Testimony of: Nicholas J. Armstrong, Ph.D. Managing Director, Research and Data Institute for Veterans and Military Families Syracuse University
Before the: New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Veterans’ Affairs New York State Assembly Subcommittee on Women Veterans
October 21, 2021
Chair Barrett, Chair Hunter, and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the important topic of restructuring the New York State Division of Veterans’ Services, and for all the work you do in support of veterans and military families in New York.
My name is Nick Armstrong, and I have proudly called New York home for over 25 years—first as a West Point cadet, then as an active-duty soldier at Fort Drum, and now as one of over 700,000 veterans across the state. Today I’m here representing as Managing Director for Research and Data at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, “IVMF,” based at Syracuse University’s newly opened National Veterans Resource Center.
For more than a decade, IVMF has made positively impacting the post-service lives of service members, veterans, and their families our central mission. We deliver programs and services nationally, and especially right here in New York. At Fort Drum, we provide job training and credentialing services to transitioning service members and their spouses through our Onward to Opportunity program. And in both New York City and in Syracuse, we work with community nonprofits and government agencies to coordinate social and health services as a continuum of care—providing a single point-of-entry for veterans and their families to access quickly and effectively the full range of services available to them.
In addition to our programs, we lead research and evaluate programs to better understand the needs of veterans and their families, and whether our policies and systems of support are positioned to meet those needs. A few years ago, we conducted a national assessment of state veteran agencies to understand best practices, innovations, and lessons that could be applied here in New York.
This study revealed many important lessons relevant to New York, but given today’s topic, one insight stands out most. That is, that states most highly regarded by their peers to be leaders and innovators in veterans services, also tend to have a veterans agency that is independent, politically empowered, and seated at the cabinet level.
New York’s Division of Veterans’ Services (DVS) is an independent agency within the Executive Department. This independence is vital for it to function without the bureaucratic constraints of a higher department. However, the question today is whether the current structure is sufficient to give the agency the necessary political empowerment and resources to effectively deliver the services that veterans need—services that increasingly require greater interagency, intergovernmental, and cross- sector coordination.
The Value of Elevating the Department of Veterans’ Services
Across the country, state veterans’ agency portfolios have centered historically on benefits and claims assistance, veterans’ cemeteries, and veterans’ homes. Yet, the reality is that many state veterans’ agencies are evolving to help address the wider array of veterans’ needs, if not directly, then by working with and through other government agencies and private sector providers to ensure veterans have access to a continuum of supportive services.
Elevating New York’s Division to a Department presents a unique opportunity. Representation on the governor’s cabinet provides the office greater authority and legitimacy to secure executive support and resources. This level of empowerment would allow DVS leadership the ability to work more collaboratively with other department leaders to address veterans’ health and well-being needs that span responsibilities and capabilities. Take suicide prevention, for example. Elevating the DVS would almost certainly give greater weight to the recently launched Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families—a state-wide effort in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, SAMSHA, and community-based organizations across the state.
Other States Examples
There are examples to look to in other states.
Consider the Ohio example—which used legislation to create and elevate the state veteran agency from a small, buried office ranked 50th in the nation in per capita veterans compensation—to an independent, cabinet level agency. State veteran leaders now view Ohio to be one of the leading states in providing services to veterans.
By elevating the agency, the Ohio state DVS was empowered to institute award winning programs such as the Interagency Paperless DD-214 Project, which streamlines the benefits claims process. This project required the coordination of multiple government entities and would have been impossible without the political willpower of a cabinet level agency.
Another example is the “Texas Model,” which represents a state veterans agency with a broader mandate than most state agencies. The Texas Veterans Commission delivers services across eight program areas ranging from benefits assistance to education, employment, mental health, and veterans assistance grants to community-based organizations.
What More to Consider
It is important to note, that while elevating the DVS to a full department is a big step to better serve the veterans of New York State, it is not a cure-all. Political empowerment means more than structural reorganization. It also means financial empowerment, and it requires a bold vision for what more we can do. In addition to creating a cabinet level department, the state legislature should take two additional steps to further improve services for New York veterans and their families.
First, the Governor’s executive team should be instructed to, in coordination with the DVS and other key agencies, develop a Statewide Veterans’ Strategy. Ultimately, success hinges not on one agency to do it all alone, but on our ability to develop and execute a whole-of-government, and cross-sector strategy best positioned to meet veterans’ evolving social, health, and economic needs. As a key pillar, this Statewide Veterans’ Strategy should include facilitating greater statewide integration and coordination with federal and local governments, the private sector, and the hundreds of nonprofits across the state into a more coordinated system of care, like those found locally in New York City, Greater Rochester, and Syracuse.
Second, the legislature and Governor should take steps to further diversify DVS revenue streams. More important than budget size is the stability and diversity of annual funding sources, relative to the changing demographics and needs of the state’s veteran population. Relying primarily on state general funds poses long-term uncertainty and limits the ability to plan for the needs of the veteran population five years or even a decade from now. Over one-third of states draw upon supplemental state funding streams for veteran services such as dedicated trust funds or lotteries—in addition to their general fund.
Taken together, elevating DVS to a department, developing a whole-of-government New York State Veterans’ Strategy, and diversifying and stabilizing the veteran agency’s funding streams will pay dividends for years to come in the form of thriving veterans and families across the state.
The proof lies in the states around us that have done so already. Doing so will make this already great state arguably the best state for veterans in the nation.
- IVMF Report: “A Strategic Roadmap to Enhance the Role and Impact of the New York State Division of Veterans Services,” 2019. URL: https://tinyurl.com/5sbzraps