Veterans, Labor already have the answer to Veterans.gov question

Behind closed doors, there is a growing disagreement — I wouldn’t call it a dispute quite yet — about how make services to veterans easier.

Sources say the departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs don’t quite see eye-to-eye about how best to use the domain veterans.gov.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald brought the discussion semi-public recently in comments made during an event hosted by Politico where he said, “Our websites have unusual names. E-Benefits, MyHealtheVet, etc. What’s wrong with Veterans.gov or Vets.gov? Rather than looking at everything through the lens of the bureaucracy toward the customer, let’s look at everything from the lens of the customer.”

Sources say there have been some discussions between Labor and VA about whether VA should own the veterans.gov site or whether Labor should continue to run it — as they have since 2001. By the way, veterans.gov redirects to the Veterans Employment and Training Service.

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Neither VA or Labor would bite on my questions as to how far those discussions have progressed.

A VA spokeswoman said, “Regardless of who owns the webpage, Veterans will be given access to programs and information that will benefit their lives. This cross-agency collaboration is what the spirit of MyVA is about, government agencies coming together to create accessible opportunities and benefits for Veterans. VA is committed to working with partners to provide transitioning servicemembers, veterans and their families with meaningful career opportunities.”

A Labor spokesman offered this: “DOL works closely with VA and a number of other federal agencies supporting veterans and transitioning service members. The agencies include departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Transportation, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration and the Consumer Financial Protection Board and others. There is close coordination around the Transition Assistance Program as well through the White House Joining Forces initiative. DOL, VA and others collaborate regularly on further improvements to online resources provided veterans, most notably the Veterans Employment Center or VEC housed on VA’s eBenefits.va.gov website. The future of veterans.gov has also been discussed.”

But what McDonald, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and their staffs are missing is the Office of Management and Budget already fixed this issue in 2004 under the E-Government initiative called Benefits.gov.

Take a trip in the way-back machine with me for a minute.

More than 10 years ago, Labor, which runs Benefits.gov, created a way for agencies to customize a portal for a particular segment of their mission area.

According to the owner of this way-back machine, who I’ll call Jeff, the goal of this effort was to let each partner agency build a separate portal to present their agency’s programs, but use the back-end engine that runs Benefits.gov to help citizens find services no matter the agency providing it.

The team that runs the E-Loans site realized their functionality was going to mirror the Benefits.gov functionality, so they just executed an agreement to have Benefits.gov provide the functionality for GovLoans.gov.

So what ever happened to this idea of putting a new skin on top of the website and connecting to the benfits.gov back-end database?

Well, my friend Jeff says VA pushed back against it.

Labor offered to open an application programming interface (API) into the database so that VA could consume the data as a service and present results on its own website.

But in the end, VA’s objections to this approach ended up stopping this initiative.

So fast forward to 2015 and McDonald wants an easy way for veterans to access services, maybe someone on the Benefits.gov team should bring back that plan from more than a decade ago.

Now Benefits.gov wasn’t perfect by far. For all of its promise, the portal was missing the ability to apply for services once you found them. In 2004 or 2005, that capability wasn’t as easily programmed or accepted as it is now. But now the site gives you a link to begin the application process.

So it wouldn’t take much to create a veterans.gov website using the benefits.gov customization feature and lets veterans not only find VA benefits, but every benefit all agencies offer.

“VA is building teams such as the Veterans Experience office and a dedicated Digital Service team to build a new Veteran-centric experience,” the VA spokeswoman said. “The Office of Information and Technology is also working to consolidate all customer facing digital projects into one portfolio for an organized and smooth transition to one digital property.”

While Benefits.gov was an answer to better serving citizens, agencies over last two decades built more and more websites on top of websites making it harder for users to find what they need.

In 2011, the Obama administration made it a priority to reduce duplicative websites.

OMB issued guidance freezing new websites and ordering a reduction of at least 1,000 by 2012.

OMB furthered this initiative in 2014, giving the General Services Administration overall responsibility to approve any new federal websites.

A GSA spokeswoman said that today there are 1,351 federal second-level domains, such as GSA.gov. That’s down from 1,928 in 2011.

Overall, there are 1,350 program or agency websites with about 29,870 addressable sub domains, micro-sites and URLs. That’s down from about 2,000 main websites with 66,875 sub domains, micro-sites and URLs.

“In keeping with the OMB policy, GSA continues to control the proliferation of government websites,” the spokeswoman said. “The current trend (2 years), is a slight continued reduction in federal domains through domain management.”

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.

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