VA customer-service warriors on mission to streamline veterans’ needs

New Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald has said he will flatten the department’s hierarchy and foster more communication across the sprawling organization in order to improve services to veterans and regain their trust.

Maureen Ellenberger is one of his warriors in that battle. As director of veterans relationship management at the Veterans Benefits Administration, she is trying to standardize the service that veterans receive and make sure their experiences are positive.

“One of the things the new secretary will be able to do is get everybody on the same goal,” Ellenberger said. “We are blessed in a lot of ways because of what our mission is and what we do. It’s inspiring. If you can grab a hold of people and have their imaginations captured by the impact of what they can do for veterans, you can really make a difference. But it takes a while. You don’t sell people overnight.”

Ellenberger spoke at the launch of a new report on government customer service. Recent surveys suggest the federal government, as a whole, lags behind even airlines and cable TV providers when it comes to satisfying customers.

The authors, from the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture, pointed to Ellenberger’s work as a model for other agencies.

Photo: Partnership for Public Service

Since joining VA in August 2010, Ellenberger has focused on giving veterans a singular experience when they seek help from the Veterans Benefits Administration, whether they go online, pick up the phone or visit an agent.

A veteran might seek help from the agency for myriad reasons, ranging from disability claims to education benefits. In the past, the agency has treated each claim in isolation. Now, it’s beginning to connect the dots, Ellenberger said.

“We collect data in one place,” she said. “We keep a contact history so we begin to understand how a veteran is contacting us, what they’re looking for and how we deal with that.”

With a move to “authoritative data,” she expects veterans to see tangible benefits.

“Simple, simple things like having to change your address at the VA can be very, very difficult,” she said. “VBA might have one address because we’re doing a claim with you. [Veterans Health Administration] might have an address for you because you have an appointment with them. We’re focused hard on getting everybody to use authoritative data sources so you don’t have to change something 25 times all over the organization.”

Most benefits applicants who use VA’s online self-service applications are Vietnam War veterans, she noted. They may not know which program office within the VA is responsible for which service. But they want their questions answered.

To that end, VBA is blurring the lines between its online services, call centers and service agents, Ellenberger said. Taking a cue from the private sector, the agency now provides help to Web users via online chats. It is working on a function known as “co-browsing,” which would let a call center representative see where a veteran is in the online self-service process and assist them on the spot.

Are barriers to customer service overblown?

Common challenges to providing better customer service across government range from inadequate IT systems to a time-consuming process for getting permission to gather customer feedback, according to the report.

VBA has faced those hurdles.

For example, Ellenberger said, one of the technology systems at the heart of most VBA transactions is written in COBOL, one of the first programming languages. Just one person in the VA knows the system and everyone fears she may retire, Ellenberger said.

“We treat her with kid gloves,” she joked.

But more often, agencies do not have to make big investments in technology to improve and standardize their online services, she and the other speakers contend.

“It’s not about the system but the content in it,” said Kathy Conrad, acting associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. “If you use an API to get content, then you might not need to do a massive modernization that will cost more.”

API, short for application programming interface, is a set of instructions and methods for working with computer software or hardware.

Representatives from the Commerce Department’s BusinessUSA platform, the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget also spoke at the event about their experiences.

BusinessUSA, another model of good federal customer service according to the report, has taken advantage of recent changes at the Office of Management and Budget that make it easier to collect customer data. That information has informed newer versions of the Web portal.

“I think you can get a lot of great information without coming up against the limits of the Paperwork Reduction Act,” said Dennis Alvord, executive director of BusinessUSA, a project of the Commerce Department and Small Business Administration. “In some cases, just sitting down periodically with a customer and doing a usability session can yield a treasure trove of actionable data and information.”

VBA has used traditional focus groups to gather customer feedback. Veterans’ responses are changing how the agency deploys new services. It may begin rolling out services for mobile devices before the Web portal because “the young guys want to do everything on their mobile device,” Ellenberger said.

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