2022 Management Excellence

Barbara C. Morton

Built trust and a customer-oriented culture among veterans and their families seeking services and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs by listening and responding to their needs.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides health care, education, disability and other benefits to some nine million veterans, has reenergized the ways it delivers services, communicates and builds trust that had been badly shaken.

A primary leader of this effort is Barbara C. Morton, who with her team in the Veterans Experience Office has launched a series of strategies and initiatives designed to listen closely and respond more directly to the needs of veterans so they can gain access to the services and benefits for which they qualify. At the same time, trust in the VA among veterans has risen to 79%, a 24% jump since 2016.

“Barbara’s work has directly improved the experiences, access and outcomes for veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors,” said John Boerstler, the VA’s chief veterans experience officer. “She developed a customer experience framework around listening to the voice of the veteran and using that feedback to build tangible tools to improve VA processes that support and empower employees to deliver exceptional experiences.”

Morton, who has been with the VA for 16 years, joined the Veterans Experience Office shortly after it was created in the wake of the 2014 wait-times crisis when veterans were experiencing unduly long and sometimes deadly delays to see health providers.

“Veterans have a difficult time navigating the department and sometimes their experiences have not been that great,” Morton said. “My team is devoted to making sure any interaction with the VA makes them feel really valued, is easy and makes them feel good about engaging with us.”

One major issue she tackled was the difficulty veterans and their families faced in accessing VA benefits and services.

To simplify access, Morton’s team deployed a VA Welcome Kit that pulls together in one place information for all the benefits and services available to veterans throughout their life—everything from housing assistance to health care and pensions.

In partnership with VA’s chief technology officer, her team also relaunched the VA.gov website so veterans can now view, update and change their contact information in a single place where this information is synchronized and shared across the VA. This has removed the burden from veterans of providing the same information over and over again when seeking different VA services. Customer satisfaction with VA.gov has in turn increased by 20%.

More than 16.3 million veteran contact information profiles have been created and updated since May 2018 as a result of Morton’s initiative.

To better understand the VA’s interaction with veterans and their families, the agency under Morton’s leadership has sent out more than 45.5 million customer experience surveys. Veterans are asked questions about issues such as whether it was easy to navigate a facility and find the clinic they were looking for or to locate the service provider and access the care they needed.

When issues are identified, employees are empowered with real-time customer experience data so they can take corrective action to address pain points.

Morton’s team also created and deployed the first VA Trust Report, which annually surveys more than 1.1 million veterans regarding their recent interactions with the VA. This survey asks whether the respondents trust the VA to fulfill our country’s commitment to veterans, whether it was easy to get the care or service they needed and whether they felt valued as a customer. The data shows trust has risen to 79% compared to 55% in 2016.

“For the first time, the VA is not only asking for the opinions of veterans, but they are asking it in relevant ways, in a timely manner and they are doing something about it,” said Lynda Davis, the VA’s former chief veterans experience officer. “It creates a whole different atmosphere between the agency and those it serves.”

This customer experience approach has helped Morton and her team pinpoint customer frustrations both large and small. For example, they learned that veterans were upset by how difficult it was to navigate the VA medical centers, causing them to potentially miss appointments. The team looked at how other large medical centers solved navigation issues and worked with the Veterans Health Administration to scale a program across the system where volunteers are on hand to give guide patients to their destination in a facility.

“This would never show up on an operational measure,” said Jason Thomas, the Veterans Experience Office chief of staff. “We would know the number of surgeries, but not if people knew where they needed to go.”

Morton and her team also have been active in spreading the word to other agencies by creating what they call their customer experience “cookbook” that apprises practitioners across government how to build and sustain the customer experience as a core business discipline. In addition, they amended the code of federal regulations to explicitly recognize the customer experience as part of the VA’s core values.

“Barbara first came to the Veterans Experience Office at a time when the discipline of customer experience was almost nonexistent at VA and across government, and it was highly questioned,” Boerstler said. “Since then, she has not only changed the conversation about where customer experience fits within the VA, but she is recognized across government as a leading expert.”

Denise Kitts, the VA’s chief data technology officer, said there have been frequent opportunities to fix problems at the VA, but they often have fallen short because people failed to stay focused on fully understanding the issues that veterans and their families have navigating the system.

“Barbara has elevated the importance of improving customer service at the VA,” Kitts said. “The department is now focused not only on delivering benefits and health care, but on how customers are experiencing those services.”