Barbara Morton, the deputy chief veterans experience officer at the VA and winner of the 2022 management excellence medal at the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America awards, said the government must find ways to provide services and experiences on par with the private sector with trust and human-centered design as their north stars.
Morton received the prize in large part because her team relaunched and revamped the VA.gov website as part of its wide-ranging work to listen and respond to veterans needs more effectively.
According to an annual survey carried out by the department, the VA Trust Report, veterans’ trust in the VA has risen by 24 percentage points from 55% in 2016 to 79% in 2022.
“The power of our experience office is looking beyond operational measures like number of appointments, scheduled number of surgeries, conducted number of new enrollees. [These are] all wonderful measures to kind of keep track, but what you don’t see are the experiences tied to those things,” Morton told FedScoop during an interview.
Morton spoke to FedScoop after the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America awards at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
“So if the experiences are bad, there’s something else at work here that we need to sort of be able to uncover and address before a crisis happens and that’s what we’ve done,” she added.
Morton highlighted that her team measures itself based on measure of trust, ease, effectiveness, and emotion when creating and changing their customer experience policies within the VA.
Improving how citizens interact with services has become a top priority for federal agencies since the Biden administration issued an executive order on customer experience in December. Morton and their team, however, have maintained a laser focus on the issue since the VA launched its Veterans Experience Office in January 2015.
The office was established following a Phoenix VA hospital scandal in 2014 involving so-called secret waiting lists and deliberate gaming of the scheduling system by senior VA managers who attempted to cover up evidence that some veterans had been waiting for multiple months to receive care.
Morton said that the Phoenix VA hospital crisis pushed the agency to realise it had to take the customer experience of veterans much more seriously and find better ways to listen to their needs.
“The fact is that the VA didn’t have a mechanism or way to get the voice of the customer, for them to signal to us something was not right. So there are a lot of operational measures that people track that looked fine,” Morton said.
“But we weren’t able to sort of see and recognize what the customer was telling us, hey, we’re having trouble getting appointments scheduled, hey, they’re extended wait times. And so we created this office as as a direct result of the Phoenix crisis,” she added.
Morton said the agency takes input from veterans through surveys multiple times a year and qualitative research where the VA simply talks to veterans and their families about what matters most to them and how to improve their experience.
“As an attorney for the Board of Veterans Appeals seeing benefits get denied, I had an up-close and personal viewpoint of how difficult the system was to navigate for veterans,” Morton said.
“So when the opportunity came, came by to help stand up the new experience in 2016, I jumped at the chance, because I knew it was something that aligned with my ideals in terms of really wanting to earn the trust of veterans, not the way the bureaucracy kind of might lead us in some ways,” she added.
Looking to the future, Morton said one of her key priorities is improving the transition experience from being a military service member to being a veteran to ensure this process is in line with the President’s Management Agenda, which is used by IT leaders and other C-suite executives at federal departments to help set key strategic priorities.
“We know that it’s a difficult experience from service member to veteran. And so that’s one of the things that we are working on in support of the President’s management agenda. It’s a big, big priority for us in the coming year,” Morton added.
Morton started her career at the VA as an attorney for the Board of Veteran Appeals, and has worked at the department for over 16 years.