The VA Digital Service thinks veterans shouldn’t have to know the agency’s bureaucracy to find the benefits they’re looking for.
President Lincoln once said a house divided against itself could not stand, and Marcy Jacobs knows the same principle applies to online citizen services.
As executive director of the Digital Service at the Veterans Affairs Department, it’s Jacobs’ mission to make interactions with the agency as easy and transparent as possible.
VA is responsible for managing the benefits, medical care and burial services of some 9 million veterans across the country. Many of those transactions occur online, and as it stands, veterans must navigate a tangled mess of outdated agency websites to access the services available to them.
But Jacobs and her team are working to put all those portals under one roof and help veterans better understand the opaque machinations of the VA. Under her watch, the office has revamped online applications, connected portals to vast troves of patient data and given a thorough makeover to Vets.gov, a portal where vets can apply for benefits and track claims.
In April, the Partnership for Public Service announced Jacobs and her team as finalists for the 2018 Service to America Medal in Management Excellence.
“What we hear consistently from veterans is ‘I’m confused and I don’t understand why the VA doesn’t act like one organization,’” Jacobs said in a conversation with Nextgov. “[We’re] really trying to change the conversation with the veteran and make it easier for them to interact with the VA.”
Today, the agency’s online presence is organized in a similar way to the VA itself—veterans need to seek out different websites for benefits, health care, cemetery services and other products. Navigating this digital maze requires veterans to understand the makeup of the VA bureaucracy, but few people actually do, said Jacobs.
To begin consolidating those services, the agency launched Vets.gov with the U.S. Digital Service in 2015, and when Jacobs joined the project in 2017, she put heavy emphasis on using information the agency already had to further streamline services. Her team went on to build a tool that automatically fills in veterans’ documents with previously reported data, and it’s currently working on an application that recommends personalized benefits and services.
For instance, the VA would know when veterans add a dependent, and after 18 years the agency could remind them their children are eligible for the GI bill, Jacobs said.
In March, her team and USDS also launched a tool that lets veterans track the progress of claims and appeals through the system. This process could often take years from start to finish, and increasing transparency lets veterans know when they can expect an answer.
But technology isn’t the solution to every problem, she said.
Her team also rewrote agency websites in plain language so veterans can better understand what services are available to them and reconfigured login systems so people don’t need to remember multiple accounts for different sites.
While federal techies sometimes have a desire to adopt innovative technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence before thinking about what problems they want them to solve, Jacobs is more concerned with the ends than the means.
“I’m not at all driven by a desire to get the next shiny thing into the agency,” Jacobs said. “The digital service really starts with what is the problem we’re trying to solve. Sometimes that leads to a technology solution and a lot of times it [does] not.”
In the coming months, Jacobs’ team is building personalized portals on Vets.gov where individuals can log in and see all their data on a single dashboard—benefits eligibility, claims statuses, medical information and more. A beta version of the platform launched in May and Jacobs expects to relaunch with updates and added features in July or August.
Eventually, the agency plans to integrate Vets.gov within its primary website, VA.gov, bringing a personalized experience to even more people.
“We’re really trying to make sure the most people find the best thing—that the products that we’re building are used by the people who need them,” Jacobs said.