From blue hoodies to black tie: Digital Service at Veterans Affairs team wins major citizen service award
Every fall in a ballroom in downtown Washington, DC, hundreds of buttoned-up federal employees trade their business suits and badges for tuxedos and ballgowns to walk the red carpet and celebrate the biggest night for citizen service. Every day in a casual, open-office space at the Department of Veterans Affairs, dozens of techies in their hoodies and blue jeans unzip their backpacks, take out their laptops, and go to work solving the federal government’s most critical technology problems.
This week the two worlds collided at the 17th annual gala for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Marcy Jacobs, Executive Director of the Digital Service at Veterans Affairs (DSVA), accepted the Management Excellence award for “creating better digital tools for Veterans to more easily access benefits and services while delivering a high-quality and seamless user-experience.”
The Sammies? What are the Sammies?
As a team of limited-term feds who come to DC from the private sector, it’s easy to not recognize the significance of this award. The Service to America Medals, also known as the “Sammies,” are considered the “Oscars of government service.” They are the premier awards program recognizing innovation in the federal government.
But even more important than any prestige or accolade, winning a government sector award for citizen service shows that the USDS’ core values are the recognized path forward for the federal government in providing better services to the American people.
Three years in the making
In early 2015, research with our partners at the Veteran Experience Office at VA indicated that veterans think of VA as a single entity. The VA, however, has historically delivered services and benefits in silos, forcing their users to figure out which number to call, website to search, or office to visit. This led to a frustrating and confusing experience for the 10 million monthly visitors received across VA’s various websites.
To begin to address this issue, DSVA launched Vets.gov in 2015 as a starting effort to provide better self-service digital tools and easy to understand content for Veterans. In the years since then, VA has iteratively expanded the Vets.gov platform to include a simplified healthcare application, an improved and more secure login system, new ways to apply for education benefits, more transparent monitoring of claims and appeals, an integrated profile page, and a personalized dashboard offering a snapshot of the tools and services a Veteran is receiving from VA. This work did not happen in a vacuum.
“This has been such an incredible partnership across VA,” says Marcy, “leveraging insights from the Veteran Experience Office and working with leaders from VHA, VBA, NCA and OPIA, this award is a win for everyone at the agency and a win for Veterans.”
Just the beginning
Through the Vets.gov project, DSVA introduced many practices in the Digital Service Playbook to the VA for the first time. This offered VA an opportunity to prove that new approaches to designing and delivering digital experiences could be successful at the country’s second-largest agency. For example, Vets.gov was the first VA production application to use the commercial cloud, with daily deployments. The Vets.gov project was so successful and well-received that VA is now in the process of applying lessons learned from this project to VA’s main web property: VA.gov.
This November, VA will launch a reimagined VA.gov homepage that builds on the progress made with Vets.gov to deliver a digital experience that meets Veterans’ expectations. The new VA.gov will make it easier for Veterans, servicemembers, caregivers and family members to quickly access the service or information they are looking for. Over time, VA will integrate all of its web brands into this new VA.gov platform so that Veterans only need to visit one website to quickly find what they’re looking for, regardless of which part of the VA is responsible for delivering that service.
If this type of work and impact for our nation’s Veterans excites you, please serve with us: www.usds.gov/join.
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