The U.S. Digital Service at VA Turns 3!

On January 11th, 2015, the U.S. Digital Service launched at VA (DSVA). The mission was ambitious, but critical: to make it easier for Veterans to get the benefits they deserve. We could not be more honored to serve those who have sacrificed so much to protect our country, and every single person who joins our team does so because they want to advance this mission.

Today, we celebrate our third year here at VA, where we’ve launched eleven new products, helped get VA to the cloud, worked with VA’s all-star Technology Acquisition Center to improve VA’s approach to agile contracting, and deployed 338 times in the past year. We know there’s still a long way to go to improve the lives of Veterans, but here are a few things that have happened over the past three years that we are extra excited about:

1. Worked directly with Veterans to design and improve our products.

In the past year alone we have spent 240 hours speaking directly with Veterans, almost entirely 1:1, to more deeply understand them and their needs. Nothing is more valuable to a good product than working with users.

2. Built a tool for Veterans and dependents to apply for education benefits.

The previous education benefits site didn’t work on mobile devices and had known security vulnerabilities. Working directly with Veterans, we built a wizard to help them identify which education benefits forms they needed to complete. Our user research showed us we could not assume Veterans know the exact form to use but now, by answering four basic questions, users are automatically directed to the correct form.

3. Enabled Veterans to easily monitor claims and appeals.

The claims and appeals processes for VA benefits are complex and can take over a decade to complete. Now Veterans can view the status of their claims and update information, such as adding additional supporting documents. They can also check the status of their appeal and the steps their appeal has already gone through, if they requested a hearing, and if they are required to submit any paperwork. Vets.gov also includes an appeals process page that explains the steps in plain language, so Veterans know what to expect at every stage.

4. Got attorneys excited to try new software.

Like many enterprise environments, attorneys at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals are accustomed to having software appear for their use without having been able to test it to see if it will meet their needs. When the VA team piloted Caseflow Reader, an evidence review tool that aims to increase productivity, attorneys were hesitant to volunteer. But, after three months of building Reader iteratively alongside a small band of intrepid users, the Board was buzzing. When it came time to recruit a larger beta testing group, the team found themselves turning away eager attorneys clamoring to try out the new tool.

5. Used an obscure Linux kernel feature to debug the VA network.

When we encountered a bug that caused EC2 instances to crash exactly five minutes after launch, we set off down a rabbit hole of debugging that eventually turned up a firmware bug in the VA network routers. This discovery was only possible as a result of a decision by the Linux kernel developers to initialize the Jiffies (the kernel’s measure of time) at five minutes prior to integer wrapping.

6. Enabled 292,634 Veterans to submit applications for health care online.

Almost 2 years ago, we released a tool to enable Veterans to apply for VA health care eligibility on Vets.gov. Previously, less than 10% of applicants used the Veterans Online Application for a simple reason: the form would not open for most users. The application was a fillable PDF that required Veterans to use Adobe 8 or 9 on Internet Explorer. More than 70% of U.S. Government traffic comes from Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, meaning that the vast majority of visitors would have trouble accessing the health care application. Together with the VA Health Eligibility Center, we introduced a new digital application for health care that was built with Veterans, not for them.

7. Reduced the time it takes to build a form online from 5 MONTHS to 5 DAYS.

The very first form we built on Vets.gov was the health care application. It was built with a React front-end, and our team created the custom form components needed to build it. We started development work in February 2016 and launched the application about 5 months later in June 2016. Today we can build a form online in 5 days. More about how this happened.

 8. Saved VA employees 20 years of productivity per year.

When a Veteran submits a Privacy Act request to obtain a copy of their case files, VA employees download those files from the web-based eFolder and burn them to a CD. However, the software only supports downloading files one-at-a-time, requiring hours of clicking to retrieve the hundreds of files that compose a typical folder. The VA team built a “download all” button called eFolder Express. The result? An intuitive system that downloads 900,000 documents per month, saves VA employees a cumulative 20 years of productivity every year, and gets Veterans their files faster.

9. Opened the door for VA to use commercial cloud infrastructure.

The VA team worked with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to overturn a 2013 ruling stating that OIG needed physical access to all VA systems and data, replacing it with a new policy that only requires OIG to have logical access. This opened the door for VA to use commercial cloud infrastructure, such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform. In turn, this allows the VA team to have a modern development environment with continuous integration and daily deployments. Stay tuned over the coming months to learn more about how DSVA helped to bring the Cloud to VA!

10. Said goodbye to an 83-year-old VA form.

Last year the VA team launched a Caseflow Certification tool, which ensures that appeals of disability compensation decisions are correctly transferred to the Board of Veterans Appeals. As the last step in the certification process, the tool assisted VA employees to fill out Form 8 — a form that has been required since 1934, but no longer serves any discernible purpose. This year, we took the first step toward phasing out Form 8; we still automatically generate it, but in the background, never showing it to a human. In its place, we added new checks to ensure that Veterans’ information is accurate and their appeals are routed to the right place.

To the Veterans we serve: Thank you for your dedication to our nation and all you’ve sacrificed — now it’s our turn to serve you. If you want to help us build better products for you and other Veterans, please let us know. Contact us at feedback@va.gov.

To all you technologists: Join us. Use your engineering, design, data, and product skills to serve those who have served us. You’ll never be the same again.