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Bearing witness: Shinseki does right for vets

Sometimes people in Washington do a really good job, but take a lot of crap unfairly. Sometimes it takes a "nerd-in-residence" to start to set the record straight. This is the short version; every topic below deserves longer treatment.

In 2009, Eric Shinseki took over the Department of Veterans Affairs, with the mission of doing right for vets. Back then: VA didn't have the right software to process disability claims efficiently. Vets with Vietnam era-Agent Orange illnesses had a hard time getting claims judged properly. Some Vets and Vet Service Orgs (VSOs) felt they faced an adversarial attitude. VA line workers got a lot of unfair abuse. (Note to self: as a customer service rep, I get a lot of that also, almost every day, so I can identify.)

More and more Vietnam vets file disability claims, to get the benefits they deserve. However, it was really hard to get properly compensated for Agent Orange herbicide-related issues. Long story, but the bottom line is that Shinseki designated several Agent Orange-related diseases as "presumptive" conditions, and allowed claims to be made on that basis and approved fast.

However, that inflated the disability claims backlog, not only the current "inventory" of claims but also the "backlog." For that matter, in the effort to do right by vets, Shinseki insisted on faster processing overall, and imposed stricter standards on quality and what counted as backlog. That made the existing backlog jump in a huge way, creating major perception problems for Veterans Affairs, which have been widely reported.

So the good news, not so much reported, but the bad news got a lot of attention. By doing right by vets, the VA looked bad. For whatever reason, the press has largely neglected good work, and emphasized bad news. (A while back I wrote a thank you note for VBA workers.)

Here's the history of the claims backlog (courtesy of Brandon Friedman),

USE!!!

Most of the current backlog reduction is attributed to efforts like a lot of dedication and overtime on the part of VA line workers. (Thanks!) However, what VA has needed for a long time, at least since 2003, is an online system to expedite claims processing.

In 2009, Shinseki brought in Peter Levin as VA *Chief Technology Officer and others to make that happens.

Cutting to the chase, they started building the Vets Benefits Management System (VBMS.) The deal with VBMS is that claims could be processed online by VA workers, and entered by vets or VSO claims professionals. If entered by vets, the model is do it yourself, like TurboTax. If entered by a pro at a Vets Service Org,they can get to VMBS directly, or enter documents for the Vet via the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP). Pretty soon, if they have their own claim system like VetPro, they'll be able to send from their system to VBMS. It's like going to get help from H&R Block, or Earl, my CPA.

The first big task is to get the paper claims inventory converted to digits and put into VBMS, which involves scanning huge amounts of paper into the system. That's about 75% done. Here's before and after at the Winston-Salem VA RO:

(Before…)

W-S files

(After…)

W-S clean

The big shift to VBMS is just happening right now, and it also means first getting VSOs onboard with either the Portal or indirectly via a gateway called Digits to Digits (D2D).

Big software projects take time, but it looks like all this is happening very quickly for a large organization. At this point, the effort is in agile software development mode. I'm not using "agile software development" in the doctrinaire sense, rather, it's like I started for my own stuff:

1. ask people what they want and need

2. do it

3. ask people what to improve

4. go to 1

That's to say, people tell either their local VBMS coach (like Shannon who I met in Oakland) what's going on, or they tell Allison (that's actual Brigadier General (retired) Allison Hickey, who runs this part of VA) during her weekly calls with VBMS users. Then stuff gets fixed or deferred. (Note to VSOs: you got suggestions, tell Allison, or if you prefer, tell me, I'll get 'em to the right place.)

Shineki got lots more going on, like an Employee Innovation effort in 2009, where I helped judge entries. My favorite effort resulted in Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs), which turn what doctors say into numbers that can be automated via disability rate calculators. DBQs need work, that's happening, largely due to the efforts of Beth the Enforcer. (I'll tell that story another time.)

Claims processing can also be delayed while Service Treatment Records are transferred from places like Department of Defense storage warehouses. (The Raiders of Lost Ark Warehouse is actually the VA warehouse…)

However, efforts are proceeding to get Defense to scan in and electronically transfer treatment records to VA. (More later.)

VA is a very large organization, maybe over 330,000 people serving around 22 million potential customers.

Whether private or public, large orgs are normally dysfunctional. Me, I've worked at or with large orgs, like IBM, GM, and Bank of America, and seen from the inside how bad things can be; however, public orgs are normally way more transparent than private orgs. I bear witness that Veterans Affairs does really good, with exceptions.

As a nerd, I'll help make the good better, and I'll stand up for good people getting a lot of unfair crap flung at them.

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

 

10 ways to rule at customer service, hint: watch out for astroturfing

I've been doing customer service in different capacities for the last 32 years, more or less… I joined IBM in '76, became a Systems Engineer in '82, did CSRthat into '93. And have been a craigslist (CL) customer service rep (CSR) since 1995. It's a tech customer service kind of thing.

This is a good time to mention that I do enough real customer service to keep my emotional investment in the CL and grassroots community, but my involvement in CL management ended well over ten years ago, and you need to look elsewhere for a CL spokesman. Getting perceived as spokesman, though, is a big pain in the butt, with no solution. That's why I'll direct you elsewhere for CL stuff.

As for my CSR stuff, here are 10 ways to rule at customer service:

1. Treat people like you want to be treated

 2. Talk to people about what they need and want.

 3. Act on what you hear from people.

 4. Repeat #2 – #3 forever

 5. Use your own product, AKA "eat your own dogfood."

 6. At least, customer service should be a senior position, probably C-level.

 7. Ideally, CEO does customer service.

 8. Focus groups are no substitute for getting out there and talking to real people.

 9. Watch out for astroturfing, fake feedback.

 10. See #1

 

This is not an exaggeration: Over a million dollars raised for nonprofits

Folks, huge news! The #HolidayChallenge just passed $1,000,000. That's a million dollars for charities.

As many of you know, I'm helping to fund the CrowdRise #HolidayChallenge to help nonprofits around the country raise money this holiday season. This is many of the orgs' year-end fundraising campaign, and they could really use your help.

update

There are some really good causes that funds are being raised for, and I'm so inspired. There are animal rights and sanctuary orgs, greenhouse projects, promotion of education, veterans, mental health, human rights groups, women's health, self-esteem and body image groups, orgs raising money to help children with diseases, literacy campaigns, and the list goes on, and on.

If you're able, take a look through all of the good orgs participating in this challenge, and give to one that really sticks out to you.

This week the Bonus Challenge is fun, the first two fundraising teams to raise $250, beginning at noon EST each day, will go head to head in a heated game of rock, paper, scissors. The winner each day will get $1,500 for their cause. You can help decide who wins this week.

Bonus Challenge #1 was won by Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance.

Bonus Challenge #2 was won by Cure JM.

Bonus Challenge #3 was won by Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust.

Bonus Challenge #4 is happening right now.

There are seven Bonus Challenges total and they're all listed here.

There are a lot of Huffington Post winners so far. 119 teams have raised at least $1,000 for their cause, winning at least one of the HuffPost prizes. HuffPost is offering "tiered" prizes during the Challenge, which are called "HuffPost Prizes for Everyone" because they're non-competitive. If you raise the money required in a tier, you get the prize and when you reach the next tier, you get that prize too.

When CrowdRise was gearing up for the #HolidayChallenge, five charities won "Get your charity profiled by a HuffPost reporter." They are:

• Building Botswana

ShoeHeals

• Chicago Adventure Therapy

Canstruction

• Toilet Hackers

 Now head on over to the Holiday Challenge, and let's try to raise $2M for charity, what do ya say?

Will You Stand With Me For Equality For Immigrants?

Folks, I support immigration fairness. I received an email from Jose Antonio Vargas this morning about showing support for fairness and equality on behalf of immigrants. I'm from a family of recent immigrants, and like to note that now and then.

Jose said:

Today (Monday), just as Congressional members prepare to go home for the holidays without taking action on immigration, Define American, the non-partisan media/culture campaign I founded, is launching a new symbol of unity for the immigrant rights movement—the Pledge.

Pledge DefineAmerican

Unlike the LGBT movement's equal sign, the immigrant rights movement does not have a symbol. The Pledge is a way of showing support for fairness and equality on behalf of 11 million immigrants like me–many of us Americans in all but papers. And to promote the symbol, I directed a new online video that features 30 undocumented immigrants—college students, a housekeeper, a Congressional intern, even—pledging allegiance to the American flag and government that have yet to recognize us. Here is the video: 

Folks, here's how you can support this effort.

1) Add the Pledge symbol to your Twitter avatar and Facebook profile. It's simple to do, and you can do so by clicking here.

( I just changed my profile photos today, and it was really simple.)

2) Please tweet this sometime today.

.@joseiswriting just launched a new symbol for the #immigration movement http://ow.ly/rysZV via @DefineAmerican #4all

 

To promote the Pledge, a new symbol of unity for immigration fairness, 30 undocumented Americans—immigrants born in various countries like Mexico, Argentina, Kenya and India, but all of whom call the U.S. home—gathered to film that video pledging allegiance to the American flag and government that have yet to recognize them.

This cause needs allies. To stand alongside your undocumented family members, neighbors, friends, co-workers and classmates, please check out DefineAmerican.com, take the pledge and renew your vows to America.

 

5 More Women in Tech Organizations You Should Know

Folks, a while back my team and I created a list of the Top 10 Women in Tech Orgs and I'm following up with some of the suggestions that have been sent in. I checked out all of the orgs that people commented about, and appreciate the great women in tech organizations that are really getting the job done.

Here are 5 more women in tech orgs that you should know about:

App Camp For Girls teaches girls how to brainstorm, design, build and pitch iPhone apps. It's a place where girls can put their creative power to work, concepting and building apps, while learning more about the business of software and being inspired by women who are professional software developers. The org is planning to expand beyond Portland, Oregon, in Summer 2014, and are recruiting organizers now. 


APPCAMPFORGIRLS

Women Tech Council provides mentoring, visibility and networking for women. The community is built for women who currently work for technology companies, and for those that may work in technology roles in other market sectors. Women Tech Council provides leadership, resources, and mentoring for women while maintaining a strong bond with the business community supporting avenues for top technology talent and visible sponsorship opportunities. They support women-owned and women-operated technology companies, and pride themselves on recognizing women leaders and entrepreneurs in the technology business and supporting them.


women tech council

Dames Making Games is a nonprofit, educational feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games. They welcome all people of any gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, race, religion, ability, nationality, socioeconomic status, and immigrant status as members. Their goals are to:

    • Demonstrate the value of diversity in a broad range of disciplines related to games
    • Highlight the achievements of diverse Toronto-based gamemakers
    • Provide a community and venue for dames to confidently explore playing, discussing, and creating games


dames

Women in Wireless is a great community of visionary mobilists. The org empowers and develops female leaders in mobile and digital media. They do this through inspirational panels and webinars, leadership development, mentoring, and networking.


women in wireless

Women's Coding Collective began with the merging of Web Start Women and their counterpart Codagogy. Web Start Women's mission was to encourage women entrepreneurs in the local community to learn tech skills that would further their businesses. Then they built Codagogy to make web programming education accessible to women anywhere and everywhere. These initiatives grew and developed so that a new name was needed to encompass all that they had become, hence the Women's Coding Collective (WCC). The WCC is an even stronger, more focused web development community for women coders and creators.


womens coding collective

 

 

Any other orgs you think I should be looking at? Thanks!