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VA Leaders Emphasize Focus on User-Centered Design

Agency leaders linked complex IT modernization initiatives with improving customer experience.

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Speaking at the 2019 PSC Tech Trends Conference, VA leaders outlined the agency’s efforts to consolidate technical advances around a singular focus on improving user experience.

Convening for a VA-centered panel hosted by Chief Modernization Officer Suraf Asgedom, Chief of Staff of the Veterans Experience Office Lee Becker, Director of Enterprise Measurement Anil Tilbe and resident statistician David Maron outlined how the agency’s increasingly sophisticated IT initiatives ultimately return to this recent push toward reforming veterans care.

Summarizing the agency’s perspective, Asgedom emphasized three pillars of the VA’s ongoing modernization efforts — to transform systems, simplify operations and empower both VA employees and veterans to embrace change. Despite the sheer breadth of agency reforms, Asgedom noted they centered on a single philosophy, “This is driven in support of customer service.”

Modernizing the service lines for an agency as expansive as the VA — which serves over 9 million veterans and runs on a $200 billion annual budget — requires a significant level of human capital investment and technical sophistication, Asgedom continued. This has led to renewed emphasis on collaborating with private industry as an innovation partner, especially through implementing breaking technologies toward streamlining and improving the customer experience.

Asgedom made special mention of ongoing efforts to explore the medical applications of both 3D printing and advanced AI capacities, two areas of development in which the VA has shown growing promise.

Extrapolating upon Asgedom’s overview of VA technology strategy, Becker drew the origin of these high-concept aims to a particular founding moment.

“In 2014, we were blindsided internally when our systems failed us,” he said. Noting the failure of VA reporting systems five years prior, Becker highlighted widespread instances where agency software erroneously reported that veterans were receiving medical appointments on time. The discovery of these lapses in accountability led to a shift toward what Becker summarized as a “culture of customer service” and the now widespread voice-of-the-customer approach that holds veteran experience as a foremost priority.

Discussing the more technical aspects of this modernization shift, Tilbe emphasized, “We have to figure out where human-centered design fits in.”

Despite the manifest technical sophistication of the VA’s modernization initiatives, Tilbe has endeavored to ensure they return to this focus on improving customer service. Maron noted that his work on AI and big data analytics with newly appointed Director of Artificial Intelligence Gil Alterovtiz is similarly based on “making sure the research and development we’re focusing on is having an impact on the veteran.”

In addition to the technical innovation occurring throughout the agency, panelists also outlined the cultural and organizational shifts that would be necessary for optimally meeting customer needs. Becker noted that “the VA is a consensus-based organization” and contrasted its collaborative nature with the more hierarchical structures seen across the U.S. armed forces. Bringing together leaders from separate VA service lines to share insights and collaborate on reform is therefore an essential component of providing the best customer experience possible.

Maron continued by mentioning some of the challenges the VA faces in broadly improving customer care, stating that “every hospital is different, and the culture is different” across various service centers. This necessitates attunement to the specific needs of separate VA locales, whether they serve larger urban areas or are dedicated to rural care.

Becker also noted the generational and demographic shifts that would have to be navigated for the VA to better cater to America’s younger veterans.

“The VA has been designed for World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War,” he noted. The VA is now serving a significantly higher proportion of women veterans, and Becker disclosed that collaborative sprints between the VA and private industry have been designed to accommodate the demographic particularities of younger veterans. Becker emphasized, “If we don’t consider these new perspectives, we’ll leave veterans behind. And we don’t want to do that.”

Extrapolating on this theme, Tilbe drew a connection between these demographic adaptation efforts and the VA’s greater data strategy. In order for the VA to apply data analytics and user insights effectively, it has to consider distinct demographics — whether race, gender, age or geographic region — served within the VA that have specific concerns and health care priorities.

AI processing and data management can ultimately be used to improve customer care and human-centered design for these complex segments, Tilbe concluded.

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