Veterans Disability Claims Backlog, setting the record straight

There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation regarding the disability claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  Setting the record straight requires some honest brokering with many years experience in both customer service and writing computer software for moving from paper-based customer service to workflow systems.

It takes a customer service rep (eighteen years) and it takes a nerd (sixty years).

That makes it personal for me, particularly as I work with lots of veterans and military families groups.  I take this personally, since I figure if someone’s stepping up to protect me, I need to reciprocate. That’s particularly true when a fellow citizen goes overseas and risks taking a bullet for me.

One advantage of a deep dive like this means that I can include some recommendations for moving ahead faster.

Here’s the deal, using the best metaphor I can figure.

The VA disability claims process has been like a car with the “check engine light” on for a decade or longer.  Wasn’t much of a problem until maybe around 2005, when the car filled up, and more people needed that ride. Vets needed a much bigger car back then, but that costs money, and no one in Washington stood up for that.

Here's what the VA's VBMS screens look like. Similar to Gmail. Web based. Searchable. Fast.

This got worse in following years, since Washington did stand up for Vietnam era vets, particularly when it came to the Agent Orange situation. As troops returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s like the car getting more riders, who needed a longer ride.

Sure, I’m understating the case, the case load of Veterans Affairs got a lot worse, with the Camp Lejeune situation only beginning to heat up. The deal is that people knew about this maybe eight years ago or longer, when that engine light went on.  The new car didn’t start to get made until 2009, when Washington stood up to support Vietnam vets as well as the vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Problem is that normally, in Washington, big software projects frequently fail, they don’t get the job done, and projects are abandoned after spending maybe a billion or more.  In plain terms, the software specs are frequently written by big shots who long ago got out of touch with their customers.

Maybe twenty years ago, private industry figured a better way to build software for real people was basically:

1. Listen to customers, get an idea what the majority want and need.

2. Write some code, ask customers about it.

3. Repeat, forever.

That’s the approach Veterans Affairs took in 2009, which really was swimming upriver. This was really a big deal challenge:

  • The old systems needed to be kept running while the new stuff was built.
  • The new systems needed VA customer service reps to work with VA software people, which is the opposite of the big shot way of doing things. That’s big deal culture change and that’s always painful.

All this was happening as the VA got way more claims, and the claims got way more complicated. That’s to say that they built a new car while driving the old car, and the wheels are falling off the old car, and they have a lot more riders coming.

Meanwhile, explaining this is really hard, and in the Washington way of talking, there’s no way to win.  People don’t generally know that VA is getting through huge, unprecedented numbers of claims, over a million per year for the last three years. Last year they paid around $54 billion. Around half of vets in the backlog, mostly Vietnam vets, already receive cash from a prior claim.

Also, the VA gives Congress the reports they ask for.  You can get more info, just ask.  The downside of this is that it can look like VA is withholding vital info, if you don’t know the way they talk.

This all only makes sense to me since I’m a customer service rep and a software developer, and I know something about charts, numbers, and statistics.  I can tell that VA has the worst of all worlds:

1. Gotta keep the old stuff working.

2. Gotta build the new stuff.

3. Gotta focus on finding and preventing the slow parts/bottlenecks.

4. Gotta move customers from old to new systems.

That means a new paperless system, the Veterans Benefits Management Systems, which has means of expediting claims. It moves toward replacing huge piles of paper with online workflow.  That means it’s much easier to move case files from one worker to another, and it means no one loses track of paper.

Part of this involves means by which vets can fill out their own claims, via online eBenefits, which is kind of like TurboTax or similar. It’s good for straightforward cases like when you don’t need a CPA to do taxes.

If a vet needs help filing, that’s much like getting a CPA to help with taxes.

Veteran Service Organizations can use the VA stuff via the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal, online.

VSOs sometimes use claims management systems, like VetPro. VA is testing a “digits to digits” interface for those systems. The deal there is to eliminate more paper, and to generally accelerate the process, since the outside systems talk directly with VA systems.  Security and privacy have already been addressed.

Making this happen means engaging in serious conversation with all VSOs, from the ground up, which is totally contrary to the usual Washington way of doing things. That is, talking with national leadership needs to be complemented with direct engagement with disability claim line workers, everywhere.

This means serious and ongoing real engagement with all customers, which is really hard to do. You need to listen to the majority of customers, who are largely quiet, not so much listening to noisy special interests.

That means engagement with line workers as well as the big shots, and in practice it means customer service reps talking with other Customer Service Representatives (CSRs).

There’s talk of a Presidential commission to make this happen, but I’m not a patient guy, and I’ve already chatted with fellow nerds and CSRs in Washington who want to make stuff happen.  Here’s the beginning of recommendations, which need a bit more reality testing, and then approval by the big guys.

(I’d like to present recommendations in priority order, but they’re pretty intertwined, so in no particular order…)

1. Continuous engagement with VA workers, VSOs, vets, in social media.

  • Keep everyone in the loop, and most of all, that means two way communications with the customer service people in Veterans Affairs, and also with Veteran Service Officers, who help vets with the process.
  • Specifically, we need private discussion groups where CSRs, internal and external, talk to Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) management and get answers where that makes sense.

My commitments:

  • Continuing engagement with engagement as illustrated by the thing you’re reading right now, assuming that I’m not pissing off the people I need to talk to.
  • Participation in discussion, mostly to help articulate suggestions in the form that my fellow nerds might need to code.

2. Permanent employee innovation.

  • That means, perhaps as part of discussion groups, asking employees and VSOs what might make the system work better. Several years ago, I helped in a very minor way with an employee innovation effort which resulted in real results, one of which is the Disability Benefit Questionnaire (DBQ) thing below. This needs to be part of VA culture.  (It needs to be part of the culture of any organization, but that’s a separate article.)

3. Identify bottlenecks, like records transfer from DoD, Guard and Reserve. VA Center for Innovation people and VBA developers, have an idea what they are.

  • Some can be solved with software improvements, but the most difficult involve getting treatment records and related info from other Federal agencies, which leads to …

4. Get the tech people in different agencies to start talking with each other, now, and get management approvals ready for the flow of data.  Some of this is already in process, but not enough. They can blame me.

5. Create workarounds in situations where getting service treatment records or related data will take too long.  That kind of thing’s a big judgment call, and I’m happy to trust VBA workers with that.

  • For example, the employee innovation effort cited earlier involved a suggestion from VA in Pittsburgh.  If a private physician verifies a medical condition, no point in having a VA doctor do the same.  That involves private doctors filling out the Disability Benefit Questionnaire. However, DBQs need significant usability improvements, which VA folks and I have already discussed.  (VACI folks, I’m still on board for a thing.)
  • Very specifically, if a vet can show a medical condition, and getting records showing a service connection are too slow, give the VBA worker the okay to approve. I trust the line workers with such decisions. Blame me if it doesn’t work.

6. Improve the user experience for all Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) UIs so that experienced people can submit claims with minimal additional help.  That is, if you know how claims work now, and you’re Internet-literate, there should be no need to wait for, and maybe travel to, classes.

  • In the interim, maybe we need a quick VMBS for Dummies? I’d qualify the the latter part of that.

7. Get everyone on board to help vets build Fully Developed Claims(FDCs). FDCs are pretty much like filling out one of those forms CPAs give you, where you fill in lots of information, and provide the documentation needed to submit your taxes.

  • That needs the communications efforts described above, plus… this should be part of the Transition Assistance Program that active service troops do when leaving service.  That’s in process, needs to be accelerated.

Turns out that VA has 56 regional offices, each running the old paper-based system, that’s like 56 cars that are breaking down, some badly. The challenge is to replace each old car with new ones, while gracefully transferring riders to the new cars.  In practice, that means getting a lot of paper scanned into the new systems, a lot of work. Key to that is getting everyone on board, something assisted by the recommendations above.

Okay, that’s the gist of things, and I’ll add one more personal commitment:

I’ll run these suggestions by VA people and others in Washington, and VSOs, and will update. If it means more time in Washington, even in August, well, I’ll do what it takes.  After all, a nerd’s gotta do, what… well, you know the rest.

Tweet Chat with VA Careers

Almost a year ago, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was hiring. As he put it at the time, “As more veterans return home, we must ensure that all veterans have access to quality mental health care.”

VA has answered that call by reaching out to as many platforms as possible. Now VA is taking this hiring initiative to a live Twitter chat via @vacareers. This Thursday, we will be honored to welcome Craig Newmark,  of craigconnects and craigslist, to share the e-space with others concerned about the vital need to take care of those who have taken care of us—the men and women who have served in America’s armed services.

I’m Darren Sherrard, of the Veterans Health Administration, and I oversee VA’s recruitment marketing efforts for healthcare providers—particularly psychiatrists and eligible psychologists—who can come work at VA. As associate director for health care recruitment and marketing in the office of workforce management and consulting, I’m trying to get the word out on behalf of VHA: A gratifying career awaits those who are ready to turn their time and attention to helping veterans.

At 1pm EDT (10 am PDT) today, I will host a Twitter chat via @vacareers to guide leaders like Craig, VA recruiters, and job searchers in an exchange of thoughts, ideas, and questions about mental health careers at VA. It’s a chance for the public to talk with veterans, supporters of veterans, and members of the mental health community in real time. We hope the lively exchange will let people know more about the life-changing work at VA in store for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.

Craig is committed to helping veterans and their families, and there is no denying that giving this community access to the care they deserve means VA needs to hire extraordinarily talented, passionate mental health professionals. I invite you all to add your thoughts, experiences, and questions to the conversation by tweeting with the hashtag #WorkatVA. We’ll start the chat at 1 p.m. EDT on March 21, and I hope to see you there.

Guest blog post by Darren Sherrard,
Associate Director for Recruitment Marketing,
VHA Healthcare Recruitment & Marketing,
Office of Workforce Management & Consulting

Important voting messaging

Folks, there are some orgs out there who are doing real good work, like the Advancement Project, the Brennan Center for Justice, and SKDKnickerbocker, they really have their boots on the ground when it comes to talking about Voting.

Their key messages really are spot on, and highlight the importance of voting, and why you should vote. Here’s the list, I figure we should post something, now and then…

  • Strengthen Our Community: Voting brings us together as Americans, and you should join your family and friends to help strengthen our community.
  • Equality: Voting is the one time we are all equal — whether you’re young or old, rich or poor. When we vote, we all have the same say.
  • Civic Duty: As American citizens, it is our responsibility and civic duty to vote and it’s something we do to show our country and children that we are proud to be American.
  • Free, Fair and Accessible: As the leading democracy of the world, the U.S. should work to keep our voting system free, fair, and accessible to all Americans.
  • Have Your Voice Heard: In order to participate in our great democracy and have your voice heard, every voter needs to understand the rules in their state, register on time, and show up at the correct polling place.
  • Empowerment: Voting is empowering and provides us with some control over what happens to our families and our community.
  • Your Vote Counts: Your vote makes a difference, and together Americans’ voices count. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.

And folks – don’t forget to check out all of the organizations doing good work on this issue.

craigconnects Celebrates a 2nd Anniversary

Hey there, folks –

It’s craigconnects’ 2nd anniversary already, and we’ve worked with some real good people in the last year to get stuff done. This year I’m also focusing a lot on vets and military families, and I’ve teamed up with Crowdrise to do a big campaign to raise money for these organizations, which will launch in a few months. I’d like to encourage any organizations working with vets and military families to get in touch with Crowdrise on how they can participate.

A few highlights of the good orgs and folks we’ve worked with for social good:

  • I went to a really good conference and hackathon addressing Truthiness in Digital Media last year. While I’m not going to tell anyone how to do their job, I feel the country needs the news media to restore trust in their reporting, in large part, by doing lots of factchecking again.
  • I worked with some good folks focusing on Voter Suppression issues to create an Infographic about Voter’s rights, Think You Have the Right to Vote? Not so much! There are some bad actors that are trying to pass legislation that will keep eligible people from voting.
  • Re: voting, I supported the good folks at Election Protection, Lawyers’ Committee, NOI, and Ushahidi who developed and launched Our Vote Live to help people out if they encountered problems while trying to vote.
  • And in this past year, I discovered that it’s a new era of squirrel-based activism with the #Squirrels4Good campaign we did with the National Wildlife Federation, who really have their boots on the ground. I gave $1 for each use of the hashtag #Squirrels4Good, and donated $10K to NWF. Those squirrels really are urban survivors.
  • Folks often email me asking for support with their campaigns. I tell ’em to email me the links to their posts, and maybe they should do ask their supporters to do the same. Here’s a little post about how to easily share your posts for the most visibility.
  • I’ve been quietly working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau including Liz Warren and Holly Petraeus, on stuff like customer service tech. They’re for real, getting stuff done. The CFPB does stuff like protecting regular people from predatory financial institutions.
  • We created a few memes to talk about current affairs:

What I think happens with memes is that they get into someone’s brain as code, executes in one’s brain, and then spreads the idea of the meme using the person as a host where it is spreads to other people (hopefully in an epidemic manner). Again, I’m speaking literally, which shows I read too much science fiction. But it’s not all science fiction.

Other things that happened over the last year:

  • A good friend of mine, Maria Teresa Kumar, Co-Founder and President of Voto Latino, and actress America Ferrera began a new media, grassroots campaign called America4America. The campaign’s main message “Don’t Let Anyone Scare You” is geared toward Latino Voters. The campaign is doing good stuff educating young folks about issues like voter ID laws and immigration.
  • Okay, I was chatting with Reshma Saujani from Girls Who Code last year, providing modest social media help, and blurted out that “code is power.” And I still think that it’s true. Girls Who Code is a nonprofit that teaches under-served girls how to computer program.
  • Speaking of women in tech, Allyson Kapin, craigconnects team member and founder of Women Who Tech, co-authored a book with Amy Sample Ward of NTEN called Social Change Anytime Everywhere. I wrote the book foreword and had a chance to talk nerdy about why nonprofits need to use social media and online channels to reach people.
  • Last summer I wanted to help out with the massive wildfires that were blazing across Colorado and the people (and animals) there that needed help dealing with the damage.  I committed a matching donation up to $5K to support the good folks at a local American Red Cross. They’re doing the real hard work on the ground to help those in immediate need. Small gesture on my part, but it’s something…
  •  I worked with the good folks at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to create an infographic explaining how CDA 230 really protects Internet speech.
  • I’ve been teching across the globe, funding tech labs around the globe. Ranging from San Francisco to Kenya, a Beduoin village in Israel, to Haiti and India, and the Palestinian West Bank; this is a really big deal. It’s important that people have access to the voice that they may not have otherwise.
  • Hurricane Sandy was real serious. It caused a lot of damage across the East Coast including my hometown Morristown, New Jersey from downed power lines to major flooding. I did my small part with Crowdrise by matching $25K to relief organizations like the American Red Cross, Feeding America, AmeriCares, IAVA, and National Wildlife Federation, who have their boots on the ground and help people (and the little furry ones) out. We raised over $110K!
  • I spoke at the Poynter Journalism Ethics Symposium last October. I spoke only as a news consumer, I just want news I can trust. The press should be the immune system of democracy, and needs to fulfill that role again.
  • The Bob Woodruff Foundation’s Sixth Annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit was this past November. There were some real great folks there, and we raised some money for a good cause. My match of $25k was met during the event, and another donor matched $25k on Friday. A total of over $3 million was raised. The wounded warriors and their families have really stood up for us, now it’s time we stood up for them.
  • I teamed up with the good folks at National Wildlife Federation once again to raise money for the furry little critters. 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 there were over 5k mentions and a lot of really cute photos of owls.
  • I asked folks, how does the Internet give you a voice?  I collected answers about how the Internet gives people a voice and shared them on Internet Freedom Day.

It was a really busy year. We’re really looking forward to the years to come. I don’t think of it as altruism, it just feels right and a nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.


Big IT development at Dept of Vets Affairs

(from the dept of giving-credit-where-it’s-due)

Peter Levin and Roger Baker leave Dept Veterans Affairs

VistA is the Dept of Vets Affairs health record system, and it’s been a huge success. VA has open sourced it, which is remarkable achievement for
Washington, a really big deal. It means that anyone can improve it or interface with it. Check out the VA Medical Appointment Scheduling Contest.

What they’re now saying is that the Dept of Defense is considering a health records system, and that VistA should be considered for that.

That sounds right to me, it gets the job done, has been working well for years, and is already available publicly for the public to better help veterans. That means people can find ways to add function to better help active service troops. Find out more here:

But wait, there’s more! Folks at VA have been doing some big stuff since 2009. They’ve announced the VA Center for Innovation. I’d say that the
following is a small part of VA innovation, I’ve seen it firsthand and it’s real. Here’s a little of what they have to say:

As you can see, the new VA Center for Innovation is more than a name change for us. And to make this all the more real, we get to announce a
few recent milestones along with the VACI rollout:

  • Launched a dozen new innovations covering telemedicine, prosthetic socket designs, kidney disease, mobile health/Blue Button, and robotics for sterilization of medical equipment
  • Launched the new VACI website at:
  • Published the 2010-2012 Stakeholder Report (available for download at
  • Selected our first Senior Fellows (Dr. Adam Darkins and Dr. Peter Almenoff on telehealth and healthcare value, respectively)
  • Named serial entrepreneur and Air Force veteran Steve Blank as Senior Advisor to VACI
  • Appointed our first EiR in Doug Trauner, CEO of and co-chair of the FCC’s mHealth taskforce
  • Added our first participant in the Partnership program with the nation’s largest health carrier, UnitedHealth Group
  • Added our second Partnership, this one with TEDMED

Peter Levin and Roger Baker leave Dept Veterans Affairs; legacy includes the VA Center for Innovation

Hey, VA got a lot done under really tough conditions in the last several years. That includes dealing with increasing IT workload regarding the GI Bill, more web-based access to benefits, and processing a lot more vets entering the system from current wars and also Vietnam.

Peter Levin and Roger Baker leave Dept Veterans Affairs

That’s a lot more than anyone knows, and it’s a good time to step up to recognize these guys. It’ll be really hard to replace them, to continue the momentum at VA which started in 2009.

Part of that is addressed by the new form of the VA Innovation Initiative, the VA Center for Innovation. The deal has a lot to do with working with employees, vendors, and others for suggestions from folks with boots on the ground.

For example, employee suggestions have led to Disability Benefits Questionnaires, which show real promise addressing a part of the disability backlog. (Disclaimer: in 2009 I helped judge the employee innovation effort as a civilian/nerd.)

Vendor innovations have a lot to do with medical gear that wounded warriors could wear that reports sensor readings via smartphones to VA databases. That could, in turn, be included in Blue Button files which make it way easier for doctors to share current data.

All this is a much bigger deal than I can articulate; the country really does owe a lot to Peter and Roger, and I already see the VA Center for Innovation getting stuff done.

You can read more on Peter, Roger, and the VACI:

What It Means to Be SAFE – a guest blog post from the USO

Safe – such a small word but one loaded with meaning.  To be safe is to be free from hurt, injury, danger or risk. Our troops’ primary focus is to uphold and keep safe our American tenets. Our military families’ primary focus is the safe return of their loved ones so that our service men and women enjoy the rewarding and fulfilling life they so richly deserve.

At the USO, we have a long tradition of “standing by their side” wherever troops are serving — at forward operating bases in a war zone, at military hospitals, in airports or on bases around the world.

Just this week, we officially opened our newest center: the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. It’s the first of two new USO centers in the United States specifically designed to promote a community of care and provide resources, programs and support to our men and women in uniform, especially our wounded, ill and injured troops as they prepare to return to active duty or transition to the next phase of life.

These new centers will be the largest we’ve ever built but that is not what makes them special. Their mission makes them special. Medical experts tell us that healing happens in places outside an operating suite or rehabilitation facility. Our programs will help troops sustain hope and build confidence in a happy and fulfilling future, keep families together and strong, ensure troops and military families develop a plan for their future and help them build a support network that’s there when progress falters.

These Americans have done their part. Now, as many return to communities across the country and others continue to serve, it’s our turn — all of us — to “stand by their side.”

Supporting the troops has to be more than a slogan. It has to be reflected in action.  Jeep® joined the USO’s mission by contributing more than $1 million in funding and vehicles to the USO for use in programs that directly aid service members and family in their efforts to re-acclimate to civilian life.

Jeep Operation SAFE Return ( was created to address the special needs of returning service men and women along with their families. The program pays tribute to our service men and women through the USO with:

      • Secure Transport: A provision of Jeep brand vehicles to be utilized at USO centers for the transport of troops and supplies
      • Aid for Transition: The brand will assist in their reintegration process through a veteran employment initiative as well as an incentive toward the purchase of a Jeep brand vehicle
      • Freedom Adventures: Through homecoming celebrations and light-hearted engagements, the Jeep brand will provide a much needed hiatus for our troops
      • Enduring Care: Support for the USO continuum of care to assist the wounded, ill and injured troops at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.

To encourage volunteerism, Jeep also hosted a day of service at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, VA during which its employees provided a night of fun and food for our troops and their families.

Jeep’s Operation SAFE Return invites the public to pay tribute to our troops. Now through May 27, the brand will donate $1 for every person who pledges to join the movement and tweets out their efforts using the hash tag #joinOSR. Through community giving, this program will make a real difference for our troops and their families.

The USO is a private, nonprofit organization, not a government agency. It is through the generous support of corporate partners and individuals that we are able to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families millions of times each year at hundreds of places worldwide. To lend your support to Operation SAFE Return, please visit


Sloan Gibson is CEO and President of the USO. The organization lifts the spirits of America’s troops and their families millions of times each year at hundreds of places worldwide and provides a touch of home through centers at airports and military bases in the United States and abroad, top quality entertainment and innovative programs and services. To learn more about the USO and Operation SAFE Return, please visit and



Internet Freedom Day: Giving a voice to the voiceless

Hey folks – today is Internet Freedom Day and that’s a really big deal. A year ago, many good people on the Internet came together to stop SOPA. 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.

This year, I asked folks: How does the Internet give you a voice?

I got a lot of really good responses, and wanted to share some of them with you on Internet Freedom Day.

danah boyd: Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research:  In a broadcast environment, the young punk troublemaking activist version of me would never have been given a microphone.  In a world of credentialing and hierarchies, I was nobody. But in 1997, I started blogging. I started documenting what I saw and providing my interpretation of key socio-technical issues. I was able to draw people in and build an audience based on my insights, not my status. This became the foundation of my career. As a teenager, the internet allowed me to realize I wasn’t alone. As an adult, the internet allowed me to use my voice to share knowledge and inform others. I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for the internet.

Gary Vaynerchuk, Author, Wine, and Social Media Expert, ‏@garyvee: Allowed a jersey wine retailer like me the chance to speak to the wine world by never leaving my office and not rely on media.

Elisa Camahort Page, ‏Co-Founder of BlogHer, @ElisaC: When I started using it myself it changed ALL. Made me a writer, an activist & finally an entrepreneur.

Ilyse Hogue, ‏President of NARAL, @ilyseh: I’ve never had trouble having a voice, but it sure as hell has made it louder! #InternetFreedom

Deb Schultz, Co-host of Tummelvision, @debs: Voice is awesome. Step 1…let’s think big and move to step 2 – better conversations and action! #internetfreedomday #tummel

Tara Hunt, Author and Entrepreneur: Every time I was lost, the internet found me. Or rather, the people on the internet did, but without the platform, it wouldn’t have been possible. Because of the internet, I found a voice, I built a career, I wrote a book, I became a public speaker, I traveled all over the world, I met (and meet) thousands of interesting people I wouldn’t have otherwise, I started movements, I joined movements, I met my cofounders, I met the love of my life, I adopted my dog, I keep in touch with my son, I learn and grow every single day…I don’t know if I could even imagine a world without the web. My IRL world and my virtual world are interlinked so deeply that there are no clear boundaries.

Danielle Brigida, Senior Manager of Social Strategy at NWF: The internet gives me a voice, but it also gives me new ears to listen. I feel like I learn so much every day from the people I associate with online. I also know that while it provides unique ways to express myself, it can extend the life of my experiences elsewhere– offline.

Jill M. Foster, Founder of Live Your Talk: The Internet breaks the world of self-assertion wide open. It has become many things, centrally a testing ground for my perspective and creativity. Could an idea work on online video? or better through a photo essay? Or is it better written, brief, and social? It lets answers to these questions be tested more than what I ever imagined; that’s powerful for testing voice and point of view. And strangely, the Internet has revealed when silence is golden too, leaving the voice to turn inward or offline.

Sheila Katz, Associate Director of Ask Big Questions: Without a doubt in my mind, I know that the internet has maximized my voice…..[Today] I posted an article on gender equality and shared information on organizations I feel passionate about. I use social media to fundraise for excellent causes, share my voice in national conversations around important issues, and to get more students asking Big Questions. I use the internet to create community and spark action.

@Britrock: For squirrels it obviously gives them a voice where in the past they only had squeaks.

@jamie_love: Allows us to create a user generated new media, in an era where journalism is under-funded and reporting scarce.

Margaret Carney Myers: I get to read about people doing things I have only dreamed of – like protesting the Keystone pipeline on stolen Native American land.

@jerryjamesstone: I am big into food issues and recipes and I am able to explore that with. #InternetFreedom

@connectaschool: If we want to nurture a critical mass of young people who trust and respect each other, we need an Internet that fosters freedom of expression. If we want to empower future leaders to work together towards a healthier and safer planet, we need an Internet that supports an open and fair exchange of ideas.

Team Antenna in Lajan Village, Kurdistan, Iraq, cheer a green light on their modem! The group is participating in Touchable Earth, the first digital world book for kids where kids in each place explain all the facts about it. The Christopher Stevens Youth Network will support efforts like this in 20 countries.

@chr15_eat0n: The internet allows me to connect with freedom fighters around the world & act in solidarity with them.

@yearofkindness1: I started a youth empowerment and anti-bullying movement in my school focusing on bravery and awareness.  The Internet allows me to reach people all over the country at the same time, and it works!

Debby Guardino: I’m just a teacher. I’m not anybody special. But by spending a few weeks on a computer in my living room, I was able to generate $400,000 in donations. I’m just blown away by the power of social media. It’s made me more confident. I feel like I can do anything when I set my mind to it.

Bessie & Claude DiDomenica: For many people, freedom and liberty seem to be ethereal nebulous concepts. However, people without freedom appreciate what we all often take for granted. Our thanks to craigconnects for the opportunity to remember ideas that are most precious to all of us: Freedom and liberty. We all need to work together to protect our liberties…Far too often, there are forces that don’t understand the shortsightedness of censorship.

Angela Young: I think that everyone has something to say. Traditionally, finding the right platform to say it was challenging. Now that we have the Internet, it provides the ability for each and every person to create their on platform to share what they need to, or are inspired to share with others.


I really want to help give a real voice to the voiceless where I can, and it’s nice to start with the Internet – a place that gives me a voice too. We need to protect what we have in the US, and that includes really protecting our freedom on the Internet. Let’s all make a point to remember #InternetFreedom Day throughout the year, folks, it really connects us and helps to give the powerless real power.


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.


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