Roughly 200,000 service members leave the military every year in a process called service member transition. During transition, Veterans must navigate finding employment, education, housing, and healthcare all while re-establishing relationships with loved ones and managing finances.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers ample resources from family support to disability compensation to healthcare benefits. But it can be challenging for Veterans to understand how to utilize these resources. That’s why around half of recently separated Veterans don’t leverage their available benefits and resources. VA, along with several other federal agencies, is looking to change that by prototyping a digital solution that provides customized and integrated information on service member transition.
In honor of Veterans Day, we spoke with Crystal Francis, Nava’s Program Manager for our VA portfolio, about ways to connect Veterans with benefits and resources. Crystal has a Ph.D in Public Policy and Administration/Org Management and Leadership, and in addition to working at Nava, Crystal is the Vice President of the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform and a guest lecturer of public policy and criminal justice at various colleges. Crystal previously served as the Associate Director of Program Management at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and as a Program Analyst at the Social Security Administration (SSA).
What does service member transition entail?
When someone finishes their service, there’s a whole wealth of benefits and resources available to them to ensure a successful transition to civilian life. It’s not just disability or healthcare benefits; VA offers continuing education, employment opportunities, VA home loan, resources for financial literacy, and more. For example, VA partners with the Small Business Administration to help Veterans run their own businesses. Something VA has done well is identifying crucial moments during the Service transition period to try to get those resources to as many Veterans as possible.
What are the challenges Veterans face in accessing these resources?
Some people are hard for VA to get in touch with. Maybe they’ve moved and have a new address; maybe they’re experiencing homelessness; maybe they don’t want to engage with these resources for whatever reason.
There’s also an overwhelming amount of information about VA resources for service members who are transitioning. I am the daughter of two army Veterans. I asked my dad, who I believe successfully transitioned to civilian life, why some people might not be using VA’s resources. He said that even though VA provided all the necessary information, maybe that person doesn’t want to use VA’s resources at that time, and that’s okay. Ideally, VA will find a mechanism to keep these people in the pipeline without overwhelming them with information.
How can technology improve service member transition?
I think VA could consolidate information about service member transition, because those resources all live on different websites. We did something similar when working on va.gov. For that project, we built a new Veterans Affairs website and streamlined existing ones to help Veterans find, understand, and use information about benefits.
Offering remote opportunities for education, getting help with benefits, or even seeing providers would make VA resources accessible to more people. An example of something like this is when we supported VA in offering tele-hearings for benefits appeals. These secure, confidential, and convenient virtual hearings increased VA’s capacity to serve Veterans.
How can technology help VA contact hard-to-reach populations?
Regarding hard-to-reach populations, I think VA can leverage human-centered design and usability testing to understand why people are falling through the cracks and how to best communicate with them.
We leveraged usability testing when working on VA Caseflow, a suite of digital tools that made it possible for attorneys, judges, and administrative staff across VA to process appeals and serve Veterans more quickly, efficiently, and effectively. For this project, we got feedback from Veterans on written communications about a new appeals option. Our insights helped VA tailor their communications to fit the specific needs of Veterans.
Better data sharing practices could also make it easier for VA to contact hard-to-reach populations. For example, VA has a data exchange agreement with SSA. Similar exchanges with agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles or with voter registration rolls could help VA get contact information for more Veterans.
In order to carry this out, VA would need a middle layer, likely an Application Programming Interface (API), that could help different systems communicate. We’re doing something similar as we help VA make the application for disability benefits easier and quicker for Veterans to submit. Key to our success is migrating the backend functionality running the disability application process from legacy to modern systems. Our team is building a middle layer so that these systems can talk to each other, allowing them to continue operating as usual during the ongoing migration.