The Veterans Affairs Department will launch a digital front door to its approximately 1,000 websites on Veterans Day.
Called Vets.gov, the new web portal will address one of veterans’ most common gripes, said Chief Veterans Experience Officer Tom Allin in a speech Thursday to the industry-government group ACT-IAC.
“I’ve never met a veteran who knew what their benefits were and I’ve talking with some really smart veterans,” he said. “A young man who works with me in Veterans Experience—Rhodes scholar, Ph.D. from Harvard, West Point number one in his class—has no idea what his benefits are.”
Going online probably would not help. Even VA Secretary Bob McDonald has bemoaned the labyrinth of websites. By its name, Veterans.gov would be the logical place to start. But that site features the Labor Department’s job-training programs for vets. To apply for VA benefits, one must go to eBenefits.gov. Another VA site, My HealtheVet, is for health care information and appointments.
Navigating within websites poses its own challenges, Allin said.
VA wants to make itself more customer-focused, starting with its IT systems
“The worst case was a website that required 17 clicks to reach a PDF file that you have to print, fill out and mail,” he told Federal News Radio.
It might seem like a new website, with a name similar to the Labor Department’s site, would only add to the confusion. But in his speech, Allin likened Vets.gov to a “harbor” that would take in information from the VA’s other websites. Eventually, it would function as a one-stop shop for VA services.
“Veterans can go in, check on a claim, add a dependent, sign up for an education benefit, change their address—get all that done—on Vets.gov,” he said.
Getting there will be a year-long process. When the site goes live on Nov. 11, it will have the content. But it will not have the single, secure sign-on function necessary for veterans to do the things that Allin described. VA will add new items to the site as they are ready. Everything should be there by this time next year, he said.
Vets.gov is part of a broader plan to simplify the department’s digital services. The other efforts include a complete client database and a national call center.
“We want a unified experience in terms of Web, phone, chat, email—where a veteran can get what they want to get done the first time,” he said.
‘We have absolutely no idea who our customers are’
VA has 225 databases of client information, Allin said. Those databases are not compatible. They do not share information, making it difficult for the department to understand how well it is serving its customers.
“We can’t tell you who is using the VA today, among our veterans,” he said.
An integrated database will change that and form the backbone of future customer-service initiatives, including Vets.gov and the national call center, he said. It will include veterans’ contact information, military records, demographic data, and their past use of VA services.
The database should give veterans fewer headaches too, he said.
“If you were to sign up today for a benefit in the [Veterans Benefits Administration], give all your information, call right back the next day for another benefit, they would have no clue who you were or what your information was. You’d be starting all over again,” he said. “We’ve got to stop that.”
A new 1-800 number to make it easier to call the VA
Once the national call center opens, it will be the main number that veterans will call for information about VA benefits and services, Allin said. He predicted phone representatives would answer about a fifth of the questions on the spot. They would transfer the rest to subject-matter experts.
The national center will be the first stop for those who do not know exactly whom to call, he said. Many of VA’s facilities’ phone numbers are hard to find, even through Google searches. Allin said he recently heard from a veteran in Guam who wanted to fly to the states for medical treatment, but could not find any contact information for the facility.
“That’s unfortunately true for many of our locations,” he said.
VA will not get rid of the 850 toll-free numbers it has now. It will keep them, Allin said, so that veterans do not get confused.