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VA sees higher veteran trust scores as ‘north star’ for customer service improvements

Barbara Morton, VA’s deputy chief experience officer, says the department’s designation as a HISP by the Office of Management and Budget “has been a reall...

The Biden administration is setting a higher bar for customer experience across government, and it’s tapping the Department of Veteran Affairs to help oversee those improvements. 

The VA sees governmentwide customer service improvements, both as a lead agency for this priority area under the President’s Management Agenda, and as one of several dozen agencies designated High-Impact Service Providers (HISPs). 

VA’s health care and benefits operations count as two of 38 HISPs across the federal government. 

Barbara Morton, VA’s deputy chief experience officer, said the department’s designation as a HISP by the Office of Management and Budget “has been a really important driver for us.” 

“The direction is coming from the highest levels of the executive branch,” Morton said. 

“It’s really been just an incredible moment for us to elevate what a high-impact service is, really serving as many folks as possible and putting us front and center collectively who are HISPs to say, ‘We’re going to put ourselves on the hook for great customer experience’ —   whether it’s veteran experience or other experience and services that other agencies are providing,” she added.

The Biden administration has also prioritized customer experience improvements in a December 2021 executive order and OMB’s Circular A-11 Section 280. 

“We have all these drivers around us that are pointing us, collectively, in the direction of focusing on customer experience, and really looking at it as a co-equal measure of agency performance, along with traditional operational measures, like wait time and number of claims processed [and] the number of appointments scheduled.”

The VA is also leading a team of agencies to help military service members transition into civilian life.

That activity is one of five cross-agency “life experiences” the Biden administration highlighted in its December 2021 customer experience executive order

Government services that fall under each of the life experiences fall under the domain of multiple agencies, and require work from each agency to make improvements.

The VA is prototyping a digital tool to help veterans and transitioning service members sort through VA and other federal government resources online.

“They can enter their separation date, maybe the type of information they’re interested in, and this tool will cull out all the different aspects, all the noise, to really focus in on that customized, personalized solution.”

Morton said the VA plans to develop the prototype into a minimum viable product this year.

“Our goal is to make the bureaucracy really invisible to those that we serve. They shouldn’t have to understand and navigate all these different agencies and who owns what. They should really be able to have the resources they need at their fingertips to search and sort in a very personalized manner,” Morton said.

VA’s Veterans Experience Office tracks veteran trust scores as one of its most important metrics for customer experience “Trust is our north star. We want to build lifelong, trusted relationships with those we serve,” Morton said. 

In the VA’s latest scorecard, 79.3% of veterans using VA services said they trust the department. That’s a major improvement from the 55% trust score the VA saw when it first started measuring trust in 2016.

“The fact that we’re at 79%, now is really a great testament to our frontline employees, valuing the veteran experience and wanting to deliver those great experiences at every turn,” Morton said.

Building trust in the VA, she added, comes down to three things: “ease, effectiveness, and emotion.” 

The VA, Morton said is focused on making its services easy for veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors to find. 

The department is also making sure that its services are responsive to veteran needs, and that VA employees treat veterans in a way that honors their service. 

The VA is also making sure it’s meeting the needs of its employees. 

Recent research from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows a positive relationship between employee engagement at VA health care facilities and patient experience.

VA data shows that a 10% increase in its Employee Engagement Index scores resulted in a 4% average increase in overall hospital ratings. 

That same increase in employee satisfaction led to a 3% average increase in patient trust score.

“If employees are feeling valued and like they are able to trust their leadership … it’s easy for them and effective for them to deliver what they need to deliver. And they’re able to connect with the mission and purpose, with each other as co-workers or with those they serve directly. It makes perfect logical sense that they would then be able to give that great experience as well,” Morton said. 

The VA is also taking steps to meet veterans where they are, and delivering services through more convenient platforms.

VA’s health and benefits mobile app has more than 2 million downloads, and more than 900,000 veterans are using the app at least once a month.

Among its features, the app allows veterans to message their doctor, check on the status of a health care appointment and check the status of a benefits claim.

VA this year is looking to add new features to the mobile app. Those include access to more medical records, such as lab results, and making it easier for veterans to check into medical appointments using their smartphones.

“We use that human-centered design approach, where veterans are telling us specifically, ‘I’d really like to be able to download my decision letters on benefits and a mobile app. I want to be able to refill a prescription. I want to be able to kind of see different types of information.’ That’s how the app has been actually developed, co-designing with those that we serve,” Morton said.

Discover more about how to elevate your customer experience in the “Excellent, equitable and secure customer experience: A closer look at high-impact service providers” series. 

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