The digital services team at VA is managing an effort to unify agency offerings under a single online umbrella.
This article was first published Oct. 7. The new VA.gov site debuted on Veterans Day.
Amid a barrage of daily headlines about turnover, disarray and mismanagement, the Department of Veterans Affairs is looking to reinvent itself as an agile agency focused on customer service. The effort is paying off – without much in the way of publicity, a unified VA services website at Vets.gov has attracted 40,000 daily users and spurred a 700 percent increase in online appointment scheduling.
Marcy Jacobs, the executive director of the digital services team at VA, is being honored with a Service to America Medal for Management Excellence on Oct. 2 for her work on Vets.gov. But if you want to see what all the fuss is about, you'll have to check before Veterans Day -- because despite the success of the Vets.gov deployment, the digital services team is pivoting to a new content plan.
As VA Secretary Robert Wilkie announced at a recent Senate hearing, on Veterans Day a new VA.gov website is launching. Instead of serving as a corporate front door for the VA organization, the reimagined VA.gov will be a portal for veterans to access a full suite of services available to them.
The new site is built along the ideas that drove the development of Vets.gov, including a plain-language approach and an action-oriented design, Jacobs told FCW in an interview.
"People don't come to government websites to read things," Jacobs said. "They come to get a task accomplished."
Right now, the VA hosts a "scattered landscape of hundreds of websites," generating 10 million visits monthly. VA.gov garners the most traffic, so developers decided to incorporate the content at these other silos under the umbrella of a single, obvious destination.
The Vets.gov site will be the first to be rolled up under the VA.gov umbrella, but more will follow. As is the case with Vets.gov, users will be able to access their data and services using credentials from the Myhealthevet e-health portal, the DS Logon offered in conjunction with the Department of Defense and via ID.me, a private sector identity proofing service that links your government-issued ID to a mobile device. Mobile users won't be able to use their fingerprint or facial recognition logins that are built into devices, but that is in the offing.
At launch, the redesigned VA.gov will focus on linking users to nine benefit hubs that cover "20 things that people are trying to do most of the time," Jacobs explained.
The login will take users to an aggregated view of their VA activity across the organizational silos of health and benefits. Veterans will see prescription refills, claims status, upcoming medical appointments and more all on a single screen. In the future, Jacobs is looking to use VA data to create a recommendation engine to suggest possible areas of interest to users, based on their age, location, military service and more.
"It's the Amazon model of benefits," she said.
Chris Johnston, a U.S. Digital Service team member detailed to VA, explained that research showed veterans "are super-frustrated to have to tell us the same thing over and over again." The goal of the new site is to collect data once, rather than have to keep asking for personal data for every transaction.
Work on the VA.gov redesign kicked off in February and proceeded quickly because of a "willingness of our organizations to say, 'We're not serving people, let's create one front door where 80 percent of things are quickly accessible,'" Johnston said.
After the Veterans Day launch, next steps for the revised VA.gov include building out a common content management system and looking to best practices to impose cross-agency governance on VA content, to avoid duplication, conflict and inconsistency.
"Right now we have two thousand people who write content for the site, and trying to get everyone to write in the same voice, in plain language, is not trivial," Jacobs said.
Currently Ad Hoc is the contractor for the Vets.gov site. Jacobs said that new contracts will be announced very soon to "support the longer tail" of the VA content effort.