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A scene at the national Veterans Day celebration on November 11, 2018, in Washington, D.C. — VA Photo, James Lucas

Improving Veterans’ Digital Experience Across Presidential Administrations

[Note: Marina Nitze and Charles Worthington have been clients and guest speakers in Harvard’s DPI-663 since the beginning of the class in 2016.]

When Marina Nitze joined the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as its new Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in 2013, she was determined to make VA work better for veterans. One significant barrier: the agency’s digital services. The maze of websites VA operated was challenging to navigate and too often featured information about VA leadership or organizational structure instead of information Veterans needed about the benefits and services they had earned.

In a new Harvard Belfer Center paper, “Improving Veterans’ Digital Experience Across Presidential Administrations,” co-authored with David Leftwich, Kelly O’Connor, and Alex Loehr, we tell the story of how Marina addressed those challenges and how the resulting digital efforts survived the uncertainties of a cross-party Presidential transition, despite subsequent substantial VA leadership turnover.

While many government projects would have spent years developing a large, grand solution to unveil at the end, Marina and her team intentionally took a different approach: they created a minimum viable product (MVP) with plans to quickly improve from there.

On Veteran’s Day 2015, Vets.gov launched and the MVP included content around two common Veteran issues — disability compensation and education benefits — as well as a facility locator and a GI Bill comparison tool to determine education benefits at various schools. By the end of 2016, Vets.gov included 30 digital products that improved Veterans’ access to VA healthcare and benefits.

Marina left VA in January 2017 before President Trump’s inauguration. The authors describe how the VA’s digital team was able to adapt and thrive in the new Administration, through both support from the White House and day-to-day execution inside VA.

New VA CTO Charles Worthington, who joined in May 2017, and the team continued to improve the Veteran online experience. By November 2018, they launched a brand new VA.gov to serve as a single “front door” to VA — winning acclaim and helping build greater Veteran trust in VA.

We highlight five lessons from the VA CTO transition that apply across government: focus on the mission; create momentum; integrate digital into the end-to-end customer experience; understand and evolve organizational culture; and find the right partners.

Read the full paper:



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Nick Sinai

Nick Sinai

Senior Advisor at Insight Partners; Adjunct Faculty at Harvard; former US Deputy CTO at White House; Author of Hack Your Bureaucracy