Accessing government benefits can be difficult for anyone, but for veterans especially, user experience has long been an issue. One particular problem was the use of different platforms to manage different issues, which often led to confusion for those attempting to navigate the VA system.
Fortunately for veterans and their dependents, ease-of-access has improved drastically since the rollout of vets.gov, a single online point of access for all benefits and resources. One person to thank for this innovation is Marcy Jacobs, Executive Director of Digital Service for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, whose dedication to improving and updating vets.gov make her a finalist in the Management Excellence category of the 2018 SAMMIES.
The SAMMIES are an esteemed awards program sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service that recognizes remarkable work done by career federal employees. Last week, Christopher Dorobek, host of the DorobekINSIDER, spoke with Jacobs about implementing new technologies and services in government.
Over the course of her career, Jacobs has combined her passion for helping others with a knack for using technology to drive impact. Before coming to the VA, she led the design department at the U.S. Digital Service. Jacobs said that her focus at USDS on user experience positively informed the way she approaches her current position.
“I think that background has been really helpful here, and has made me very empathetic and connected to the problems that we’re trying to solve and the human beings that are impacted,” she said. Jacobs believes that the best technology solution is one designed around the needs of the people it is meant to help. She’s passed that philosophy onto her team, too.
“What I really want the team to stay focused on, and what the team very much is focused on, is who we are actually here to help and the problems that they have. And it may be that the problems that they have call for some new shiny technology or it may be that their problems are really easy to fix,” she said. This focus on technology and modernization as tools rather than as end goals in themselves has led to a streamlined, user-friendly experience for veterans.
A big part of the consumer-focused design process for vets.gov was stakeholder engagement, which Jacobs highlights as a vital step when the government is rethinking the ways in which it interfaces with citizens. Describing how vets.gov was conceptualized, she said, “It really came from listening to veterans. We serve a very large population, and really wanted to hear from them.”
In fact, Jacob’s team talked with more than 3,400 people, ranging from service members and veterans to caregivers and dependents, throughout the process and the lessons from these conversations were incorporated into the final product. “We work with our end users, whether those are veterans or people who work internally to process information for veterans. We do a lot of observation, listening, conversations and research to understand what’s really going on and where are things broken,” said Jacobs.
Unlike some who might see the two as fundamentally distinct, Jacobs thinks that government can draw important lessons from the world of private industry. “I love the fact that the private sector has raised the expectations for all digital experiences,” she said. “And I don’t know that the government employees should get a pass because they’re the government. I feel like we should be putting that same standard on ourselves.”
Certainly, Jacobs has raised the standards for the ways in which federals agencies interact with and support those that they provide services to. By focusing on mission above all else, she has provided a blueprint for constituent service and responsiveness.
“The VA’s mission is to support veterans,” she said. Sometimes, it can be that simple.