Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said he plans to launch a new digital services team in the agency to help winnow down its numerous websites as part of a plan to improve the services VA delivers to veterans.
During a press conference Monday, McDonald decried the large number of often confusing websites the agency currently operates and said the website winnowing would take place between now and November.
“Right now, if you go to any Veterans Affairs website, you’ll find that there are 14 different websites that require a different username and a different password for veterans to access the VA,” McDonald said. “That’s just flat wrong. We’ve got to make it easier for the veteran to access the VA through one website, one username, one password.”
During the press conference, McDonald said the department also needs a centralized information technology system. “I think we all agree it’s better to have one IT system across the department than to have Balkanized IT systems.”
On the plan to create a team of digital experts in the agency, VA later said it will recruit and hire “the nation’s top technologists to partner with us in building and delivering world-class, cost-effective digital services to our veterans,” but did not provide any further details.
Governmentwide, the Obama administration last month launched the U.S. Digital Service, a team of private sector tech experts working out of the White House who will work with agencies to help improve their digital offerings.
VA Websites: More Passwords, More Problems?
Alex Horton, an Army infantryman who served 15 months in Iraq and was one of the VA’s first official bloggers in 2011 agreed with McDonald’s assessment of the agency’s website clutter.
“VA’s separate administrations for health, benefits and burials are as different in mission and culture as Navy, Army and Air Force,” said Horton, who’s now a freelance writer in Washington. “Their systems don’t talk to each other, and resource websites dedicated to each exist on separate systems instead of one access page.
Horton added, “The excessive password security is much stronger than my online banking security, and logging in each time is frustrating if done infrequently.”
Horton said VA’s newest web site, Explore VA, “is a pretty good one-stop information resource with videos and easy to understand instructions. And their facility locator is one click away from the VA homepage, so it is very easy to find. But if I had to log into eBenefits or MyHealtheVet right now, I’m 100 percent certain I wouldn’t have the right password and would have to start the long process of resetting my login credentials.”
McDonald also called for a geographic reorganization of how the department works with veterans through its health, benefits and burial operations.
“If you looked at the structure of VA, you would find that we have nine different geographic maps for how we’re organized geographically,” he said. “Every part of the VA has a different geographic map, a different hierarchical structure. We’re going to be looking at: How do we reorganize the VA so that when the veteran looks at the VA, the veteran knows how to connect and how to get things done. We are too complicated from the veteran’s standpoint.”