Team VA Goes to Washington

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

As our five-person Harvard student team left a federal government building and stepped onto Jackson Place, a small street adjacent the White House, we remained silent. This was uncharacteristic. Throughout our weekly meetings at the Harvard Innovation Lab, we often struggled to get one person to speak at a time. Whenever guests visited class, we would interrupt their lectures with questions.

Exhaustion may be one reason we fell silent. We had started off the day briefing the Board of Veterans Appeals before a quick lunch and a 90-minute meeting with the VA Deputy Secretary, Sloan Gibson. We then toured the White House East Wing and the headquarters of the US Digital Service. Including a five-minute talk at the beginning of the US Digital Service’s weekly staff meeting, we presented our project three times — all at different locations in town.

But exhaustion only explains a small part of the silence. We kept quiet out of a deep feeling of content. Having left our protected bubble in Cambridge, we all finally had a chance to see the heart of the action. In fact, we were a part of it. We met the public servants who dedicated their lives to working on the same problems we sought to address. We felt honored to contribute to their mission and inspired to see how our work would live past the semester.

We would like to thank the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for their incredible support. In particular, we are thankful to Giuseppe Morgana and Mary Ann Brody at the VA for the time they took each week to help us. We would also like to thank Professor Nick Sinai for dreaming up this collaboration and our Teaching Fellow Angel Quicksey for providing her wisdom along the way.

Working on disability appeals at the VA has been the professional highlight of our time at Harvard. We cannot wait until the next time we get back to the action.

Paris Martin, Jane Labanowski, Chetan Jhavervi, Rohan Pavuluri, and Josh Welle

Here are the prototypes we shared.

Prototype #1: Veterans’ Service Organization (VSO) Finder

What we heard

After retiring from the Navy, Josh started thinking about applying for disability benefits for the shooting pains in his back, bum knee, and hearing loss. As a combat veteran, Josh was no stranger to navigating tricky situations. But when Josh talked to his fellow veterans about the process for applying for disability benefits, they all said, “GET HELP!” Fortunately, there are dozens of veterans’ service organizations (VSO) that assist veterans like Josh to apply for disability benefits. But when Josh went to find a VSO, he was frustrated that they all seemed to have long waiting lists to see a representative. Worse still, Josh had to go in person to the offices of multiple VSOs and talk to the receptionist at each one to learn the time and date of the next available appointment.

Another veteran we spoke to, Andrew, also complained about the inconvenience of booking an appointment with a VSO. Andrew now works for a bank on a trading floor, where he isn’t allowed to use his cell phone. Every time Andrew wants to meet with his VSO, he has to step off the trading floor to call the VSO. Yet another veteran we spoke with, Anthony, complained about the inconsistency of the VSOs he has worked with: some were great, some were not very good. Anthony wished there was some way to know the quality of a VSO in advance.

What we built

We set out to build a prototype that would make it more convenient to schedule an appointment and compare the quality of VSOs. We called our prototype, “VSO Finder.” The prototype allowed veterans to search for a VSO near them by entering their zip code, compare the ratings of VSOs, view possible appointment windows, and book an appointment with a few clicks.

What we learned

Veterans liked the idea of a more convenient way to book appointments with VSOs. But they wanted to be able to filter based on more than just zip code. For example, when we showed Andrew the prototype, he thought some of the VSOs in his search results (e.g., Vietnam Veterans of America) did not cater to younger veterans like him. Veterans also cringed a little when we referred to VSO Finder as “Yelp for VSOs.” Applying for disability benefits is a much more serious decision than booking a dinner table, and veterans wanted the branding and messaging of the prototype to reflect that.

Prototype #2: Veterans’ Academy

What we heard

One of the veterans we spoke with, Dave, compared applying for disability benefits to being dropped in the middle of a maze without a map. “You just have no idea what is around the next turn,” Dave said. The VA trains veterans during their transition trainings, but we heard the quality of the information veterans receive during these trainings is inconsistent, and disability benefits is only one of many topics covered. Another theme we heard during the interviews was disappointment about how impersonal interactions with the VA seem. Veterans were turned off by the fact that most of their communication with the VA was through an intermediary or via impersonal letters.

What we built

We wanted to create a flexible platform where veterans could learn about all aspects of the disability benefits appeals process, and we wanted to put a human face on the VA. Inspired by Khan Academy, an educational platform that uses bite-sized videos to explain complicated topics, we created Veterans Academy. The prototype allows veterans to see a flow diagram of the appeals process, and see short videos on the sections that pique their interest. Our teammate, Josh Welle, who also happens to be a veteran, was the star of the videos. Josh tried to walk veterans through the process in a way that was easy to understand and conveyed empathy.

What we learned

Veterans again reminded us of the importance of branding by picking on the name of the prototype. “Veterans Academy…doesn’t exactly sound thrilling, does it?” But they LOVED the fact that they could learn about the process from a veteran just like them. Mike said, “Hey, when that guy said he was a veteran JUST LIKE ME…my ears perked up. It wasn’t just another bureaucrat.” Veterans wanted the prototype to take a step further, and allow veterans to choose the type of veteran who would guide them through the process. So in the second version of our prototype, we added a gallery of potential veteran guides. Finally, veterans thought they might remember the key messages of each video better if text was included alongside the video.

Prototype #3: Form 9 Redesign

What we heard

Paper and snail mail are still the primary way in which many veterans interact with the VA. Since the majority of veterans going through their appeals process are over the age of 40, most of the VA’s ‘customers’ are not digital natives. We heard over and over again in our interviews that the letters from the VA were hard to understand. Ricky, a retired veteran who is now a lawyer himself, observed, “I’m trained to read legal documents, and even I have trouble making heads or tails out of the gobbledygook in these letters.” We learned that there is an effort already underway at the VA Center for Innovation to redesign the letters, so we decided to focus our efforts on another form of written communication, the forms veterans have to complete to file their appeal. We started with Form 9, which is the form veterans complete to start their appeal.

What we built

We made the following changes to Form 9:

  • Made the numbers clearer and larger, so veterans could be confident they were completing all the steps
  • Inserted short instructions next to each step, rather than referring to a long set of instructions at the end
  • Inserted guided number spaces that indicated to a veteran how many digits should be in the numerical fields. For example, 10 slots for a phone number.
  • Used white space to more clearly highlight important information

What we learned

Small changes can make a big difference. While none of these tweaks on their own seemed groundbreaking, one of the veterans remarked, “It’s like bumper bowling! I know I’m on the right path.” We were particularly happy that the use of white space led one veteran to notice important information about how the type of hearing they chose might add a significant delay to the issuance of their decision. On the downside, veterans noted that they would still probably ask a veterans service organization for help while filling out the form.

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