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Department of Veterans Affairs gets real stuff done

(from the Department of Giving Credit Where Credit's Due)

VA is getting a lot of good work done, using IT to much better serve veterans, helping address the disability claims backlog, maybe their biggest challenge. Sure, the tech is a work in progress, but the greater issue involves skepticism and low expectations.

Toward this end, they had to change the way they built IT systems, getting together a partnership between the IT people and end users, and including stakeholders, like employees and Veterans Service Organizations. That's not easy in any organization, and a rarity in government. Could be the way IT should work everywhere in Washington, ending the era of big spending on failed projects.

Please don't underestimate this accomplishment; in my industry, incremental development engaging people who'll use the software, that's the norm. However, it's not business as usual in private industry, and rare in government where cost overruns and late delivery of buggy software is frequent.

A big problem, though, is about outdated expectations and getting the word out to stakeholders.  That is, more people outside Washington need to hear about what's going on, and to see that this computer work actually gets the job done.  More on this in a moment.

Veterans can receive ongoing financial benefits from VA, but that means getting through the disability claims system. That involves huge amounts of paper forms and documentation which is often hard to fill out, and suffers from the usual problems. Moving paper around is slow and expensive, and prone to getting lost.

Toward that end, VA has built and is now deploying the Veterans Benefits Management System, all about online workflow management. What's really novel about VBMS is that it was built by IT people working along with the people who'll use it. That's a novelty for government, it's real cultural change.

Filling out disability claims forms is challenging for anyone who doesn't do a lot of it.  So VA is making that easier with VONAPP Direct connect (VDC) on eBenefits.  VDC lets a veteran submit a compensation claim on-line in a turbo tax like, drop down format. VDC isn't a form, it is an electronic interview process that even pre-populates with the information VA has on the Veteran.Vets frequently get help from Vets Service Organizations, VSOs, either at nonprofits or local government and VA wants to partner with the VSOs to improve service.  VA is deploying an electronic interface for VSOs called the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP).  The deal with SEP is that qualified VSOs can use VDC to directly submit the veteran's data into VBMS  to build a claim and to track the status as it gets processed.  Having this realtime info on the claim makes VSOs even more valuable in the eyes of veterans.

The reality for many VSOs is that they work with existing front end claim builders, like VetPro, to fill in claim forms right, but on paper.  The Digits to Digits effort, D2D, defines the means by which existing software can talk right to VBMS.

In addition, VA is doing some real innovative partnership work with employees, hearing from front line workers about simple changes with large benefits.  For example, if a vet condition has been certified by a private doctor, then there's no point in doing that again with a VA doctor. That suggestion has resulted in the Disability Benefits Questionnaire, which helps get vets qualified more quickly and easily, saving time and money.

A related effort to speed processing is called Fully Developed Claims.The deal is that a claim that’s submitted with all the supporting medical records can be processed relatively quickly. Otherwise, VA must send multiple requests and gather evidence from multiple sources to substantiate a claim—which is a main cause of the backlog.  Fully Developed Claims also free up VA people time to work on more challenging claims, or to work on old claims.

We're seeing other existing partnership efforts pay off for vets. Google, as part of its VetNet effort, has worked with the Chamber of Commerce, Institute for Veterans and Military Families, Hire Heroes USA, VA, and DoD to build the Veterans Job Bank.  The deal is that employers mark job postings as suitable for vets, maybe even with a preference.  You can find it here.

The Blue Button effort is also paying off for veterans, it can be used to download and share both medical and service record info, which is being used by vendors who can read and update Blue Button info for better ongoing treatment.

Finally, VA just announced a contest, where private software developers are challenged to write software that talks to the existing VA clinic systems.  The clinics systems, Open Source VistA, is a real big deal, an early success story. Newly notable is the "open source" part, enabling new ways for VA to engage in partnership.

Partnership has been critical to each VA success, but that partnership has been limited to parties in Washington or in limited local areas.

However, there's been very little outreach to stakeholders outside that relatively small community.  Success is inhibited, it's at risk, unless stakeholders hear about good efforts, particularly they need to hear about new, successful efforts. That is, if no one's talking about a successful effort, it hasn't happened.

Those stakeholders include:

  • veterans and their loved ones
  • VA line workers throughout the system
  • nonprofit VSOs, local and national
  • government VSOs, generally local
  • politicians genuinely concerned with vets
  • Americans who support vets

If you don't keep people in the loop, it's a lot harder to get their buy-in and cooperation.

However, inclusion is really difficult to accomplish for a bunch of reasons, cultural and practical.

  1. The deal is that VA is getting a lot done with in the spirit of internal and external partnership.  However, a lot of stakeholders are way out of the loop, and are frustrated about that. They don't see much progress, and expect what they observed in the past, lots of money being spent with few effective results.Keeping people in the loop is just not expected in US government or business culture, no one teaches it.
  2. Knowledge is power, and not sharing is normally perceived as a means of retaining power.
  3. Bad actors in the press will seize on released news, and will ignore good news, but will attempt to buy audiences by exaggerating bad news.
  4. In Washington, failure is very damaging, and success is rewarded not so much;  personal networking dominates. (Contrast that to the Silicon Valley perception, where failure is just perceived as normal on the way to success.)

Well, people of goodwill can maybe help address that, first by writing a post focusing on success and what got there, writing with brevity. (done?)

Next, well, would be finding a way to broadcast VA success, along with some ideas of what made these efforts successful, or potentially successful.  In these cases, the critical success factor involves the kind of partnership perspective one doesn't often see in Washington.  I guess I've just volunteered to partner up.

I feel that we need to get this stuff to all stakeholders, seriously engaging VSOs and VA, making sure we listen to line workers.  (Seriously, I suspect I've just volunteered.)

Personally, I feel a lot of affinity for efforts like this.  I figure that if an American is willing to risk a bullet for me, I should give back.

As a nerd, well, I'm an IT guy.  As a customer service rep, I'm emotionally invested in the perspective of line workers and their customers.

A nerd's gotta do what a nerd's gotta do.


Sandy Hook Promise, an initiative to end gun violence in America

Folks, there are people in the tech community mobilizing to support an end to gun violence in America.

One month after the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a group of Newtown, Connecticut citizens have organized to honor the lives lost by unveiling a national grassroots initiative committed to preventing similar tragedies from ever taking place again. The initiative's a nonprofit called Sandy Hook Promise (SHP, formerly called "Newtown United").

Sandy Hook Promise,

The folks that'll be at the unveiling of Sandy Hook Promise today include members of SHP's Executive Committee, participating victims' families, survivors, first responders, and other community members to launch this important initiative.

This morning, Sandy Hook Promise will share its plans for how an end to gun violence will be worked toward. SHP is asking folks across the country to make a promise to encourage and support common sense solutions that make communities and our country safer from acts of violence like the tragedy on December 14, 2012.

The tech community's combining its efforts directly with the Sandy Hook Promise organization, beyond the Causes Petition and the "Moment of Silence" efforts.

The families of Newtown-Sandy Hook also want us Post to Facebook and Tweet about the efforts using hashtag #sandyhookpromise beginning today, Monday, January 14. We must get all of America to sign the Sandy Hook Promise on the website.

Some sample Tweets:

    • Join me and people in Newtown in making the #sandyhookpromise to support common sense solutions to reduce gun violence at
    • I'm joining people in Newtown in making the #sandyhookpromise to protect our children and reduce gun violence. Join us at
    • Today, people in Newtown are making the #sandyhookpromise to reduce gun violence. Sign the pledge with me at

For live updates on the press conference follow @SandyHook on Twitter.


How does the Internet give you a voice?

Internet Freedom Day, January 18th, that's a big deal.

Folks, I want to know: how does the Internet give you a voice?  I'm collecting answers about how the Internet gives people a voice that I will share on Internet Freedom Day next January 18th.

Here’s the deal:

  • Write about how the Internet gives you a voice. You can either write a post on your blog explaining how the Internet gives you a voice or send me a blurb (300 words of less) at
  • Send a link to your post by email to by January 17th. Make sure you to include your full name, organization, your blog’s name and the blog post url if you decide to write a blog post for this.
  •  I will be doing a big wrap up post highlighting folks' reflections on January 18th, Internet Freedom Day.
  • Tag your post Internet Freedom, and feel free to link back to this open call to encourage others in the community to share their story about how the Internet gives them a voice.

We’ll sort through submissions and share some of the best ideas in a blog post on Internet Freedom Day on January 18th. We’ll also tweet some ideas, echoing just how important the Net is.

We take things for granted, like the vitality and freedom offered by the Internet. The Net potentially gives everyone a voice. However, it's not available to everyone, and that freedom must be asserted and sometimes fought for to keep it.

Internet Freedom Day reminds us that we all need to work together to preserve what we have and to help everyone realize their own individual voice. It's something which we assert frequently, not just one day, but it's one way to remind ourselves that what we take for granted can be lost.

To give a voice to voiceless, my team and I work to get serious network connectivity where it's a challenge. Specifically, we work with, a team which is really good at getting the Internet in difficult circumstances. For example, we've supported them in Haiti, the West Bank, and Kenya.

To help protect what we have in the US, we help preserve one of the laws which preserve freedom of speech. That's section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Now and then, bad politicians attack it, but it's a strong protection against those who would suppress stuff that they just don't like. It's being able to voice stuff like this that let's me know the Internet really does give me a voice. We've worked with the Electronic Freedom Foundation to better explain CDA 230, so please check out this infographic:

And remember to tell us how the internet gives you a voice!

Good News, re: #Hoot2Give

Hey there, folks – here’s the deal: I teamed up with the good folks at National Wildlife Federation to raise money for the furry little critters. Last month, I asked folks on social media to #Hoot2Give. Each time someone used the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, I gave $1 to NWF (up to $5k).

In just a few days we had over 5,000 mentions – and lots of bird photos, which my team and I really enjoyed. Here are a few of the bird photos that people sent in to #Hoot2Give:

Folks, thanks so much for being a part of #Hoot2Give and sharing all of your great photos, videos, bird facts, and comments.  #Hoot2Give wouldn’t have been such a success without your good work.

NWF really has their boots on the ground and are doing real important stuff for wildlife, so I'm glad that we could help them out. It’s just that a nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

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Will you #Hoot2Give this Holiday season?

Hey there – here’s the deal: my team and I worked with the good folks at National Wildlife Federation this past summer to help raise money for their org (with #Squirrels4Good & @common_squirrel). It’s about that time of year when birds are migrating and changing their nesting habits, and we really want to continue helping out the good folks at NWF and the little critters. Since the birds will be out and about, it may not be a big deal to just snap a picture of them.

We want you to #Hoot2Give for the holidays. Each time you share a photo of a bird (maybe an owl) or describe one you have just seen, and use the hashtag #Hoot2Give, I'll give $1 to NWF, up to $5k.

 I see birds (and squirrels) every day in my backyard (there's often a bird party at Craig's house), and you’ve probably seen my photos on Facebook or Twitter. I’m guessing you see birds too, and I’d love for you to share them for a good cause. I’d like you to join me, and #Hoot2Give to raise money for NWF. You can give us a hoot on Facebook, Twitter (@craignewmark), and my #Hoot2Give Pinterest board.

I'm not an outdoorsman, I'm just a nerd who'd really like to see some good bird pictures – and maybe even some hooting videos. NWF offered to take me owling, but I won't have a chance to get to Washington, DC – so I hope that some of you have some good owl photos to share! Will you #Hoot2Give to raise some money for NWF this holiday season?