Communication, As Defined by Veterans

Good communication is hard to define, and hard to do—especially for large organizations like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Part of the problem is that there is no single right answer.

If you ask Nate, an Afghanistan Veteran who filed his disability claim (to receive compensation for injuries or health problems incurred or aggravated as a result of service) through a VA website known as eBenefits before leaving the Marine Corps, good communication is short and immediate. Rarely without his iPhone in his hands, Nate is used to receiving real-time notifications about his online grocery delivery from Amazon and his gate and boarding time from the Delta Airlines app. The communications he receives from the VA are, in comparison, dense and slow.

If you ask Amanda, a Gulf War Veteran and single mother who relies significantly on the income from her claim, she will tell you that good communication is comprehensive and easily accessible. She likes the idea of a centralized VA website, like the one she uses for online banking, that helps her understand the VA claims process and her status in it. 

If you ask Simon, a Vietnam Veteran who depends on his wife and large network of Veteran friends for advice and assistance in navigating the VA, he will tell you that good communication is personalized and easy to understand. While he doesn’t mind the occasional text (especially if it’s to remind him of an upcoming appointment), he prefers important information to reach him via letter and phone call.

We know this, because we asked. We are a student team in a Harvard Kennedy School field class working with the VA to understand and improve VA communications with Veterans.

For the past few weeks, we have been getting to know people like Nate, Amanda and Simon to answer the question driving our work with the VA, namely: how do we use communications (and notifications) to improve Veterans’ satisfaction with the disability claims process?

To answer this question, we leveraged our personal and professional network to speak to Veterans. We spoke to classmates, recently retired faculty, and ten Veterans from across Montana (one of us is from the state). We used these initial conversations to fine tune our interview questions and familiarize ourselves with the claims process. 

We then reached out to Veterans through official VA channels and Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs)—non-profit organizations created to help Veterans and their families. The Earl W Harvey Chapter and the William Hurley Chapter of the Disabled American Veterans organization gave us an especially warm welcome. In total, we reached over 40 Veterans, 19 through in-person interviews and an additional 10 by telephone, over 5 weeks.

 
The HKS team at a Disabled American Veterans meeting.

The HKS team at a Disabled American Veterans meeting.

 

Our final approach focused on the vibrant online community. Reddit, Facebook Groups, and VA forums provided a valuable window into the common challenges and concerns that Veterans experience when filing a claim. Commenters in these discussion groups were supportive of fellow Veterans, but didn’t always have accurate information about the claims process.

From this research emerged three types of Veterans—what designers call “personas”—each with distinct needs and preferences when it comes to communications from the VA. Yes, you guessed it—Nate, Amanda, and Simon. 

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These three Veteran personas are strikingly distinct. But they share some frustrations—complaints about spam from the VA, lack of personalization, and complexity of content. Using these personas and data from our interviews, we developed the following high-level insights into disability claims communications: 

Insights about communications content

  • Veterans do not feel in control during the claims process.

  • Veterans are more likely to have a positive experience with the VA when the VA provides clear and reliable expectations.

  • There is inadequate notification about the movement of a disability claim through the claims process.

  • Clear justification for a Veteran’s disability rating was often not given to a Veteran.

Insights about communications delivery

  • Veterans are overwhelmed by promotional content, not by updates to claims status.

  • The letter is not “dead” and text is not the (only) answer.

  • Many Veterans (in our interviews almost all) receive information on the progress of their disability claims from non-VA sources, such as VSOs.

  •  Notification infrastructure and resources exist that Veterans are simply unaware of.

However important these insights are, it’s important to note that our interviews with Veterans were intense and personal conversations. We heard their service experiences, physical and psychological wounds, hardships of waiting for a disability claim decision that determines family income and quality of life, frustrations with inaccessible processes, and relief when those processes work well. We are thankful to those who let us into their world and told us their stories. 

Our conversations with Veterans gave us rich data, quotes, and insights that we can’t wait to put into action as we enter the next phase of our project: brainstorming, prototyping, and testing solutions to improve VA communications with Veterans. 

Isaac Yoder, Daniela Jozic, Dirk Adams, Menaka Narayana, & Raina Davis

 

Harvard students partner with VA to improve Veteran communications

Veteran. It’s a short word to represent the diversity of people that have served our country. In the U.S. there are over 20 million veterans hailing from all fifty states and ranging from early twenties to over 100 years of age. Some are peak physical condition, others have a range of ailments and service-related disabilities. And just like the general population, Veterans span the entire range of communications needs, preferences, and technology savviness.

It’s the job of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to serve these Veterans and their families, which includes communicating clearly and effectively with them about benefits, health care, and much more. But the Vietnam War veteran from North Dakota may prefer information through the mail, and the twenty-seven-year-old living in Los Angeles may associate the word “mail” with her smartphone Gmail app.

The VA is the largest healthcare provider in the United States, and the second largest government branch after the Department of Defense. Serving over nine million Veterans annually, the VA is asking the question: How can we improve communications with Veterans?

That is where we come in! We are a team of Harvard students in a field class at Harvard Kennedy School called Tech and Innovation in Government taught by Nick Sinai, the former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer. More about us:  

Isaac Yoder is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, with focus on social insurance and social safety net policy. Prior to Harvard, Isaac worked with Economic Security Planning on financial analysis, Social Security strategy, and personal finance software tools MaxifiPlanner, MaximizeMySocialSecurity, and AnalyzeMyDivorceSettlement. 

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Daniela Jozic is a Master in Public Administration student at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she is a Program on Education Policy and Governance Entrepreneurship Fellow and co-leader of the Behavioral Insights Student Group. Prior to Harvard, Daniela managed education policy and advocacy initiatives across Australian state government and UNESCO, and supported public sector client engagements at the Boston Consulting Group. Daniela also holds a Bachelor of Business and Masters in Political Economy.

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Dirk Adams founded, owned, and operated the Montana-based Lazy SR Ranch, a large-scale, certified-sustainable livestock ranch. Mr. Adams also spent 30 years in senior executive positions in the mortgage and banking industry with some of the largest savings and loans in the U.S. after beginning his career as a trial attorney. Dirk is a member of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Institute. 

Menaka Narayanan is a senior at Harvard College studying Computer Science with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. In addition to serving as a Teaching Fellow for CS50, she was a research fellow at Harvard SEAS working on the interpretability of Machine Learning algorithms. Her last internship was as a software engineer at LinkedIn, and she is an incoming Forward Deployed Engineer at Palantir Technologies. 

Raina Davis is a Master in Public Policy 2020 candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and a Belfer International and Global Affairs Student Fellow. Prior to attending HKS, she worked as a research coordinator at Columbia University in the Office of Global Centers and Global Development, where her research focused on education, democratization, and geopolitics in the Arab world.

We are excited to be working with Charles Worthington (VA Chief Technology Officer), Zachary Goldfine (Presidential Innovation Fellow), and Clarice Chan (Presidential Innovation Fellow) on this project—and are look forward to engaging across the VA on this important issue.

Focusing on Disability Compensation

The VA has many interactions with Veterans and their families. To narrow the scope of our project, we are starting with Veteran communications in the Disability Compensation Program. 

The Disability Compensation Program encourages Veterans to submit evidence of disabling conditions that can be traced back to their military service. If the claim is approved, the Veteran receives monthly tax-free payments from the VA as compensation for the injury.

Here are VA Disability claims by the numbers:

●     1.3 million disability compensation claims projected for 2019;

●     77 days, on average, that a claim is pending;

●     107 days, on average, for a claim to be completed; and

●     59,000 claims pending more than 125 days.

Our team is initially focused on interviewing a diverse set of Veterans, both to gain a deeper understanding of the claims process and to get a sense of their communication expectations and needs from the VA. If you a Veteran and interested in helping us improve the communications that you receive from the VA, please get in touch with us at harvardbvct@gmail.com.

Isaac, Menaka, Raina, Dirk and Daniela (not pictured) brainstorm interview questions

Isaac, Menaka, Raina, Dirk and Daniela (not pictured) brainstorm interview questions

We will also do background research to explore communications and customer service that delights rather than “does the job.” We will look to other government agencies and the private sector—particularly to analogous services in banking, insurance claims and healthcare—for best practices. 

 For example, companies like MetLife are actively exploring how they can keep customers informed and engaged as they await insurance claim decisions. They ended up building a mobile application that allows users to check their claim status at any time while also allowing them to upload files and complete tasks related to their claim. 

 Whether our recommendations take the form of an app or something else, our focus will be the same at MetLife’s: improving the user experience through better communications. We can’t wait to get started. 

 Keep checking back in on this website for periodic updates on our progress. 

Isaac Yoder, Daniela Jozic, Dirk Adams, Menaka Narayana, & Raina Davis