Innovation From Within: How One Employee-Built Tool is Revolutionizing VA  

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An open source tool called LEAF is saving the Veterans Affairs Department time, resources and perhaps millions in taxpayer dollars.

In 2008, Michael Gao was tasked by his boss at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center to find a way to digitize the resource management process.

After examining several web-based collaboration platforms, Gao and his team of software developers came up with an open-source solution called Light Electronic Action Framework, or LEAF, that has since spread like wildfire across VA, the second-largest federal agency.

Today, tens of thousands of VA employees—most of whom are not skilled software professionals—across more than 100 VA medical centers use LEAF to digitize clinic cancelations, onboard employees and manage resources.

Travel and tuition reimbursements, employee and resource requests, phone books, organizational charts and document trackers all now run through LEAF, which is centrally hosted by VA while meeting the government’s security and data reporting requirements.

Through a growing internal community of VA LEAF users, each new application on the platform is evangelized or crowdsourced, ultimately leading to better mission delivery at VA.

“The idea is to leverage all these people building custom solutions and then package them in a way we can deploy, much like we currently deploy standardized electronic forms,” Gao told Nextgov in an interview following VA’s annual LEAF conference in April.

Gao, who makes a hobby of automating repeated manual processes, is all about ease of use and usability. If one VA medical center benefits from a unique application on LEAF, he said, why not “make it as easy as possible for another medical center to download and use” it. You don’t have to be a tech geek or coding guru to use LEAF either, Gao said, adding that many of the coolest LEAF innovations stemmed from frontline, non-technical employees who tackled common problems.

At the conference hosted in Arlington, Virginia, dozens of VA employees from across the country pitched some of these LEAF case studies to VA executives, highlighting how LEAF has improved employee engagement, saved agency resources and improved veteran experience and patient care.

Representing Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, Frank Stathas said LEAF reduced the time to hire and onboard new employees from 120 days to 80 days.

The hospital initially adopted LEAF in 2018 to automate travel authorizations, but eventually used it to create “a one-stop shop hiring portal that would allow us to integrate all hiring activity, from the initial supervisor request to new employee orientation.”

Critical vacancies are reported through LEAF in real time, as opposed to through dozens of emails or word of mouth, Stathas said, with a net result of improving patient care.

“[LEAF] helps us recruit the best-qualified staff,” he said. “The portal will have a positive impact on the veteran experience and supports the VA secretary’s priority to modernize IT systems. Through LEAF, we envision a big drop in vacancies.”

Similarly, VA Midsouth Healthcare Network in Nashville, Tennessee, uses LEAF as a recruitment tracking tool. The system replaced paper-intensive processes that included manually tracking up to 200 recruitments on a single Excel spreadsheet, according to Jalandra Miller. In crunch time, Miller said those spreadsheets had a tendency to crash.

“We’re here for the patient, not the paper,” Miller said. “LEAF recruitment tracker has taken away my need to track recruitment items on individual spreadsheets. It makes us accountable to use the systems we’re supposed to use.”

Frontline VA employees reported dozens of other LEAF use cases, such as reduced times to reschedule veteran patient appointments, tracking quality-of-care indicators and budgeting data. Taken together, LEAF use cases pitched at the conference alone saved VA tens of thousands of hours and perhaps millions of dollars in costs. They also indicate the growing import placed on employee experience within the agency.

“It’s about employee engagement, and to see this is amazing,” said Lee Becker, chief of staff for the Veterans Experience Office.

Becker was among VA’s leadership team on-hand at the LEAF conference. He credited VA’s employees for the Veterans Health Administration’s lofty public trust rating, which he said sits at 87 percent. That compares favorably to public trust in government overall, which Becker said hovers at 22 percent.

LEAF, Becker said, “is a secret, but shouldn’t be a secret.”

Blake Henderson, VA’s Innovation Coordinator, describes LEAF as a way to “keep small problems from becoming big ones,” allowing low-code or no-code avenues for VA employees to problem solve. One of Henderson’s key duties is telling VA’s “secret” innovation and evangelizing the LEAF-enabled work in VA to the rest of the agency and the broader federal community.

“One common thread unites these diverse LEAF applications—front-line personnel saw a problem in their workplace and used LEAF to solve it,” Henderson said in a blog post Tuesday.

“As LEAF reaches different VA constituencies, employees are using it in remarkable ways—uses that go beyond what its developer thought possible.”

For LEAF, the cloud—not the sky—may be the limit. VA plans to move LEAF to an Amazon-hosted cloud in the near future, which Gao said will increase the kinds of applications and projects LEAF can tackle. Because of the cloud’s improved security features, LEAF projects could extend to more sensitive data types.

“We’ll now have the authorization and capability to store sensitive information—something that’s always been missing from our platform,” Gao said.