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Innovation in State-Level Veterans Services: A Comprehensive Review, Case Highlights, and an Agenda for Enhanced State Impact

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Project Overview

The U.S. states and territories play a critical role in caring for America’s veterans, transitioning service members, and their families. Every state—along with the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands—operates a veterans’ affairs agency, either as a stand-alone agency or as part of a larger organization (e.g., a department of military and veterans affairs). These agencies—hereafter referred to as state departments of veterans affairs (or DVAs)—are dedicated to helping veterans access earned benefits and services, and operate state veterans cemeteries and veterans homes. In addition, they provide or act as navigators to an array of other services, including behavioral and mental health, educational support, employment and training, housing and homelessness, legal assistance, and opportunities for business ownership.

However, DVA leadership may not always be aware of policy or program innovations undertaken by their counterparts. These knowledge gaps pose a barrier to the spread of promising new approaches to support military-connected individuals. Such gaps may also impede collaboration between the states, detract from nationwide continuity and consistency in service delivery, and hinder efforts to foster a vibrant community of practice.

Accordingly, this report presents the results of a national, cross-state comparative study of state-level veterans agencies and service delivery innovations. This required a multi-step, and multi-method, approach to assemble diverse, independent sources of original and secondary data and related information pertaining to DVA operations, budgets, and leading practices.

Major data collection and analysis efforts included the following:

  • state-by-state review of public information and data on state veterans agencies
  • national survey of state and territory directors
  • in-depth analysis of 82 state-level innovative practices documented since 2014,
  • 10 case highlights of state veterans agencies—supported through in-depth interviews; and
  • 2 public data visualizations representing operational trends

Summary Findings: An Eight-Point Management Agenda for State Leaders

State veterans agencies contribute significantly to the national effort to serve America’s veterans and military families. This study reveals that, in addition to their traditional and long-standing role in supporting veterans through claims assistance and long-term care, DVAs are increasingly working to address the broader, often co-occurring health and social needs of veterans during and after the transition to civilian life.

It is clear that many DVAs also strive to promote veteran employment and expand educational opportunities; work to tackle challenges like homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse; support the development of new supportive services like veterans treatment courts; and join state and local service delivery networks that provide coordinated care where the transition process happens—in the communities where veterans live, work, and seek continued meaning and purpose in civilian life.

Even so, opportunity remains for states to pursue new innovations, adopt good ideas or leading practices across state lines, and enhance engagement with stakeholders across the public and private spheres at all levels. From the findings of this study, we offer an eight-point agenda for DVAs sustained or increased impact on those they serve.

  1. Stable and Effective Leadership. Stable leadership is vital for an effective DVA. Each of the profiled DVAs benefits from a continuity of leadership committed to serving veterans and their families, regardless of the DVA’s formal position in its state government. It is best for a director to serve the entirety of a governor’s term in office and, in some cases, carry over to a new governor’s term. Such stability builds trust and promotes shared commitment to the mission in the DVA workforce.
  2. Engagement with the Governor, State Legislature, and Other Policymakers. Leading DVAs are engaged in the policy process and work with both the governor’s office and the state legislature to advance policies positively impacting their states’ military and veteran communities. This engagement depends on the state director reporting directly to the governor and being a member of the governor’s cabinet. This gives DVA leadership enhanced credibility and opportunity for influence with the state’s senior political leadership.
  3. Adequate, Predictable, Diversified Funding. While DVAs operate in resource-constrained environments, those leading the nation in performance and innovation benefit from adequate, predictable funding. Leading states continue to explore additional financing mechanisms, such as state veterans’ trust funds, individual donations, and funding from philanthropic organizations.
  4. Clear Understanding of Veterans’ and Military-Connected Community Members’ Needs. Leading DVAs make understanding the needs of their veterans a top priority and base their decisions about allocating scarce resources, running programs, and conducting their operations on this knowledge. Some states employ a formal needs assessment to align veteran populations with services and resources. Typically, this is a commissioned study gathering multiple sources of state and local data, information, and insights from interviews and focus groups with service providers and veterans.
  5. Logical Allocation of Roles, Missions, and Responsibilities with Other State and Local Stakeholders. Leading DVAs work with state and local government agencies, community-based human and social services organizations, and employers and other members of the business community. These DVAs map the contributions of their partners, identify where the DVA can make the best contribution, and support—rather than duplicate or take over—roles better performed by others. In most leading states, DVA leadership views its mission as coordinating efforts to support veterans. This means empowering actors such as county veteran service officers, who are often the first point of contact with individual veterans.
  6. Revised, Long-Term Strategic Plan with Specific Performance Goals, Objectives, and Implementation Actions. Leading DVAs regularly engage in strategic planning to inform their decisions about resources, responsibilities, comparison of past and current performance, and collaboration with other stakeholders.
  7. Communications and Outreach Tailored to the Needs and Circumstances of the Full Set of Agency Stakeholders. Leading DVAs use a range of communication media: websites, television, radio, social media, and advertisements in areas veterans commonly frequent. They make person-to-person engagement among their highest priorities, appearing at events that bring veterans together. This strategy allows them to effectively engage with veterans and educate them about benefits and services.
  1. National Engagement. Leading DVAs deem engagement with state-level peers critical for innovation and continued improvement. They stress attending meetings of the state DVA community, most often at national events.

Organization of the Report

This report is comprised of five chapters providing insights on the landscape of state veterans agencies and their activities, concluding with an agenda for DVAs to incorporate innovative practices as they serve the nation’s veterans. The five chapters contain:

Chapter 1: The Landscape of State Veterans Agencies. This chapter analyzes DVA leadership, organizational structures, budgets, and staffing.

Chapter 2: National Survey of State Directors. Seventy percent of state and territory veterans affairs directors (39 of 56) completed a survey, revealing insights into DVA operations, directors’ perceptions of need among their states’ veterans, and exemplar peer states to which they seek leading practices in serving veterans.

Chapter 3: Innovative Practices in State Veterans Services. This chapter examines states earning national recognition for innovative practices with four common themes: veteran outreach and engagement, community collaboration, use of technology, and inter-agency and cross-sector cost sharing.

Chapter 4: Case Highlights of State Veterans Agencies. Eight case studies explain selected DVAs’ history, services offered, organizational structure, budgets and staffing, specific practices and innovations.

Chapter 5: Charting a Path to Enhanced State Impact in Veterans Services. The chapter outlines an eight-point management agenda for states to improve service delivery and innovation.

Epilogue: A Strategic Roadmap to Enhance the Role and Impact of the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs. The chapter also offers specific recommendations for New York State to consider consistent with this agenda.

Interactive Data Visualization Tools

In addition to the report, the study team developed two interactive data visualizations tools for public use that capture key insights on state-by-state DVA characteristics and practice innovations. Users may find these dashboards below: