2016 Report to Congress

Simplifying Veteran-facing Services with Vets.gov

The Challenge

Presently, Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) digital services, such as obtaining a prescription refill, applying for healthcare benefits, checking the status of a claim, and accessing VA forms, are spread across hundreds of public-facing VA websites. Veterans must navigate disparate online systems, remember multiple user names and passwords, and contend with long pages of legalese to access benefits they have earned.

Many of the systems that power these services are outdated and provide a poor user experience. For example, the current digital 10-10EZ form to apply for healthcare was built as a fillable PDF, which requires Adobe Acrobat. The only browser that defaults to Acrobat for PDFs is Internet Explorer, so based on current browser usage, 70% of visitors saw an error message when they tried to apply. As a result, since 2012 only about 8% of all VA healthcare applications were submitted online.

Project Impact Summary

  • Many of the systems that power VA’s digital services are outdated, and are spread across hundreds of public-facing VA websites.
  • In November 2015, the Digital Service at VA launched Vets.gov, a mobile first, cloud-based platform that provides a new way for Veterans to discover, apply for, track, and manage their benefits.
  • The initial Vets.gov website included plain language content for education and disability content and several tools: GI Bill Comparison Tool, Facility Location, and a Veteran feedback forum.
  • Since then, the vets.gov team has launched 39 products, and reduced release cycle times from 90 days to 7 days.
  • In June 2016, a new digital healthcare application was added to Vets.gov. In the first 60 days, 41,000 online submissions were received; an increase from a daily online submission average of 62 per day to more than 500 per day.
  • VA is tracking to increase online health care applications from 10% (of 582,000 health care applications received by VA) in 2015 to 50% in 2017.
  • In November 2016, the VA Digital Service team will launch several new features including: online application for education benefits, ability to check your disability claim status, prescription refills, secure messaging your health provider, and more.

The Solution

In November 2015, the VA launched Vets.gov, a new way for Veterans to discover, apply for, track, and manage their benefits. Instead of visiting numerous websites with multiple logins to have their benefits explained to them, Veterans told the USDS design team that they wanted to go to one site to get things done.

The Vets.gov homepage

The Vets.gov homepage

Specific pieces of functionality planned include the most demanded health and benefits services, such as an accessible health care application that does not require specific software to complete. New functionality will also include claims and appeals statuses, as well as prescription refill services.

Design and development of vets.gov is led by the U.S. Digital Service at the VA (DSVA) – the first established U.S. Digital Service agency team. It is built with modern, open source tools and is hosted in the commercial cloud. The DSVA is using an iterative development process in which features are continually designed, tested, and integrated into vets.gov. Vets.gov is being built in the open, where Veterans can provide feedback and report bugs directly to the DSVA team, who quickly respond to comments.

Success Criteria Status
Vets.gov website is available to the public. Complete. Alpha version launched November 2015. Authority to Operate complete.
Launch digital healthcare application. Complete. Vets.gov digital healthcare application launched June 2016.
100% of relevant content and front-end functions migrated from 514 existing public-facing VA websites. In progress. Content related to disability benefits, education benefits, and careers and employment has been migrated to date.
Measurably improved Veteran experience. In progress. The new online health care application has increased online submissions from 62 per day to more than 500 per day. Metrics collected will include bounce rates, page views, percentage of applications submitted online, volume of support requests to VA call centers.

Milestones

The initial vets.gov website was launched on November 11, 2015. It is a cloud-based platform with a modern technology stack. Immediate benefits and features included the following:

  • Mobile-responsive website
  • 508 compliance improvements
  • GI Bill Comparison Tool
  • Facility Locator
  • Disability Benefit content rewritten in plain language
  • Education Benefit content rewritten in plain language
  • Feedback forum to collect Veteran feedback on the website

Since November, the team has been conducting ongoing research with Veterans and delivered additional content and features on the site, including employment services, the crisis hotline, and most recently the healthcare application.

On June 30, 2016, a new digital healthcare application was added to Vets.gov to enable Veterans to apply for healthcare online, solving the problems that prevented many Veterans from using the previous online application. As a result, the number of Veterans applying for health care online increased from 62 per day to over 500 per day. VA is now on track to increase the percentage of Veterans applying online from 10% in 2015 to over 50% in 2017.

Migration will continue throughout 2016, focusing on the highest demand Veteran services including functionality such as applying for healthcare and obtaining prescription refills.

The Process and Lessons Learned

  1. Understand what people need. Vets.gov is being designed based on Veteran feedback. The vets.gov team works with Veterans regularly on research activities including usability testing, card sorting, and contextual interviews, using a combination of remote / in-person sessions and individual / group sessions.

  2. Build the service using agile and iterative practices. Vets.gov is being iteratively developed, with new functionality released incrementally and refined based on feedback from Veterans. To manage this iterative process, the vets.gov team uses industry-standard techniques such as sprint planning and stand-up meetings for each vets.gov product team. These processes enable open communication and fast problem resolution. The whole team holds retrospectives every quarter to review progress and troubleshoot challenges.

  3. Engage stakeholders across the agency. As a change management tool, the team opened bi-weekly vets.gov 101 briefing to all VA employees and stakeholders. To ensure leadership was fully engaged, the team had regular meetings with the Secretary and Deputy Secretary. The team was fully transparent in its planning and reporting by opening up the vets.gov roadmap to anyone at the VA and offering status reports daily to anyone at the VA. Finally, weekly VA Change Management working sessions with communications leads and VA stakeholder meetings helped the team bring diverse players to a common understanding of the vision and goal to ensure success.

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