A public servant’s advice to the incoming administration: listen to K.I.S.S.

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I’m a fan of K.I.S.S. — not the band, but the acronym: Keep it Simple, Stupid. The K.I.S.S. philosophy states that simple systems outperform complex systems because, simply put, less can go wrong. Therefore, when designing solutions to complicated problems, the fewer moving parts, the better.

Here in the federal government, we’re welcoming a new administration with innovative ideas and an eagerness to hit the ground running. Biden administration appointees will want to enact bold, sweeping change and make their mark through major policy shifts — or, as Janet Yellen said at her Treasury confirmation hearing, “Act big.” This attitude is understandable, even commendable. But as a public servant working every day to improve outcomes for my fellow veterans and their families at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I would urge our new partners to consider a K.I.S.S. approach to big change.

I credit the keeping-it-simple approach with keeping my squad alive when I was an infantryman operating in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. In the heat of battle, complications can be just as dangerous as the enemy, and quick and decisive action is essential for survival.

As in battle, complexity can be an enemy in the workplace, where clarity is always an ally. Thinking big is invigorating, and lofty goals are inspiring. But those goals must be well defined. Additionally, everyone charged with working toward those big goals — the boots on the ground — must be crystal clear about both the big picture and their own smaller roles in the effort.

Recently, the VA tried a new approach to an ongoing problem — which is that more than 200,000 veterans either don’t have bank accounts or don’t use their existing accounts to receive their VA benefits. This small choice has big repercussions. VA sends out far too many benefits payments by check and prepaid debit cards. For many reasons, we want to send those payments electronically. Not only is direct deposit faster, but it’s also cheaper for the taxpayer and safer and more convenient for veterans. Many benefits recipients don’t have bank accounts to directly deposit payments into in the first place. Helping those veterans open accounts lets them access financial tools and opportunities otherwise unavailable to them, and this can have a positive and meaningful long-term impact on their financial wellbeing.

VA’s efforts to address the unbanked situation come at a particularly difficult time. The pandemic has triggered staggering economic fallout, the aftereffects of which will impact the economy for many years to come. In fact, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation recently cautioned that due to the pandemic, it expects an increase in the proportion of U.S. households without access to bank accounts.

Despite this dim forecast, our efforts have prompted more than 35,000 benefits recipients to open bank accounts or sign up to receive VA benefit payments through direct deposit.

We succeeded without initiating a complex government program and without significant spending increases. Instead, we relied on two simple actions: a public-private partnership with financial institutions, and a communication campaign based on simple messaging.

We worked with the Association of Military Banks of America to help veterans open low- or no-cost checking accounts. Next, we applied some K.I.S.S. logic to our promotional effort, which up until that point had been far too complex for the targeted audience. Messages were excessively long and written at the post-graduate reading level. To extend the military analogy, we were giving our troops confusing marching orders.

So, we went back to the drawing board and created simple, straightforward messages using plain language that spoke directly to our audience. We kept messages short and dropped the bureaucratic jargon and legalese often found in government correspondence.

Our letters and brochures promote the convenience, speed and security of online banking. We also have adapted our messages to the world around us, pivoting our approach to reflect the realities of pandemic life. We reminded our older veterans that they didn’t have to risk their lives going to check-cashing venues, and direct deposit could help limit potential exposure to COVID.

We’re proud that our efforts have been so successful. The agency continues to see a downward trend in the number of unbanked veterans.

The lesson learned in this effort is that simplicity works. I have great hope for the new administration and its appointees. I know they’re eager to tackle the monumental problems facing this country. I urge them to think big and work alongside public servants to deliver results for the American people while always remembering to keep it simple.

Brian Thompson is a U.S. Army veteran and currently leads the Veterans Correspondence Team at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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