Doing digital differently at VA
- By James Gfrerer
- Sep 12, 2019
They say it’s a digital world and we are just living in it. Yet it’s our choice whether we flounder or flourish. And because my duty is to serve our nation’s veterans, there is no other option than to flourish -- and that’s part of the reason why I am fully dedicated to digitally transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs through the Office of Information and Technology (OIT).
I know that people outside of the IT industry might see the phrase “digital transformation” as just “techspeak.” But to me, it really does mean something more. It’s our way of finding new efficiencies as we provide a better user experience for our veterans. It’s the merging of people, processes, and technology. It’s a new way of thinking and a real commitment to change. And it’s personal for me, because I am a veteran.
My experience as a consultant in the private sector has also taught me that the challenge of digital transformation is as present in the private sector as in public sector; the difficulty of adopting change is not unique to the government. And in both the public and private sectors, the motivation to transform often comes from the customers and those who serve them. But our customers are different. Our motivation comes from our nation’s veterans, who have put their lives on the line for our country and deserve the best service with the most modern technology. They are our reason for change, and we want to fulfill -- and even exceed -- their expectations by exploring emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, and machine learning. Further, this focus on our customer is driven by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s number one priority, customer service. This priority guides our strategy and our commitment in all we do.
Our commitment to our customers drives our innovation, and we’re already seeing the results. In the past couple of years, we have taken on large projects in line with the secretary’s top priorities such as Electronic Health Record Modernization, our cloud migration initiative, implementing the MISSION Act, and the redesign of Vets.gov as VA.gov. As a veteran, I felt the negative impact of the fractured experience of the legacy site first hand. Using human-centered design, OIT employees created an easy-to-navigate website that puts veterans’ priorities first and anticipates their needs from their very first visit to the site.
We also launched the Lighthouse API Program, a groundbreaking initiative that invites businesses to partner with VA and create smart digital solutions for veterans. Thanks to the API program, filling out benefits intake applications and accessing health care on your phone are now as easy as a tap or a click of a button.
Our digital transformation is making a real difference. It’s opening doors with new business partners and Veteran Service Organizations. Most importantly, we are transforming veterans’ experience with VA as we work with them and not simply for them.
Over my years of experience in the tech industry, I’ve learned it’s far easier to stick to the status quo than to transform. For some, change may feel overwhelming. But I’m here to help VA build an environment that supports the new, encourages innovation, and fosters learning. I’m here to help eliminate that mindset of “business success or IT failure,” because IT and business success go hand in hand.
VA is a vast, complex organization unlike any other. We are more than 350,000 employees serving approximately 20 million veterans with individual needs. We are in every state and around the world. Achieving a culture shift of this magnitude will be challenging -- but we won’t shy away from that challenge. What distinguishes our digital transformation is our purpose, our “why.” It drives me and everyone in OIT as we work together toward the same goal: improving the lives of veterans.
James Gfrerer is the Department of Veterans Affairs' chief information officer.