Guest Author - Evelyn Rainey
Have you seen it yet? The US Department of Veterans Affairs website has been given a facelift. Gone are those imposingly dark federal blues. The disorganized and redundant lists on the left side bar have been neatly tucked away as – now organized – dropdowns at the top of the page. As long as I stayed on the main website, I didn’t need to leave bread crumbs like I used to do. Click, jump to new page, hit back, done deal! There are a few links which redirect you out of the VA’s site, so you can’t just hit back to return. But it was very helpful to me to be told that I was leaving the VA and that the new page is not necessarily under its authority.
The most impressive change to the VA website, in my opinion, is that I no longer had the feeling that I was at the mercy of a bureaucracy.
The immediately noticeable change is the top half of the screen: four rotating special reports with much more visual appeal than I recall seeing on the old site. Granted, the picture does take up half of that top half of the screen, but it gave me the feeling that the VA was now on par with other information-page sites like AOL and CNN. The pictures and article summaries change frequently, but you have enough time to read the hook and decide if you want to link to the complete article. The few times I have visited the new VA home page, these four stories were different each time, so the feeling that the VA is now keeping abreast of the need for current events comes across well.
Under the eye-catching top half of the screen are three divisions: In The News and Hot Topics take the two thirds to the left. The right third is a series (no, no, don’t groan! They are much more succinct than the old page!) of links of interest divided into Quick Links, Social Networks, Highlights, and Special Programs.
In the News gives ample information in the summary and lists only three or four current pieces of fairly recent news articles.
Hot Topics is similar to In the News, very similar, but perhaps these topics are about slightly more emotionally-sensitive areas of veterans’ lives.
Quick Lists is just that; a list of links to most often needed information. Of special interest to me was the link entitled Tell VA what you think of our new website. This link took me out of the VA site and dropped me into a modern log of comments and questions. The suggestions that I read were incredibly valid; they addressed not only ways to improve the VA page, but to improve the VA itself. The most frequently commented requests were for direct contact information for Secretary Shinseki. When you take a look at the new website, I strongly suggest you, too, let them know what you think of the new website AND how the VA is doing.
In the Social Networks section, the icons for Facebook and Twitter are listed. While I belong to a few social networks myself, I am growing increasingly leery as to the misuse of certain authorities who have access to personal information, conversations, and photos most users believed – naively – are safe because they have a password. Join any you wish, just be aware of the ‘powers that be’. School officials, employers, and government agencies do have access to what you might consider secure information on most of these social networks.
Highlights have links which are timely and personally valuable to most veterans. Of special mention is the new VA Suicide Prevention hotline and on-line live chat which began July 3, 2009.
Special Programs have links for the under-represented populations of veterans.
At the bottom of the page are many outside links and the snail mail address for the VA, but as has been mentioned earlier – no phone number and no email address. The Contact Us page has not evolved much beyond the previous website – you have to navigate through too many obstacles to actually feel like you are being heard.
Overall, I like the new US Department of Veterans Affairs website. The appearance is clean, young, vital, and energetic without being overwhelmingly bureaucratic or formidable.
Good job, VA.