Oct 31 2022

Upgraded Videoconferencing Equipment Helps VA Provide Services from A Distance

As hybrid work and remote customer service become routine, agencies find it necessary to improve their teleconferencing abilities.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs oversees a diverse array of operations, including healthcare services, insurance and benefits systems, and cemeteries. As recently as four years ago, its video teleconferencing technology was equally diverse; each service area used its own equipment for its own purposes.

The various video platforms weren’t necessarily compatible with each other, let alone easy to upgrade all at once. VA’s tech experts had to fix problems on each system as they happened.

“Where we were several years ago, it was largely a reactive activity,” explains Eddie Pool, executive director of solution delivery development, security and operations for the VA’s Office of Information and Technology. “If something wasn’t working, we would rush in and see what we could do to bring it up to capacity.”

With several upgrades installed since then, VA now has much more visibility across its teleconferencing operations and is able to monitor its systems, proactively sustain service and maintain reliability, Pool says.

“I can’t overstate the challenge of just making sure that we can do all the different things that VA requires on a day-to-day basis with our communication and collaboration suite of products,” he adds.

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Most federal agencies began modernizing their video teleconferencing technology before the COVID-19 pandemic set in and forced a shift to widespread remote work.

During the pandemic, agencies ranging from the U.S. Air Force to the IRS urgently needed to enhance teleconferencing tools, not only to connect employees virtually but to provide services in more intuitive and convenient ways.

Gathering employees in a big conference room for a telepresence or integrated videoconferencing no longer makes sense with today’s distributed workforce, says Greg Touhill, director of the CERT Division of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and the first federal CISO, appointed during the Obama administration.

Video teleconferencing to desktops and laptops via Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex, particularly for unclassified work, has grown much more affordable, reliable and easy to install.

“Sound quality is better with the desktop. The image quality is great,” Touhill says. “And you don’t have to pay for those expensive, big telecommunications pipelines. So, the value proposition for government is the same as it is for business.”

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How the VA Is Deploying the Latest Tools

At the Veterans Health Administration, which operates the VA’s hospitals and healthcare centers, clinicians rely on Pexip Infinity as their primary videoconferencing platform to link to patients. The VA Video Connect system housed on that platform allows veterans to see and speak with their healthcare providers via any internet-enabled device.

For mental health services over teleconferencing or veteran-centered webinars, the agency uses Cisco Webex. Microsoft Teams is the agency’s default platform for internal, employee-focused videoconferencing, and the agency has a separate solution built on Pexip Infinity for the Board of Veterans Appeals, which reviews veterans’ disputes of VA decisions, Pool says.

The VA accelerated its teleconferencing upgrades in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, largely to expand its telehealth capacity, Pool says. Before the pandemic, the agency hosted the VA Video Connect platform on-premises, but it shifted to the cloud as a duplicate environment to scale up for pandemic-spurred demand.

“Now we’re evolving to the cloud-based solution being the de facto solution for the agency, so that’s going to be a significant upgrade,” Pool says. “The rapid scalability of the cloud environment gives us comfort when we don’t know where the peak is or how much we have to expand.”

    Eddie Pool
    It doesn’t matter what room you’re in, what computer you’re using. You should be able to seamlessly leverage any of our current tools.”

    Eddie Pool Executive Director of Solution Delivery Development, Security and Operations, Office of Information and Technology, Department of Veterans Affairs

    Why a ‘Hardware Agnostic’ Approach Is the Goal

    VA is working on integration across its different teleconferencing areas with a standard architecture that would make the agency “hardware agnostic” for end users, “so that it doesn’t matter what room you’re in, what computer you’re using,” Pool says. “You should be able to seamlessly leverage any of our current tools.”

    The latest video teleconferencing software has made the user interface simple and easy, without the need for a highly trained technician to run it, Touhill says. System integration is another goal of upgrading the technology.

    “More and more, folks want to integrate across different platforms into legacy devices, like a Cisco Tandberg device,” he says. “I still want to be able to plug in somebody who’s coming in off of a different platform. So, heterogeneity is probably one of the biggest Christmas wish list items for folks who are looking at video technology, and the market is responding to that.”

    The Social Security Administration uses videoconferencing to allow people to apply for a replacement Social Security card (if they are U.S. citizens with no information changes) or virtually attend a hearing with an administrative law judge, according to Darren Lutz, an SSA press officer.

    The agency hosts those meetings using Microsoft Teams and Poly video teleconferencing equipment. SSA employees who telework can load the Poly RealPresence client application onto their laptops to connect remotely to the existing endpoints, Lutz explained.

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    How the SSA Is Benefiting from Tech Upgrades

    The SSA’s teleconferencing technology is not only more convenient for the end user but also cuts down on foot traffic at local offices, Lutz says. With administrative law judge hearings, teleconferencing helps the agency spread the workload across its offices nationwide to reduce scheduling delays.

    The agency’s older Poly teleconferencing technology required two video endpoints — one at a Social Security office and another at a third-party site — and the customer had to travel to one of those locations for the virtual meeting.

    “Using videoconferencing technology has helped us better connect with our employees,” Lutz says. “It has allowed for increased workplace flexibility without the loss of face-to-face interaction and collaboration with our employees.”

    Vendors also have made great improvements in audio and video performance, Pool says. And with the latest tools for monitoring and measuring metrics, VA can evaluate service quality in the background, so its IT team can proactively expand bandwidth or adjust the data processing rate in real time.

    The Veterans Benefits Administration has five primary contact centers, and the agency migrated four of them to a standard Cisco enterprise platform over the past year.

    “That just gives us so much more,” Pool says. “Not just in terms of better technology, better capability, better security, more reliability, more redundancy and true engineering excellence in this particular space, but it also gives us internally the benefit of having our workforce targeted and trained to a very specific, standardized platform.”

      39%

      The percentage of veterans who use VA telecare services

      Source: Department of Veterans Affairs

      How the Latest Virtual Technology Is Improving the User Experience

      When different business units use different teleconferencing systems, it can be challenging to convince them to give up their way of doing things and move to an all-encompassing architecture, Pool says. They may balk at change, particularly with a new platform that must be learned from scratch to maintain the same level of service.

      “I would say that’s probably the biggest challenge in terms of how these upgrades are perceived,” Pool says. “Just getting buy-in from our collective stakeholders and a commitment to evolving in this space.”

      Proper training on the new tools is key to a smooth transition, Lutz says. The SSA gives employees time to acclimate to a new system and provides hands-on training sessions, Lutz says. The agency also sets up an evaluation strategy to determine key performance indicators and ways to measure success with the new technology.

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      Cloud-based applications such as Microsoft Teams regularly push updates to users, giving them access to new features. It helps to keep employees and customers in the loop on those, so they know to look out for them, Lutz says.

      “It is important to get stakeholders involved early in the process, because projects like these require coordination from various components,” Lutz says.

      With the evolution to vendor-managed services through Teams and Webex, “changes occur to those platforms rather seamlessly and with very little or no impact to operations,” Pool says.

      So, the agency gets all the benefits of the upgraded technology without the downside of disruptions, he added. “Our goal is to provide the most robust infrastructure that we can, to give business operations the maximum flexibility that they can have, in terms of how they deliver services to customers.”

      Illustration by John Lanuza

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