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Alumnus Revolutionizes Veterans' Affairs

By Stacey Levine and Hope J. Smith
Joseph Thompson, M.P.A. '82, winner of this year's Wayne F. Anderson Award for Distinguished Public Service, began working for the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) in 1975 without any intention of pursuing a career in the public service sector. It was working toward the M.P.A. while working with the VA that gave him "a broadened sense of what VA was all about."

After working in the VA office in New York, where he was commended for his work by Vice President Gore, Thompson was appointed by President Clinton two years ago as under-secretary for veterans' benefits to the notoriously troubled benefit programs.

"We're in the fourteenth year of a seven-year modernization program," Thompson reported to the president, as quoted in the Washington Post. It was the need to step up this plan and to speed up the handling of benefit claims that spurred Thompson's next move. He announced last winter his plan to end the VA's dependence on paper files and reduce the amount of time it takes veterans to process a claim (from an average of 160 days to an average of 92 days) by fiscal 2000 by putting all of the VA's claim files in an electronic database.

Thompson was faced with much skepticism from the government, however, because of the plan's cost. Not letting that discourage him, he asked for assistance from private industry, landing the support of Highway 1, a nonprofit group of information technology companies, such as MCI Worldcom, Computer Sciences Corporation, IBM, Kodak, and Microsoft, that serve as a resource for information and educational resources on emerging technologies and their implementation in the public sector. With the help of seven high-tech companies, the plan is underway.

In addition to reducing the paper trail in the Washington regional office, Thompson will distribute new software that is designed to help veterans fill out their claims forms.

Thompson was chosen to receive this year's award by his fellow alumni in public administration for distinguishing himself through public service. Thompson says it was his experience in George Mason's M.P.A. program that gave him "an appreciation for the broad mix of skills that you need to work at the highest levels of the public sector," including leadership and looking at things from a systemic approach. Thompson's ultimate goal is to prepare the VA for a new national claims network.

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