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. 


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.


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