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Inter-Agency Effort Targets the Half of Veterans Who Never Engage With VA

The resource hub out of the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs is part of a larger White House initiative to better respond to the life experiences of Americans.

More than half of servicemembers leaving the military never engage with the Veterans Affairs Department—a statistic VA and the Defense Department are working in tandem to improve with a central repository of resources and useful information.

The new joint project is part of the Biden administration’s latest customer experience—or CX—push: federal agencies are combining their efforts to focus on “life experiences” of Americans going through a difficult time and in need of support from their government. Rather than attempt to improve a single program, the life experience projects seek to break barriers between agencies to focus on how different parts of the government can come together to help people in crisis—or, in some cases prevent a future crisis from emerging.

The VA and DOD seek to do the latter by arming servicemembers with important resources and information as they transition to civilian life.

“That transition can be pretty bumpy—not for everyone but it can be pretty bumpy,” Barbara Morton, deputy chief of VA’s Veteran Experience Office, told Nextgov.

VA and DOD officials are currently talking with veterans about how their transitions went, identifying pain points and surfacing existing resources that could help the next servicemember transition more smoothly.

Morton noted the multitude of VA resources and programs available to help veterans—from job and homebuying assistance to physical and mental health programs. But internal data shows roughly half of transitioning servicemembers never engage with VA.

“We’re curious why might that be,” Morton said. “Is there too much information, confusing information?

After speaking with transitioning veterans, the next step will be to gather all the relevant resources in a single place. What that place looks like has yet to be determined.

“It hasn’t been fully baked yet because it’s an iterative process,” Morton said, though she expects there will be a website, app or both by the time they’re done.

“But we can’t stop with just a whiz-bang digital solution,” she added. “We have to make sure that we are able to connect with and reach any type of transitioning servicemember, whether they’re super digital savvy or not.”

To that end, the interagency team is looking at potential paper-based options to go along with the digital ones, Morton said. Whatever the final product looks like, the goal will be to craft something transitioning servicemembers are 1) eager to take advantage of, and 2) isn’t weighed down with convoluted bureaucracy.

“For members of the public—myself included—you don’t want to have to sort through which agency or person do I have to deal with,” Morton said. “So, we’re trying to bust those barriers and blur the lines so it feels like a more integrated experience that is responsive to feedback that transitioning servicemembers and their families really want and need.”

The VA project also has some internal technology issues to sort through, including sharing information between the agency and the Defense Department.

Both agencies already share some information on transitioning servicemembers, including service records and medical history—though the latter is an ongoing issue.

“For us to be able to create that holistic experience, there is going to have to be some way we—collectively—work through any barriers in terms of data sharing,” Morton said, citing privacy as an example.

On the VA side, Morton said the team is looking at how best to use the agency’s internal customer experience survey tool—VSignals, which gathers real-time feedback from veterans, spouses and dependents as they use VA services.

“Once we develop a solution or suite of solutions, one of the best practices is to measure how we’re doing, how those solutions are received,” she said. “So that has to be baked into our plan.”

But measuring the right things is key, Morton added.

“There’s a lot of focus on operational metrics: Key performance indicators like number of cases adjudicated, number of hearings held, number of patients helped, number of new enrollees—those are all really, really important metrics,” she said. “But the conversation over the years now has changed where people are talking about the operational metrics but they’re also asking the questions about what the veterans say about this, what is the experience we’re providing?”

VA has been focused on customer experience as a concept since 2016, when news broke that issues with scheduling software directly contributed to veteran deaths at VA clinics in Phoenix, Arizona. Morton and others in the VEO have been espousing the virtues of human-centered design since and have seen other agencies focus on these issues as well. But having a White House-led effort will make all the difference, she said.

“This really means this way of thinking and doing is here to stay. It’s not just a flash in the pan,” she said. “This is the right way to do government: To get back to basics for the people—the people first, not the bureaucracy first.”

TAP dancing around the issue

Having a one-stop repository of helpful information will indeed be helpful but it won’t get to the heart of the issue, according to Steven Wolf, assistant national service director for Disabled American Veterans, a veteran advocacy group that has transition service officers—or TSOs—who offer free transition assistance classes at more than 100 bases nationwide.

“I think we already have that. We all have the internet,” he said. “Having a tool—yeah, that’s great—but VA already has that. They already have the tools there necessary for you to obtain this information.”

Wolf said he would like to see more emphasis on the DOD side, specifically improvements to the Transition Assistance Program—or TAP—which requires servicemembers to participate in mandatory prep classes before ending their contract with the military.

TAP was established in 1991 and tweaked by Congress over the years. In 2019, the program was updated to begin no later than 365 days before a servicemember separated from the military—up from 90 days—and establish the Military-Civilian Transition Office to administer the program.

But those classes get integrated with other, ongoing duties and the lack of focus and overwhelming amount of information that needs to be delivered can render them useless, Wolf said.

“Cramming everything into a one-week course is just a lot for somebody getting out of the military,” he said, noting transitioning servicemembers have a lot of other things going on during that time. “The last thing you want to do is go sit in a room for three hours and half the day learning about different veteran benefits.”

Wolf said those classes are important, but he suggests finding new ways to make them more engaging. And, of course, mandatory.

“Having an extended outboarding process, that’s going to be the key difference on getting people more excited about their transition into civilian life,” he said.

Wolf recalled his own TAP class as he transitioned out of the Marine Corps. Or, more accurately, he remembers that the class existed.

“I didn’t remember a lot of it. There was so much material going through my head at that time,” he said.

He suggested limiting the in-class portion to “the big things.”

“You know you can have some education after service, you can have health care after service and we can help you with employment,” he said. “Hitting the highlights and then coming back and giving them additional information that may or may not be interesting to them would be a good thing.”

While the situation is different for every new veteran, the priority for many is figuring out what their next job will be.

“You want to be able to get a job to support yourself and your family. That’s the first thing,” Wolf said. “I wasn’t necessarily thinking about VA benefits at the time; I was thinking about what job am I going to have.”

But VA is there to help with that job anxiety and more, he noted, if veterans are willing to reach out.

“With VA benefits, a lot of people don’t understand that VA has programs to assist with a lot of this stuff. Not only the compensation for injuries, but VA home loan and different services that they provide to service men and women,” he said. “Which is why it’s so important that service men and women know these services are available.”

Another tool to help veterans find those resources is good, Wolf said, but only if veterans know it’s worthwhile to reach out to the VA in the first place.

“Post-service, I think the VA has to do a better job with reaching out to folks with regard to the benefits they’re entitled to,” he agreed. “But if they’re not enrolled in the VA system, then they’re not going to be captured. That’s where we’re losing the service men and women—coming back 10-15 years post-service wanting to file for benefits and it’s harder at that time because so much time has gone by.”

“Capturing them in transition is the key. And I think that always starts on DOD’s end,” he added.

While TAP is technically mandatory for all servicemembers prior to separation, Wolf said that isn’t always the case.

“There can be various reasons [for missing a TAP class] with regard to their duties in the military, to getting out sooner than anticipated, injuries, off-sites—all sorts of things can happen,” he said.

Enforcing mandatory TAP classes can also help servicemembers who might think VA benefits aren’t for them.

“A lot of veterans don’t feel that they need the benefits or warrant the benefits, for one reason or another. There’s always people worse off than they are—we get that a lot,” Wolf said. “Some percentage that just feel like they’re good where they’re at and they don’t need to worry about the VA side of things.”

For others, it’s VA’s reputation that gives them pause.

“A lot of veterans out there—aside from compensation—they have the feeling from their parent’s or grandfather’s or friend’s reputation going through the VA process of how it used to be, [they get the feeling] it’s not worth the time to even bother with it. We do get that a lot,” he said.

Increasing the agency’s trust score is one of the core metrics for the Veterans Experience Office, Morton said.

“Success is always going to be, first and foremost, about trust—earning and building and reaching 90% trust” in customer surveys, Morton said. “And busting that 50% not wanting to connect with us. Not forcing them to if they don’t want to; but really cracking the code on that so people know how to connect with us [and] it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming experience and that we, VA, are here for them.”