July | August 2017



 

 
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene
Returning veterans often have a difficult time transitioning to civilian life. Finding a job, obtaining educational benefits and getting housing can be a challenge.
Inspired by a patriotic loyalty toward veterans—combined with a desire to help foster economic development and limit the need for additional services to veterans—states across the country have undertaken efforts to address these challenges. Often, policymakers have dedicated resources to programs that ensure veterans receive the information and services they need for a smooth transition to civilian life.
In the past five years, in fact, at least 10 states have created a commission or task force to aid returning veterans. Sometimes, the solution to the difficulties veterans face is not one of creating new benefits or services, but is more in creating easier access to programs that already are available.
Agency coordination, strong community partnerships and outreach are all key components to successful state veterans’ programing. The kinds of programs that can help veterans find jobs and access the benefits that are due to them include the following, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures:
Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to measure the results of many of these programs, as effectiveness is typically gauged by outputs like the number of veterans reached. Though these can be useful indicators for some purposes, without actual results data it’s impossible to know whether a program has actually accomplished its goals. A 2013 Michigan audit, for example, indicated that the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, “did not have a reasonable basis for assessing veteran service organization performance, for evaluating ... effectiveness, and ultimately for awarding future State grant funds.”
This has inspired the state to explore more evaluation efforts. Based on its new standards for performance reporting, Michigan will now report monthly about work accomplished, work to be accomplished andperhaps most importantlyanticipated problems and notification of deviation from agreed-upon work plans.
In order to dig deeper into the ways that states are trying to assist with the economic plights of veterans, we took a deep look at three of the states that are undertaking particularly interesting initiatives to better serve veterans. We were aided in this effort by our research consultant, Aidan Davis. Brief reviews of these three statesVirginia, Utah and Michiganfollow:

Virginia

In 2010, former Gov. Bob McDonnell issued an executive order requiring the Virginia Department of Veterans Services to take steps to reduce veteran unemployment in the commonwealth.
One of the first major discoveries was “there [were] a lot of services already in place to assist veterans in the state, but very few, if any, were dedicated to educating and training employers on what veterans can bring to the table,” said Andrew Schwartz, a program manager with the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.
A new program, dubbed the Virginia Values Veterans Programor V3was designed to fill that gap. The state developed a series of training programs, based on nationally recognized best practices, to show businesses how they could improve their performance by hiring vets.
More than 275 companies have been trained in these practices in the last 30 months and, “they realized that there’s a valuable talent pool out there that they had not previously tapped into,” Schwartz said. Participating companies have pledged to hire 11,700 veterans, and to date, some 9,000 of them have been hired.
This is the first state program of its kind, but several states have approached Virginia to learn from its experience. Schwartz said that state programs generally have been “focused on assisting the supply side of the equation (the veterans); this program focuses on the demand side of the equations (the employers and business community).”

Utah

Utah has long built its programs on a solid base of information. So, it’s not a surprise that the state’s policymakers are taking this tack for veterans programs. The key mission of Utah’s Coordination Services Bill, which was passed in 2013, is to work with state agencies to discover what various departments are doing to help veterans be successful and how well those programs are working.
Those efforts were expanded last October with the Utah Veterans Owned Business Partnership. This program focuses on veterans who want to or have already started a business, offering education about the services available to veterans to help them open their own company.
Cory Pearson, veteran services coordinator for the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, said the program aims to be the “career one-stop shop to get veterans where they want to go.”
Utah also is seeking to improve the educational attainment of veterans, a demographic that suffers from a high dropout rate from postsecondary educational institutions. Two statewide conferences were held in the last year to teach universities and their staff about veterans and resources available to help them.
Of course, it may not be easy to gather veterans in one place in order to educate them about the services for which they are eligible. With that understanding, the Department of Veterans and Military Affairs is taking its services right to vets with outreach specialists. These men and women offer a regional focus on benefits and claims, education and employment services.
“(This kind of service) allows the department to become entrenched within the communities,” Pearson said. “This level of engagement and trust is important to veterans.”
In 2014, the 12-member Military Affairs Commission was established and authorized to act for five years to provide recommendations to the legislature about issues like veterans’ employment, finances and health. Its predecessor, called the Veterans Task Force, only had a one-year term, which led to lack of continuity. Pearson said that this was “a great development because they no longer have to start fresh every year,” and that “anything discussed can now more easily move into legislation.”

Michigan

A 2013 report from the National Center for Veteran Analysis and Statistics showed that Michigan’s outreach to veterans was one of the five worst in the country, an improvement from 2010 when it ranked last among all 50 states. Even with the improvement, this wasn’t great news for Michigan, especially since the state has the 11th biggest veteran population in the country.
Since then, Gov. Rick Snyder has been pushing the state to take a look at the problem and find solutions. At the time, the state’s efforts to help veterans seemed like a jigsaw puzzle coming out of the box—many disjointed pieces, with a lot of work required put them together to form a full picture. Fourteen state departments and agencies had services for veterans, which meant that there were 14 different access points for veterans to solicit help within state government, alone.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. It turned out that there were a total of some 450 private organizations targeting their resources at vets, as well, creating the commonly cited “sea of goodwill,” in which veterans could easily drown while searching for the right program or service to meet their unique needs.
In 2013, Snyder created the Veterans Affairs Agency, within the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The larger department’s mission had been diffuse and included getting troops ready for combat. The new Veterans Affairs Agency brings the state a new laser focus on issues that affect the lives of veterans.
Jeff Barnes, director of the Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency, pointed with particular pride to two standout programs.
The first has been the Michigan Veteran Resource Service Center, which was launched in September 2014. It is a 24/7, 365-day hotline service designed to provide a “no wrong door” customer service experience to veterans and their family members. To date, there have been roughly 10,000 callers and 50,000 unique visitors to the Web portal.
In addition, in 2014, the state initiated the Veterans Action Team program in a couple of regions to create an integrated service network to help inspire cooperation among communities and offer the best combination of state, federal, philanthropic and nonprofit community resources. This includes those not necessarily designed for veterans, like the Red Cross or the United Way.
One overriding message that comes clear through observation of these three states is that it’s not necessarily the existence of any specific program that is the key to better lives for veterans. Often, it’s coordination and communication among all the potential players that matters, including the programs, the state, potential employers and veterans, themselves.
ABOUT BARRETT AND GREENE
CSG Senior Fellows Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene are experts on state government who work with Governing magazine, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Volcker Alliance and others. As CSG senior fellows, Barrett and Greene serve as advisers on state government policy and programming and assist in identifying emerging trends affecting states.