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Beyond the “Sea of Goodwill” — a call for private-sector leadership

Beyond the “Sea of Goodwill” — a call for private-sector leadership

In a white paper published October 2014 titled “After the Sea of Goodwill: A Collective Approach to Veteran Reintegration,” the Department of Defense makes a plea for private sector versus government leadership. This is courageous.


By way of background, I’d like to quote directly from that white paper:

“In 2010, the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff published a white paper called ‘Sea of Goodwill: Matching the Donor to the Need,’ which called for community action teams to address the [Veteran] ‘reintegration trinity’ of education, employment and access to health care. These needs are most prevalent as Veterans and their families reintegrate into civilian communities.”

In the four years since “Sea of Goodwill” was published, doing Veteran reintegration well continues to be the hottest topic at the Veteran Services organizations, a the public and private agencies engaged in the sector and at philanthropic funders. Everyone wants the same thing but doing it more effectively remains in many ways elusive.

There have been valiantly-organized attempts to raise the bar. Here in San Diego, the San Diego Veterans Coalition (SDVC) has done a good job of sifting through the hundreds of humanitarian and for-profit organizations serving Veterans and connecting many of the effective ones with government agencies, beginning to realize a cooperative economy of scale. Expert navigation portals such as 2-1-1 San Diego, have provided a tech-savvy backbone for connecting Veterans and families with available services. The SDVC model is now being replicated in other states. The San Diego Military/Family Collaborative has achieved similar results working with active-duty Service members and families.

Largely at the direction of funders such as San Diego Grantmakers, the San Diego Veterans Coalition and Military/Family Collaborative have combined efforts to create a road map for Veteran reintegration now known as Military Transition Support Project or MTSP, recently renamed “zero8hundred“. This formal collective impact project is well-funded, expertly staffed, and includes organizations ranging from those mentioned to the US Navy, US Marine Corps, and elected officials, the latter jumping on board to help take credit for work largely done prior to their participation.

Respected scholarly institutions, among them University of Southern California’s School of Social Work and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families and Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, have examined Veterans’ reintegration needs. There have been formal and informal calls for, as Syracuse University’s paper calls it, “A National Veterans Strategy.” The white papers and reports, developed along the same lines and during the concurrent timeframe that the San Diego Veterans Coalition and Military/Family Collaborative were actually doing productive work, generally describe and underscore what has been learned in the collaborative field about the work remaining to be done, how to do it well, and how business models must change to achieve that.

Today’s Veterans Services

There continue to be many — some put the number at more than 4,000 — tax-advantaged humanitarian non-governmental organizations with an interest in service to Veterans. Most operate on shoestring budgets with minimal staff. Unknown to some, much duplication of program efforts exists. Common to all is duplication of administrative and financial effort. Also common to all is increased competition for funding.

It seems clear that, if government were doing the best possible job to deliver Veterans services, none of these NGOs — or perhaps fewer of them — would be needed. Case in point: the Veterans Administration Healthcare System admitted that traveling more than 40 miles to reach a VA Medical Center could be burdensome to some Veterans, so it collaborated with private health insurers to extend non-VA Medical Center care to Veterans so as to adequately meet this need.

In the big picture painted by “After the Sea of Goodwill,” it seems that the Joint Chiefs have also begun to realize the limitations of government. While they agree that to have collective impact many of the issues explored by the reports, white papers and successful collaboratives will need to be played out nationally, the following rather surprising admission lies at the core of what they believe will make Veteran reintegration successful:

The creation of a comprehensive, government-led Veterans strategy may be a bridge too far. Critics might suggest that the government is not the solution or that it cannot move quickly enough, but those are no (sic) reasons to disregard the need to seek an alternative solution. We believe that long-term, sustainable success in a national Veterans strategy is more likely if the effort is embraced and led by the private sector, which can often move faster to address exigent need….

“Free of both the political and bureaucratic constraints inherent in Federal government, private sector stakeholders have a unique opportunity to lead the country toward a structure that offers functional cooperation, cross-sector collaboration and an integrated network.”

(emphasis added)

This begs the question of whether the private sector can respond any better than the government, since there are still significant barriers to success in both cases, but I agree with the Joint Chiefs’ assessment of leadership for this effort: it needs to come — some might say must come — from the private sector.


The Federal government is intended to be deliberative, slow to reach a decision and prudent in execution of the decisions reached. This approach lies behind the government’s penchant for funding studies: a study doesn’t compel the government to do anything, while the politicians and bureaucrats commissioning these studies can claim “support” for issues of importance to their constituencies without risking a huge investment that may or may not have the anticipated results. As good as the ideas or data may be, government is ill-equipped to act expediently outside of its deliberative political process, and a government agency is not, by and large, supposed to be the epitome of efficiency and customer service. If there is any doubt about that, look only as far as the latest “crisis” being addressed by the government: has government actually been able to make positive sustainable change on any perceived “crisis” in recent memory? Take, for example, the recent change in leadership at the Veterans Administration; what expectation of improvement — as opposed to actual, definable success metric — makes this change any different from the last?

Private entities have a much different motivation to provide effective, well-managed services that will delight their customers. Whether working for profit or for tax-advantaged charitable purposes, private organizations have the ability to measure their success in a way that governmental organizations do not: competition. As a customer, if I get less than satisfactory service from Organization A, I’m free to investigate what Organization B can offer me. I don’t have that choice at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or the Child Support Services Agency; Veterans don’t have that choice at the VA Benefits office, nor do they have that choice at the VA Medical Center (although Veteran health care may be opening up just a bit as noted above).

The Need for Leadership

Depending on one’s political affiliation, most of this blog may seem either obvious or ridiculous, but that’s not the point. The point is that, when the Joint Chiefs of the Department of Defense recognize that doing the right thing for Veterans is important, it ought not be ignored. This goes beyond DoD telling the VA to get its act together; DoD recognizes the security risks inherent in doing the Veterans services job poorly. That is, taking good care of our Veterans encourages potential military recruits who might otherwise forego putting their lives on the line because governmental care options for potential injuries after active duty are so poor. Taking good care of Veterans puts active duty service in the forefront of career choices because an informed civilian sector understands the skills and abilities — including leadership — that a Veteran brings to civilian service after their active military duty is complete. Taking good care of Veterans strengthens the social fabric of the nation. All of these things enhance the cohesive structure of America’s great experiment in representative democracy. DoD’s charter to maintain a strong national defense lies at the heart of its call for effective private-sector leadership in Veterans reintegration services.

The most effective NGOs in the Veterans services sector already have wide footprints. They have reached this level of ability and influence for one reason: they outperformed their competitors. That’s how the private sector works: you’ve got to be good to survive. Veterans know which NGOs are effective and why, and when a Veteran trusts the services of an NGO, that’s the best possible recommendation any organization can get. The challenge now is for the leaders of those effective, sustainable NGOs to come forward and do something many of them are not normally inclined to do: collaborate.

Respected former VAMC Director and co-founder of the San Diego Veterans Coalition, Gary Rossio, likes to quote Harry Truman’s adage that “it’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” That’s true in a sense, but in a bona fide collective impact model, such as zero8hundred, everyone cares about doing the job well and everyone will share the credit…if the job is well done. Something else Gary likes to say is even more to the point regarding competition in the Veterans services sector: “No one has ever lost business by collaborating.” Gary ought to know: in addition to his success at SDVC, he is the principal consultant on the Michigan Veterans Coalition and was part of the founding of the Veterans Coalition in San Antonio, Texas.

The difference between networking and collaboration ought to be obvious: knowing your competition, even on a first-name basis, is much different than working side by side with it. Collaboration demands that we work alongside similar or even directly-competitive organizations to achieve more than either one us could do alone. Collective impact goes even further: we actually agree to share customers and resources in pursuit of the big goal — and expect credit and additional business to accrue to all organizations participating!

Military Veterans understand collective impact. It’s inherent in military training. Unit commanders are trained to maximize effectiveness of their team AND to closely integrate their team to the entire mission with assiduous attention to cooperation and coherent action. Leaders in private sector collective impact projects could benefit from this understanding: there’s no place in collective impact to undercut teams with whom you are cooperating, even if they come from organizations you would call “the competition” on any other day.

It’s hard to find leaders who think about their entire “market” sector with a mind to cooperate with their competition and maximize everyone’s results. But that’s what’s needed. “After the Sea of Goodwill” presents both the framework and the need for exemplary leaders. These leaders will be incredible people. They will think about the success of every organization as it means working together to provide the best possible solutions to Veterans reintegration. They will reach out to include organizations who may be less effective as well as organizations with exemplary effectiveness. They will be able to mitigate the issues between organizations, government agencies, politicians and perhaps even the for-profit sector so that the combined mission stays in the forefront of every decision.

It seems self-evident that the private-sector leaders the Joint Chiefs are calling upon to truly and finally change Veterans reintegration for good will themselves be outstanding Veterans.