Manipulating Data and Persistent Reality at the V.A.

Manipulating Data and Persistent Reality at the V.A.

Here’s a fun thing to search for on the Internet:

What percentage of statistics are made up?

My search produced a range of top-line responses, including:

And my favorite:

  • “70% of all statistics are made up on the spot by 64% of people that produce false statistics 54% of the time they produce them.” TheGoat – Yahoo Answers

All silliness aside, I think there is one fundamental reason (among many reasons) for the frequency with which we actually encounter statistics that simply are bogus:

There is psychological power in numbers.

Even in this highly skeptical age, numbers seem to speak objective truth, whether or not the results are indeed “true.” So we worry about our grade point average, our credit score, our cholesterol numbers, and, yes, our age. Those are numbers that have the power to affect our lives and livelihood. When they aren’t “good numbers,” we feel compelled to explain them, to change them or to simply to make up replacements

Making up replacement numbers for unacceptable real counts is what appears to have happened within the Veteran’s Administration. There is evidence of various forms of “ghost lists” that removed veterans in need of care from the official wait lists, diminishing the apparent backlog. There’s even evidence of “ghost clinics” to which veterans were referred and which did not have medical staff, making it appear that their needs were being addressed while in fact their needs continued to be neglected.

Reprehensible conduct, to be sure.

But there are other numbers that also will have to be considered as we attempt to address this breaking of our collective promise to our veterans. With 21.9 million veterans living in the U.S. today (9.1 of them in the V.A. system), the problems plaguing the system may have something to do with the investment we have made (or not made) in the care of our veterans, as well as the way in which that care is administered. Backlogs certainly can reflect administrative mismanagement and professional inefficiency and probably do. However, they also may reflect an investment in care that is overwhelmed by the need, especially as a result of two major wars we have fought in the last decade, and the aging of the population of veterans from earlier wars.

Whenever the public sector fails to deliver the expected level of service, the tendency is to tally the failure, whether it’s a crime statistic, or a test score, or an accounting of misappropriated funds. All of that is valid.

If we would deal with reality, however, we almost must consider whether we are making an investment that is appropriately scaled to the demand for service. Because service delivery involves cost, and those costs are real . . . however inconvenient the numbers may be.