2024 Management Excellence

Christopher Johnston, Rachel Han, Ryan Thurlwell and the VA Mobile App Team

Developed an app that enables veterans to use their mobile phones or tablets to view and cancel health care appointments, manage claims, upload documentation, obtain vaccine records, message their doctor, locate Department of Veterans Affairs facilities and more.

While the public has used mobile devices for many years to book airline tickets, check bank balances, find medical specialists and review lab results, veterans did not have access to an easy, streamlined and secure digital platform to manage their government services wherever and whenever they wanted. 

That changed with the introduction of the VA: Health and Benefits mobile app, which instantly brought Department of Veterans Affairs resources and information to veterans’ fingertips, an innovation led by Christopher Johnston, Rachel Han and Ryan Thurlwell. 

Charles Worthington, the VA’s chief technology officer, said the development and launch of the mobile app demonstrated that the VA team has the minds and skills to match what is often only associated with Big Tech, Silicon Valley startups or Fortune 500 companies. 

“This is really a flagship experience that matches what you would expect from Bank of America or GEICO, where they are offering their core transactions in a mobile experience,” Worthington said. “This team answered the call.”  

App gains wide usage 

The app, initially launched in July 2021, was fully operational in December 2021. By March 2024, the app had 2.3 million downloads and 990,000 monthly active users, including veterans with sight and hearing impairments. 

Johnston, a VA deputy chief technology officer for digital experience, served as the app development’s project lead. Han served as the product manager, deciding what features to build and keeping the development, budget and interdepartmental engagement on track. Thurlwell shepherded the app’s design, focusing on accessibility. The team regularly consults with veterans to determine and address their needs, ensuring a seamless digital experience. 

Kurt DelBene, VA’s chief information officer and assistant secretary for information and technology, said the team is on par with the talent he led as a top executive in his last private sector role at Microsoft. 

“They act like a commercial team,” DelBene said. “I would hire this team to do a mobile app development for my previous employer in a heartbeat.” 

Meeting the needs of veterans 

The team helped shift the VA user experience away from the home computer. The VA had already updated its website in 2018 after veterans said they found it fragmented and frustrating, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, when hurdles for in-person contact and communication mounted, the department realized it needed to leap ahead again, and boldly so.  

“In a world where most people think it is difficult to do business with the federal government, this really says that ‘we’re going to meet you where you are,’” DelBene said. “’We’re going to take those most important services that VA provides, and we’re going to provide those to you in a very intuitive way.” 

The team members said feedback from users was gratifying. A blind veteran said the app let him access, for the first time, an awards benefit letter without relying on someone else to read it. Another veteran said, “I can message my health care provider, check appointments, get official letters, view my claims, get appointments … it is so much easier now.” 

Johnston, Han and Thurlwell came to VA through the U.S. Digital Service, a small group based out of the White House that hires people from the private sector for two-year tours of civic service. Their methods were different from those traditionally found in government, and their work shows the potential of what could be done if only more people across the labor force were attracted to public service, VA officials said. 

Thurlwell said it has been “delightful and very fulfilling to see the success of the mobile app and its level of impact,” while Han said the app has not only helped veterans more conveniently access services and information but “helped VA employees provide those services and made their jobs easier.” 

Johnston said, “People expect their government to be as modern as the private sector services they use,’’ adding that the feedback shows “the team has built something people clearly want because they use it so much.”