Federal Agency Better Supports Veterans Using Data

One of the largest US federal agencies wanted to use its data for a noble mission: to support America’s veterans. After bringing in Tableau, agency leaders saved taxpayer dollars while improving outreach efforts through better decision making and more impactful communication.

Click anywhere in the image to view and interact with this visualization.

Tableau gave us the information we needed to better appropriate our budget dollars and target our outreach effort.

Breaking down barriers to insight

“Our servicemen and servicewomen make many sacrifices while in uniform,” says Dr. Tommy Sowers, a Green Beret who is the former Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“They also earn certain benefits and services that can make a real difference in their lives and the lives of their families. The problem is that less than half of veterans access their benefits. In fact, polls indicate that 59% of veterans know little to nothing about the benefits they may have earned.” Sowers was determined to tackle this lack of awareness.

Under Sowers’ leadership, the VA launched its first national outreach campaign in September of 2013. The agency’s media consultancy recommended that the agency purchase advertising time in the top 20 markets. But no one could point to definitive metrics to back up that recommendation. Dr. Sowers knew that to be successful, the campaign would need to be not only effective but also capable of standing up to external scrutiny for wise use of taxpayer dollars.

“I wanted to know for certain that these markets were the right ones to reach our veterans,” says Sowers. “I didn’t want to rely on instinct or ‘how things had always been done.’”

Dr. Sowers and his team turned to Tableau Software for answers. Dr. Sowers viewed the instructional videos on the Tableau website. “I learned Tableau’s functionality over a weekend,” he says.

His team then obtained data from the IT team in Excel format, which they then visualized in Tableau.

For example, the team used Tableau to map out counties with veteran populations greater than 50,000. They then blended in benefits utilization rate data, to identify areas with higher veteran populations but low benefits usage.

“We were quickly able to see that the top 20 media markets would not be the best choice for airing the ads,” says Dr. Sowers. “Tableau gave us the information we needed to better appropriate our budget dollars and target our outreach effort.”

Mapping out a better way

After the success of the outreach campaign, Dr. Sowers’ office looked for other ways to drive data-driven decision-making. His office spent a great deal of time putting together reports to share expenditure information. For example, decision makers needed to see expenditures on benefits—such as compensation, pensions, educational/vocational rehabilitation employment services, and medical care—broken down by the state and county-level. Another commonly requested view was spending per VA patient by state and county.

In the past, even once the required data was compiled and analyzed, Dr. Sowers was not fully satisfied. The reports lacked the interactivity that would allow decision makers to answer questions on the fly. And dry tables of comparative expenditures by county and veteran population were simply not as impactful as Dr. Sowers wished.

Instead, the team used Tableau to create a map of veteran benefit expenditures that can be viewed by state or county—and even by expenditure per veteran. Now legislators can quickly see how their state compares with others in terms of supporting their veteran populations.

“When you can just glance at a Tableau map and discern exactly how your state’s spending on veteran benefits, by program, compares with those of the other 49 states—that’s a powerful tool to bring into these conversations,” says Dr. Sowers.

The agency can share maps on its website to make this information available to the public. They are also using Tableau visualizations to support its new outreach program. Users will be able to view the representatives’ tour schedule.

In addition to these uses, the agency enjoyed a number of other benefits from its adoption of Tableau, including:

  • Shaving months from report timelines. Today, users can easily view their data and gain an at-a-glance understanding of metrics such as cost per location and expenditure per veteran without waiting for IT. “When we can see our data months faster, we can better serve our veterans and make decisions much faster,” says Dr. Sowers. “Having Tableau definitely improved our ability to respond more quickly.”
    He notes that this speed to insight is particularly important when monitoring and managing program costs against budget allocations.
  • Enabling self-service data exploration. Dr. Sowers says that the agency now has the ability to follow the naturally iterative question-answering process without interruption. This new, more nimble environment is critical for the agency. “We are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve veteran support and care. Now we can dive into the data and really explore without interruption or the need to wait for another report to be run.”
  • Freeing IT to work on primary focus. Because Dr. Sowers’ team is able to answer many of their own questions, the IT team has gained back many hours that used be spent running reports. “Now they are free to work on other strategic projects,” says Dr. Sowers. “It’s a win for all of us.”