One year after migrating all veteran services to the Veterans Affairs Department’s main webpage, agency officials are touting significant increases in vets engaging with digital services.
The development of VA.gov as a one-stop shop for vets—and the increase in the use of digital services—was not a direct line. Officials in components across the agency worked to build and launch Vets.gov in June 2018. But they soon discovered that veterans weren’t interested in going to a new site, even if it had everything in one place.
So, after talking with veterans across the country, VA’s U.S. Digital Service shop decided to change tactics, opting instead to migrate all those digital services to the agency’s main website, VA.gov.
That migration was complete Nov. 7, 2018. Since that time, 20.9 million unique visitors went to the new site, with 13.6 million of those visitors logging in to the platform.
“I think we’re well past the point where we can say, ‘If we build it, they will come.’ That’s not true,” said Lauren Alexanderson, health product and design lead at the VA outpost of the U.S. Digital Service, speaking Thursday at the Veterans Digital Transformation Breakfast hosted by GovernmentCIO. “Veterans have lots of other options of places where they can go. Users have lots of options of alternatives that they can use. So, we have to do our due diligence to make sure that we’re delivering on that.”
Since the redesign and relaunch, the site has seen an uptick in the use of digital services. For instance, veterans submitted nearly 600,000 education forms through the new site in 2019, a 2% increase since the site was overhauled.
Other areas saw more dramatic booms. Disability compensation submissions filed digitally rose 27% to 291,000; pension submissions increased by 59% with 8,000 veterans filing; and burial requests almost doubled, increasing 91% to 6,500 submissions.
But the biggest jump was in veterans engaging with the site’s personal profiles. Some 684,000 veterans updated their profiles on Vets.gov in 2019, a 479% increase over a year prior.
While updating profile information on a website might seem like a minor success, this was a crucial digital service improvement for veterans, according to VA acting Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington.
“It sounds pretty simple. But if you can imagine how the VA grew up over the years, with each administration creating its own software systems—in many cases, decades ago. Those systems were not designed to talk to each other,” he said Thursday. “If you updated your mailing address at one VA medical center, it wasn’t necessarily the case that that mailing address change would make it to your disability compensation, for example.”
Using the tool on VA.gov, veterans are now able to change their information in one place and have that update percolate through the entire VA enterprise.
“And we’ve made it easier for veterans to log in and see what VA has on file for them—in terms of their mailing address, their phone number, their email address—and let them change that online,” Worthington added. “They can pull up exactly what our staff sees and they can change it if it’s wrong.”
And that capability is getting better. Worthington said the team has improved the profile tool five times over since the relaunch last year. That continuous improvement coupled with user-centered design practices has made all the difference, Alexanderson said.
“It’s a really important point to think about: If every health product and every digital product across the VA that was veteran-facing—or even internal-facing but services veterans—could be designed with those users, with their feedback, with the outcomes in mind of what we’re trying to achieve with that,” she said. “Instead of a list of very minuscule requirements, what is the north star of that application and how are we delivering on that? And are you making sure that the users of that application are going to use it?”