This is the fourth and final entry in a series of blog posts describing our experience working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). We are a student team in a Harvard Kennedy School field class working to understand and improve VA communications with Veterans.
Brad started graduate school shortly after leaving the Army. Before leaving the service, he applied for disability benefits for hand and knee injuries incurred during active duty. During the transition from military service to life as a Veteran and student, compensation from the VA would be his family’s only source of income.
Weeks passed. School deadlines were approaching. And still, no word from the VA. “The lag, more than anything, creates a sense of frustration and hopelessness,” he told us.
Brad was our first interviewee as part of our semester-long project with the VA, in which we were tasked with exploring how communications could be used to improve Veteran satisfaction with the disability claim process. He set the stage for comments we would hear again and again.
From Brad and others, we heard frustration about the length and lack of clarity of the claims process. We heard doubt that the VA’s processes could be simplified and made easier to understand. And we heard the full diversity of Veteran needs and preferences.
We listened to these stories and concerns. And then set about creating some solutions.
What we built
The first thing we built to address the comments we kept hearing from Veterans is a mobile application for tracking the status of a disability claim. The purpose of this app is to give people like Brad real-time, easily accessible information about their claims progress. This app, which shows the stage a claim is at, allows Veterans to replace their daily walk to the mailbox to check for updates with a simple push of a button on their phones. Alerts would notify them when a claim has moved forward or action needs to be taken, reducing the frustration and lack of control that Veterans told us they feel during the current process.
Next, we built a preference panel webpage for va.gov which allows Veterans to control which communications they receive from the VA, and how they receive it. Brad, who was regularly on the move during his transition, told us that he was worried about critical information from the VA always being “one address behind.” Our preference panel allows him to opt-in to primarily digital communications, while still allowing other Veterans to receive mail or text messages.
We also put together a database of insights for the VA from our research and brainstorming. The collection of interviews, quotes, and ideas of solutions that our team came up with can inform a range of communications-related projects the VA undertakes in the coming months and years.
What we learned
We learned that how the VA communicates (or doesn’t, in some instances) with Veterans can make a huge difference to their satisfaction with the disability claims process. We also learned that small things really matter, like the positioning of alerts on a proposed claims app, or whether the preference panel uses toggle buttons or check marks.
We learned that change at the VA is hard, but not impossible. From the redesigned and simplified va.gov website, to the VEText initiative which sends Veterans text reminders of upcoming medical appointments, we were inspired by the VA’s use of technology and design to improve the Veteran experience. We learned that Veteran’s voices and experiences are the most powerful drivers of these changes.
Most importantly, we learned that our work and ideas could really make a difference. Just last week, we showed the above two prototypes to Brad. “I wish this is how it worked,” he told us. “I hope to be able to log into va.gov in the future and see this.”
Thank you to Clarice Chan, Zach Goldfine, and Charles Worthington from the VA for partnering with us on this important project, and all the people across the VA who gave us their time and advice as we developed these solutions. Thanks also to Dirk Adams from Harvard Advanced Leadership Institute for his contributions to this project.
Most importantly, thank you to the Veterans and active service members who shared with us their opinions, experiences, and preferences. We hope our solutions go a little way to making your experiences with the VA better going forward.