Serving Those That Serve

This is the first post of a five-part blog series from my Tech and Innovation in Government class at HKS this semester.

Introduction: On January 28th, five Harvard students of various ages and from different degree programs were asked a question: “Who is your most cherished veteran?” They answered: my grandmother, my brother, my friend, my Annapolis classmate, and my teacher.

Our diverse team was huddled around a rolling desk and surrounded by whiteboards at the Harvard Innovation Lab (iLab). It was clear that this class project would be different. The mission: work with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) to improve the lives of veterans by innovating on the disability appeals process.

This Harvard Kennedy School field study, established by Adjunct Professor and former White House Deputy CTO Nick Sinai, fuses students — undergraduate techies, Silicon Valley product experts, and policy wonks — to become government policy hackers. In 12 weeks, our team will work with Washington officials, interview veterans in the Boston region, and leverage MIT/Harvard computer scientists to rapidly design a user-centered solution to help the VA better serve its constituents.

Serving the VA is personal. VA policies matter because the appeal process and its responsiveness directly impact people’s quality of life. Due to modern medicine and better training, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan yielded over 50,000 wounded veterans (either physical or mental). In wars past, many of those soldiers would have died on the battlefield, instead, they survived. Those without wounds are also transitioning due to force restructuring. At the peak of Operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, Army force strength was 570,000 troops and will downsize to 450,000 by September 2017. All soldiers separating will need medical physicals prior to signing the DD 214; however, over time, thousands of vets will need to go on to appeals in the decades to follow service-connected disabilities surface.

Integrity. The commitment to providing a transparent appeals process is about integrity. The contract between the government and an all-volunteer force is sacred. Some injuries do not surface during the claims process because they have not developed, while other claims are not disclosed at transition because of the anxiety associated with transition. No matter when an injury is found, if it is connected with military service, the VA must address the ramifications and determine compensation. Veterans of all stripes — Army, Navy, and Air Force — must be afforded the resources to communicate ailments as they surface.

Speed. The appeals process must strip out all distracting and unnecessary steps that deter a veteran from getting treatment. When joint injuries or mental depression emerge after an initial claim is determined, the Veteran is often in need of attention. It can’t wait. However, today, the appeals process is longer than it should be, or could be, if the VA adopted smarter technology.

Trust. The appeals process must provide sufficient feedback and open communication to the veteran so that trust develops between both parties. Some veterans have lost trust in the system because of inconsistent communication between local, regional, and federal offices. One office reported an appeal would take 8 months while another 15, the appeal ultimately took 26.

Next steps. The VA serves the 1% who defend the liberties of the 99%. UnderSecretary Robert MacDonald’s leadership philosophy, shaped by time as an Army Ranger and CEO of Procter & Gamble, the VA is putting the veteran at the center of the user experience. Building on the great work of VACI (VA Center for Innovation), we’ll be applying a user-centered approach to drive our efforts in this semester-long project.

Chetan Jhaveri, Jane Labanowski, Paris Martin, Rohan Pavuluri, Joshua Welle

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