VBA’s AI Approach Puts Customers First, Technology Second

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has automated some processes to streamline administering assistance to veterans, but according to Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence, the agency’s customer-centric approach to AI and robotic process automation (RPA) is what makes it so successful.

Lawrence said that AI has been implemented at different places across the agency, but it’s really taken hold at the initial intake stage to help gather information from veterans and determine which benefits they’re eligible for. On any given day at VBA, the agency would receive 25,000 pieces of mail to sort through to begin a veteran’s process of applying for benefits.

Since benefits claims must be resolved in 125 days, the 10-day processing time to sort through the initial intake mail created a time crunch. Through RPA and AI, this mail processing has been reduced from 10 days to just one.

“That’s done by RPA and bots handling the mail, getting it very quickly to be electronic, doing AI on that and figuring out where does this application go,” Lawrence explained at the September 10 Fed100 AI Showcase.

To some partners, the obvious solution seemed like instituting digital collection of information through formats such as email instead of paper mail, Lawrence said. VBA, however, leans into convenience for the veteran population and allows veterans to send information in whatever format is easiest to them. While this can lead to unstructured data – and the need for the AI and RPA sorting solution – Lawrence and his team knew from their veteran outreach that asking a largely aging population of vets to submit information digitally would undermine the convenience factor.

“We’re really at this interesting balance of how much can we require our veterans to do with the understanding that anything that’s more standardized we can streamline,” Lawrence added.

Lawrence and his team find that balance through outreach efforts. He said he values connecting with veterans and employees through site visits, and now during the pandemic, tele-town halls because most individuals aren’t shy about speaking up with their complaints.

He admitted that the newest technology or modernization efforts are interesting, but “it may not be something we can do. Sometimes simple is really, really better.”

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