VA wants to make itself more customer-focused, starting with its IT systems

Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald says he's baffled by the way the federal government tends to separately brand each one of its IT offerings, especially i...

When the Department of Veterans Affairs rolled out its Blue Button initiative five years ago, it was seen as something of a triumph in the world of federal information technology. Not only did it let veterans and military members download their own electronic health records for the first time via one integrated system, the data exchange model was later embraced by several private health insurers and health systems.

But Bob McDonald, the new VA secretary who arrived to rescue the department from unrelated scandals after having spent decades in the private sector, is not impressed.

Mind you, he has no complaint about the technology itself nor its functionality. But he’s baffled by the way the federal government tends to separately brand each one of its IT offerings, especially its public-facing ones.

Speaking at a Politico breakfast on Thursday, he said the name “Blue Button” is just one example of government IT services whose names don’t necessarily communicate anything to the audience they’re trying to serve, and whose continued proliferation make it harder for the public to figure out exactly which site they need to visit.

“If I went to the average veteran and said, ‘What’s Blue Button?’ they would have no idea,” he said. “Our websites have unusual names. E-Benefits, MyHealtheVet, etcetera. What’s wrong with a single site like 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. We need to make things easier.”

Simplicity is among the first mandates McDonald gave to VA’s new Veterans Experience Officer, Tom Allin, who came to VA from the restaurant industry seven months ago.

Consolidating VA’s various websites into one is one of the first tasks for Allin’s office, but first it needs to figure out exactly who the department is serving and how they’d prefer to interact with VA with much more detail than the department can nail down today.

The problem isn’t that VA lacks data about the beneficiaries served by its sprawling health care and benefits divisions — it has mountains of information, in fact — it’s that the data is housed in more than 200 separate systems serving various purposes, none of which communicate with each other.

That’s not a good recipe for a decent customer experience, Allin said.

“We don’t know who our customers are from the standpoint of their identity, their contact information, their military service, demographics and how they use VA,” he told a customer service conference hosted by GovExec last week. “So our first goal is to have an authoritative view of our customers and how they use our services. Right now, if you call up today and apply for a claim through VBA, you give them all your information. Then, if you called up tomorrow and you wanted to deal with the part of the department that handles the GI Bill, they would have no idea who you are: you have to give them all your information again. This is absolutely key to everything we’re trying to do. We need to have this customer data integration completed.”

Allin said data integration has been a VA priority since roughly 2010, but the effort has struggled to get off the ground thus far. But when VA officials created his office seven months ago, department officials asked him to take it on as one of his first official tasks, partially because his office is the only one at VA headquarters with broad authorities spanning the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Veterans Health Administration and the National Cemetery Administration. He said the department hopes to have one authoritative identity source up and running by this time next year.

Besides bringing together its data sources about who veterans are, Allin said VA is trying to collapse and streamline the ways in which veterans interact with the department, starting with its websites in a project it’s calling the Unified Digital Experience.

“We have over 1,000 websites in VA. If you Google us, it’s just about impossible to figure out how to actually get something done online,” he said. “The goal is to set up the websites in a new harbor at, and then we’re going to start bringing in all of our other sites like eBenefits. But from a user perspective, it will be seamless. The goal is that a year from now, a veteran can go to one site, check on their benefits, check on their claims, add a dependent, change an address all with one secure sign-on.”

Part of the unification process will involve a from-scratch reexamination of what VA’s already providing online, Allin said.

“We have one site that requires a veteran to go through 17 clicks just to download a form that they then have to download, print, fill out by hand and mail. So we’re doing a lot of analysis of our existing websites: what are people looking for? What are they asking us to provide?”

This post is part of Jared Serbu’s Inside the DoD Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jared’s Notebook.

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