Rebuilding Our Digital Infrastructure In A Post-War America

Samuel Zeller
Samuel Zeller

Destroyed records. Lost appointments. Complacency in an organization created to support the men and women who are willing to sacrifice everything in support of a calling higher than themselves. Citizens expressing outrage at the horrendous treatment of their veterans. Sound bites on news shows. Interview after interview of what NEEDS to be done. The bigger question is – what HAS been done?

I had the pleasure of watching the various sessions with Robert McDonald in front of congressional panels answering questions, to include the veterans’ organizations offering testimony as to what was needed and/or could be done to help alleviate the issues veterans are facing across the nation in terms of timely access to healthcare and appointments.

What some of our own veterans and the majority of the American population fail to understand is the issues are more systemic than missed appointments. An aging digital infrastructure is at the heart of the institutional lethargy that has been plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs since former Secretary Eric Shinseki was in power. How long the issues have been plaguing the department is anyone’s guess, but what it comes down to is: how can the VA offer 21st century services on the backbone of late-20th century infrastructure?

The new war is being fought in Washington. It is being fought over funding. It is being fought over process and procedures. It is being fought among defense contractors, most of whom see financial opportunity at the onset of each conflict and benefit from prolonged wars and missions.  

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a backlog in the veterans’ affairs department, especially when it comes to handling records that were primarily in paper form and now must be converted to digital. The number of hours and personnel this requires is not only staggering in terms of the amount of human capital required, but the financial requirements are squeezing an already fiscally confused government. Two service secretaries have already scrapped attempts at digitizing records, only after $2 billion was spent. The end result? Veterans on every level suffer, losing access to essential services that may hold their lives in the balance or hurt their quality of life if they are utilizing programs like the GI Bill.

Ultimately, the challenge here is agreeing on a plan to rebuild the digital infrastructure across the country and integrating key services and platforms into such a platform. Just like the platforms the Department of Defense across all military branches uses, interoperability is sketch at best, user interfaces are mediocre, security requirements are clunky, and the user experience is an after-thought. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, in 2010, viewed the military as his business, and through reaching out to industry heads, wanted to figure out how to take a business-like approach and apply that to his military strategy.

Given my more hands-on approach with my military experience, I’ve observed leaders at all levels and seen what is required and in their absence had to operate accordingly. I see how many moving parts can be an issue to maneuver and control. In business, we would like to avoid so much confusion to operate efficiently in both time and financially.

In terms of the VA, there are so many working parts, and trying to get them to function in concert is one of the largest challenges faced by the department and all its supporting organizations. Based on what myself and others have experienced, here are some items being included, and should be incorporated in any new platform the VA utilizes: 

  • Identifying all organizations involved in managing information for veterans and military members.
  • Identify key functions of existing platforms and how to streamline into one major platform for all to use, including law enforcement and other government agencies to ensure ubiquity across all levels, allowing for easy transfer of information and records.
  • Incorporate medical records functionality to ensure continuity of information no matter where the individual is located physically or professionally.
  • Bring in medical professionals of all spectrums into the network, allowing for timely access to healthcare, facilities, and treatment as necessary, and incorporate telemedicine/virtual visits as needed.

These are just a few things identified in the beginning of the platform, but user interface and user experience will guide the construction of it. Websites and platforms from a records management perspective as they relate to the military or government agencies rarely consider the experience for the individual user. Often times, inconsistencies and difficulties in user experience make using the platform challenging, and as a result, things are lost or important functionality that can benefit the user is overlooked. Maximizing the experience across the board is key.

As it pertains to veterans, losing visibility of important services may mean the difference between life and death.

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