Making it Easier for Veterans to Get What They Deserve
Ottawa, ON - October 3, 2016
Service Delivery Brief to Influence Change
I was asked by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs to provide my views on how services should be delivered to Veterans and, to influence change, this brief was delivered to Committee members on September 30, 2016.
When I appeared before your committee on March 8, 2016 to discuss service delivery, I commended you for taking up this study at the beginning of your mandate because it provides you the opportunity to influence and shape the future service-delivery model and standard of care for Canada’s ill and injured Veterans and their families. However, at the time of my March appearance, I did not put forward my ideas in depth, so I would like to thank the Committee for this opportunity to provide additional insights on this very important issue.
This brief will examine how services are delivered to Veterans from the perspective of the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman (OVO). It does not constitute a discussion of the benefits that Veterans receive or should receive. I have commented previously on the fairness of Veterans’ benefits and will continue to do so in future. However, I want to touch upon service delivery specifically and in more detail because it is such an important part of the Veteran’s experience with government.
What we hear from Veterans about service delivery
At the OVO, we hear from Veterans on a daily basis about their experiences dealing with Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). For the most part, Veterans’ concerns are related to the lack of proactive communications; the complexity of benefits, programs and services available; the complexity of eligibility requirements; and, the time it takes to receive their benefits.
A major concern expressed frequently is turn-around times that often leave Veterans wondering if they have been forgotten in the process, or turn-around times that are lengthy enough to cause financial and other hardships for Veterans and their families. We hear that even after a decision is made, it can take weeks for Veterans to receive their benefits.
What progress has been made to improve service delivery?
During my presentation to the Committee in March, I stated that a Veteran-centric, one-stop approach to service delivery would better prepare Veterans for transition, and increase trust in the system.
The transition from military to civilian life should take into account financial independence, quality of personal and family life and good health outcomes. It should be a seamless process for Veterans and their families, and should reflect the modern ways in which society now delivers services.
Indeed, the service-delivery expectations of Canadians have increased over time as a result of the implementation of new technologies. It should come as no surprise that Veterans’ service-delivery expectations are also changing and becoming more demanding, as a result of improved interactions with private sector and other government organizations. For example, services for real-time support such as on-line chats are setting the bar for organizations that are not yet offering these and other self-serve options.
Through its project Citizens First 7, the Institute of Citizen-Centred Service conducted a national survey of government services and found three key drivers of client satisfaction:
- Time it takes to receive services and/or obtain help;
- Whether issues are resolved; and
- Whether the client was treated with respect.
Basically, service delivery comes down to two components: How easy was it to get the service? This is the functional component. The other component is the emotional one: Did it feel good, even if the desired outcome was not attained?
“When it comes to service delivery, a Veteran should only have to tell his/her story once. Services should be based on the Veteran’s needs and be delivered in a holistic way.”
For example, when someone goes into a store to buy a smart phone, the service representative will ask the customer about needs, likes, and typical usage. The representative will point out the different options available and discuss the attachments and applications that can enhance the product. The customer will leave the store with a good appreciation of the type of products that would best meet his/her needs.
This is a ‘holistic’ approach. In the context of Veterans’ benefits, such an approach requires not only reducing the complexity of programs and streamlining the eligibility process, but looking at ways in which information is provided to the Veteran. Is the service provider asking the Veteran the right questions? Is the Veteran getting information about all of the possible services and benefits that are available to him/her given his/her unique situation?
Today’s Veteran and his/her family are moving into unchartered waters and they need assistance in navigating from military to civilian life. A Veteran might find himself/herself moving to a new community to start a job, having to find a family doctor and daycare for children, etc., without the supports he/she is used to receiving from the military.
Imagine a world where Veterans access programs and benefits that met their needs in a timely and uncomplicated way as they leave the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Imagine that they have someone to help them navigate through the waters of the ‘transition journey’ and that the journey consists of ‘smooth sailing’ to the Veteran’s destination.
Is it possible for that journey to be calmer and less turbulent? Yes, it most certainly can be and in fact, some progress is being made, but there is still work to do.
Over time, I have worked with my counterpart, the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman, to map the medical-release process. This initiative identified gaps, areas of duplication and opportunities to streamline the process.
In July 2015, the CAF and VAC launched the Team 20/20 Project to close the gap between the two organizations and to reduce the barriers to a successful transition. Many of the opportunities we identified to streamline and reduce duplication have been or are being addressed, such as:
- Increasing the number of Case Managers and Veteran Service Agents;
- Reducing and simplifying forms and letters;
- Implementing the Enhanced Transition Services project which puts VAC Case Managers in contact with transitioning members earlier on when there’s a complex case;
- Making enhancements to My VAC Account;
- Improving services to families through a four-year pilot project that extends access to the Military Family Resource Centres for medically-released members and their families for a period of two years after release; and
- Piloting a ‘service navigator’ program that helps ‘guide’ the Veteran through the process of obtaining benefits.
In addition to these improvements, VAC has announced that it is reopening many of the offices that were closed, so that Veterans can once again interact with a person on issues that cannot be easily dealt with over the telephone or through electronic means.
Moving Beyond Transition - Service Delivery in the 21st Century
Although VAC continues to examine ways in which it can improve service delivery, it should shift the service-delivery focus from inputs and activities to outcomes and the service experience that we want for Veterans.
What do I mean by that? I mean that the onus should not be on the Veteran to try to figure out what programs, services and benefits he/she is eligible for, it should be on the service provider – VAC – to determine, from the menu of possibilities, all of the programs, services and benefits that a particular Veteran is entitled to receive.
This could be more easily accomplished if VAC was to ask itself some fundamental questions about how its clients want to be served. For example:
- Does VAC know what the needs and expectations are of Veterans in terms of service delivery?
- Is there a VAC client-feedback mechanism that could be used to drive service design and delivery improvements?
- Given that timeliness is a key determinant of satisfaction, would it be helpful if VAC was to inform clients about wait times when they call and by posting wait times on its website?
How services are delivered matters to Veterans and their families whether it is during their release from the CAF or in years after their transition. While current improvements to service delivery are encouraging, there needs to be a renewed look at how services are delivered, to ensure they meet the needs of all Veterans. VAC will soon release a Service-Delivery Review and I look forward to the recommendations in that report.
What Should Be Done
It is my view that VAC’s service-delivery challenge is to determine improvements that could be made in the short and medium term.
In the short term, it needs to:
- Initiate a "holistic approach" to service delivery;
- At the OVO, when a Veteran calls, we look at their entire file to see if they might be eligible for other benefits. We do not just address the reason for their call.
- Ensure Veterans are made aware of turn-around times for key services;
- VAC needs to use turn-around times that are meaningful to Veterans – such as, “this is when you will have money in your pocket", in addition to providing a time frame for a decision. These turn-around times need to be monitored and adjusted to ensure maximal service outcomes.
- Provide tools to support Veterans and their families that reflect advancements in technology that appeals to modern Veterans being released from the CAF, such as real time chat or YouTube videos on how to apply;
- Implement a My VAC Account representative portal so a representative can apply or verify status on behalf of a Veteran (we hear this often in our outreach);
- Assess the impact of the ‘service navigator’ pilot and implement enhancements based on findings; and
- Ensure VAC employees have both technical and service orientation training.
In the medium term, VAC should:
- Adopt a "tell us once" one-application approach where it then assesses eligibility for benefits and explains in clear language, the outcome;
- Link to other Government of Canada benefits; and
- Implement a Veteran-feedback mechanism to continuously improve service design and delivery.
I believe that this is all possible and we can move towards this relatively quickly.
Ultimately, we should not lose sight of the fact that each Veteran should be fairly assessed and receive the benefits that meet their needs. VAC’s focus should be on delivering a high standard of service to all those that they serve. There should be a commitment to a measurable level of performance – by setting service standards, defining the service experience and keeping track of performance.
VAC is making improvements to service delivery, however there is more to do. To reiterate what has already been noted above, I recommend that the department pursue the following service-delivery improvements:
- Take a ‘holistic’ approach to service delivery so that the onus is not on the Veteran to know about all the services and benefits available, but rather on VAC to provide the Veteran with information on all of his/her entitlements;
- Expand the ‘service navigator’ pilot and make it part of VAC’s regular business process;
- Provide information to Veterans that is clear and understandable and that uses various communications channels, such as YouTube ‘How-to’ videos, real-time on-line chats, etc.;
- Set standards, such as turn-around times, so that Veterans know what to expect with regard to service; and
- Ensure that VAC staff are appropriately trained using a service delivery orientation.
These changes can be implemented in a phased approach using pilots to put in place certain elements quickly and to monitor ongoing impact. Services need to be coordinated, convenient, simple, secure and focused on the Veteran and his/her family. A positive service experience is the expectation – and Veterans deserve no less.
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