VA has made significant improvements to its social media presence and utilization in the last few years. Up until a year ago key social media positions did not even exist, including the role of the Director of New Media. These hires are a huge step forward. With thousands of new veterans coming home in the coming years, the social media team has the potential to be a pivotal force in transforming VA culture and the way the agency serves our community.
However, VA still has a long way to go when it comes to the adoption and optimization of social media. Although VA now runs dozens of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, something young veterans expect at a minimum from a responsive organization of any kind, VA’s overall outreach to new veterans continues to lag. If we assume, as we must, that all veterans want access to the healthcare, benefits and other incentives they have earned, then well-funded and executed VA outreach and education programs are absolutely critical. If these are as visible as VA has argued, then why are only 50 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets utilizing VA healthcare today? Either these veterans don’t want the benefits, don’t know about them or can’t get to them.
At IAVA, our members consistently tell us it is a combination of the latter: they don’t have the information they need to access VA benefits. In a recent poll of IAVA members, 61.3 percent said they had never seen a VA public service announcement-a key platform (social media and otherwise) for any organization to promote information. I think we can all agree that every single Iraq and Afghanistan veteran deserves better than that.
To the point of comparing VA’s social media presence to IAVA’s, this is like comparing apples to oranges. VA is a government agency with a budget in excess of $100 billion that serves 20 million veterans nationwide. By contrast, we are a small nonprofit with a $5 million budget focused on supporting just over 2 million veterans. With an audience that is a multiple of 10, we would expect VA to have a significantly larger presence than IAVA.
We’re ready to work with VA on real transformative change. Yet, for almost two years, VA has been unresponsive to our monthly requests to meet with Secretary Shinseki. In 2010, IAVA didn’t have a single opportunity to meet with the Secretary-despite being the largest organization for veterans of the current wars. As veterans, we all play for the same team. IAVA and VA are equally committed to serving this generation of veterans and their families in the best way possible. We can only achieve that goal if we work constructively and collaboratively.
Paul Rieckhoff is the Founder and Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), an Iraq Veteran, and the author of Chasing Ghosts.