When you need an answer, you use Google. Its type-ahead auto-completion finishes thoughts before they are formed. Google results provide me with the information that I seek while reminding me that I am covering well-worn ground. Whatever I ask seems to have been asked before.
While I may not be a unique snowflake as I was led to believe, the answers to some questions benefit from crowdsourcing that is tested and refined. Like tumbling a rough stone to produce a polished gem, having raw data rolled around in thousands and millions of queries could have the rough edges removed, producing valuable information.
Thus, with a mix of curiosity and trepidation, I entered “veteran services” into the Google search box. I patiently waited the less-than-one second that it took for my results to arrive….
Wow, 44.8 million results. I wonder whether Webster has redefined “overwhelmed” in our information age. Now I could refine my search and hope to eliminate half the results. And half again. I could repeat this exercise 20 more times before I winnowed the results to a list short enough for David Letterman to read. Or I might become discouraged along the way, never finding what I needed.
I have written about the challenges of navigating a large network of service providers. With a strong magnet or a match, I can find a needle in a haystack. But we expect Veterans to find a certain needle among a stack of needles.
At Altarum Institute, we are working on how to better connect Veterans and their families with those who provide services to support health care, education, employment, and quality of life. We are engaged with the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency to create Veterans Community Action Teams (VCATs) throughout Michigan (see the VCAT expansion announcement). To support this effort, Altarum gathered information about the needs of Veterans and the services available to them. Altarum conducted a community assessment that included interviews with key regional leaders, focus groups with Veterans, a survey of Veterans, and a survey of service providers. This assessment revealed the preferred sources of information for Veterans, as shown below.
Veterans prefer to talk with someone who understands the systems and the twists and turns that navigating the system can present. Relying on websites and email is not unheard of. But direct, person-to-person communication is the preference. More results are available here.
My grandfather was 72 when I was born, and he lived another 26 years. He had served in Europe during World War I. I never heard him speak about his experience. I visited my Dad this weekend and asked whether he heard his father talk about his experience. He said that his father didn’t talk much (on any topic). If he did share, it was with his fellow Veterans. He was a charter member of an American Legion post where I grew up. Each year, he would attend the American Legion National Convention. Our family would drive him to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, where he and his fellow Veterans would fly to that year’s destination. I didn’t understand then, but I see now that he was maintaining connections with those that served and with whom he shared a common experience. If he spoke about his experience, it was with those who understood.
As we seek to connect to Veterans and their families, we are guided by these revelations:
- Veterans will speak with other Veterans, because they can have a shared experience and because this can be the most direct path to an answer.
- Adding organizations to the list of 44.8 million results does not help. At this point, it doesn’t hurt, but it will not get anyone closer to a solution.
- Technology is accepted and helps. But on its own, it is not the first choice or even the best choice for connecting Veterans with service providers.
The VCAT is a network of service providers committed to supporting Veterans and their families with all requests, regardless of their personal capacity to fulfill the request. This is the “No Wrong Door” premise fundamental to the success of VCATs. A VCAT may represent hundreds of providers across a dozen or more counties.
But all providers make the same commitment: They ensure that Veterans and family members whom they assist will be connected seamlessly and transparently to the resources needed. It does not matter where Veterans connect to VCAT, only that they do. By becoming an active member of a community-driven coalition, VCAT service providers reduce the number of distinct touch points for Veterans and reduce barriers to service. We improve service by increasing Organization, not by increasing the number of organizations. Maybe we even create a place where my grandfather would have felt comfortable talking.