Introduction. The government agency with the highest satisfaction rating is probably one you’ve never heard of. In budget and staff, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is the smallest agency within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Despite its low profile and small size, however, NCA scored a 96 in customer service, the highest of any public or private entity in 2016.
Enter a multidisciplinary team of Harvard students. Last week, Jessica Tozer of the NCA visited our Tech and Innovation in Government class at the Harvard Kennedy School to discuss this seeming contradiction: exceptional service but low visibility. We're also lucky to have guidance from Mary Ann Brody and Suzanne Chapman of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). As experts in design thinking and user experience, they'll help us integrate USDS best design practices to answer this question: How might we improve the process for discovering, locating, and visiting gravesites at NCA cemeteries?
Our diverse backgrounds provide us with different lenses through which to approach this challenge:
Athena is passionate about making meaningful changes in government and healthcare with technology. She previously worked for Booz Allen Hamilton and will be a Software Engineer Intern on Uber's autonomous vehicle team this summer. She's also co-founder of tech for social good group Coding it Forward, co-founder of health non-profit CHOICE, and partner at Dorm Room Fund.
Devyn comes from a background in local government and policymaking. She previously worked for the city of Columbus, Ohio, on public safety, sustainability, and community and economic development. She is a generalist with a passion for making government services more effective and for leveraging all available tools to help reach the hardest-to-reach members of our community.
Emily hails from a small town in northern England. She was previously a management consultant in the UK and Southeast Asia, with a focus on digital financial services. She is looking forward to bringing her experience of tech and innovation in the private sector to serve veterans and their families.
Keith brings the perspective of a veteran who served eight years as a Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician. Through his experience, he gained skills in general management, interpersonal dynamics, and operational planning. He is inspired to serve on this project because of his experience interacting with Goldstar families and losing friends in combat.
Yuko plays the role of internal organizer. As a former American History teacher at a public high school in New Orleans, she helped build a program that helps students change their behavior patterns instead of keeping them in detention. Her passion for creating commonsense solutions through the use of technology inspires her to serve on this project.
The Challenge. Over the next few weeks, we will interview veterans and their families across the Boston area, shadow visitors at NCA cemeteries, and speak to historians and researchers to create an experience that better meets users’ needs. The power in our diversity will propel our research and creativity to provide the best solution for our users.
A long history, and a large scale. President Abraham Lincoln founded the NCA in 1862 after Congress authorized him to purchase grounds for use as national cemeteries during the Civil War. Before this, soldiers were buried where they fell. Today, the NCA:
- Manages 135 national cemeteries, a national veterans’ burial ground, and 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites in 40 states and Puerto Rico
- Provides care to 4.3 million veterans, service members, reservists, and family members in 3.5 million gravesites
- Buried 131,620 veterans and their family members in 2016
- Employs more than 1700 people, nearly 75% of whom are veterans
Our team aims to complement and build upon the NCA's long-standing success.
Delivering a high standard of care. The NCA aims to provide a personal service and minimize any hoops people must jump through to get through an already-difficult process. That means no robocalls and people staffed at every site. Cemetery directors receive a yearlong training to learn exactly how NCA processes work, how to talk to families, and how to manage burial grounds in locales across the country. The sites they maintain are eternal shrines, and the NCA aims to deliver a sense of perpetual care. Any solution we develop must meet the level of care and integrity the NCA brings to its normal course of service delivery.
Navigability and accessibility. Over 4.8 million people visited VA national cemeteries in 2016. By using digital tools and reimagining the user experience, we aim to make the experience of visitors to burial sites more intuitive. Since the NCA serves a variety of users, each with unique needs, our team hopes to make veterans’ stories more accessible to all through the use of technology.
Diversity for Design. Our team is comprised of members with a multitude of life experiences and professional backgrounds. The power in our diversity will propel our research and creativity to provide the best solution for our users.
Keith Caton, Athena Kan, Emily Middleton, Devyn Paros, Yuko Tanaka