiders see the new vision for the department play out.
But he acknowledged that he has found it "hard to tolerate when [criticism] is done for political reasons," saying VA still must develop better lines of communication with members of Congress.
He said he is working closely with members of the veterans' affairs committees and congressional appropriators on the path ahead, to ensure they understand not only the coming changes but the ideas behind them.
All those changes came after a months-long review of VA operations with staff, gathering suggestions for upheaval and improvements from every level. He has repeatedly defended the department's workforce as dedicated and hard-working, saying the recent scandals have forced all VA workers to re-examine their approach to helping veterans.
"We have a very strong purpose. That is our trump card, our ultimate answer to any question," he said. "We have the most exalted purpose in government: to care for veterans."
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.