Comptroller award commends customer-focused savings

Story by Shannon Bradford, DFAS Corporate Communications

Cleveland, June 22, 2021 - If you put yourself in the shoes of a surviving spouse who lost their loved one on active duty or in the line of duty, you can imagine just how overwhelming it is to make the many decisions that follow. Now, imagine the added perplexity of the numerous processes and paperwork required to keep benefits coming, both for the spouse and for the service member's children.

When she took over as the director of Retired & Annuitant Pay in 2019, Julie Burandt-Partin listened, imagined, and took action. Her compassionate customer focus led to a new kind of problem-solving collaboration with Department of Defense partners, a series of simplified requirements and forms, process improvements, and new, targeted communications.

The changes resulted in improved customer service for survivors and significant savings to the taxpayer. So far, the savings top $248,000 annually in Retired & Annuitant Pay, in addition to a substantial reduction in customer calls to the Cleveland Customer Care Center.

This is the achievement recognized by an Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Calendar Year 2020 Financial Management "Salute to Savings" Award for Julie Burandt-Partin.

SBP for Survivors
Surviving spouses and children of service members who die on active duty or in the line of duty may receive monthly annuity payments from the DoD Survivor Benefit Plan, paid by DFAS Retired & Annuitant Pay.

The laws and regulations that govern the Survivor Benefit Plan are complex, and many people do not understand them. In addition, there are requirements the surviving annuitants must meet to continue receiving their monthly annuity payments, such as regularly certifying their eligibility.
As Burandt-Partin dug into the processes and requirements for surviving annuitants, she approached the mission like a business. This, for her, meant listening to customer and partner feedback and taking action where it made sense both from an operational perspective and for customers. The feedback was plentiful, from official channels like the annual customer satisfaction survey and from unofficial channels, such as the multiple phone calls and emails Burandt-Partin received daily from frustrated customers, partners, and advocates.

"I knew we had good people doing good work, so just throwing more people and money at the issues wouldn't solve them," she said. "There had to be problems in the processes."
Questioning Why
Burandt-Partin is known in DFAS as a change agent. You don't have to work with her long to hear the question, "Why?" come out of her mouth. "Why do we do it that way?" "Why does it have to be…?" "Why couldn't we…?"

"The typical initial reaction when something different is proposed is that it must be wrong," Burandt-Partin explained. "The many complex laws and rules form a box. Over time, it becomes a mystery box, with the assumptions that people made in the past now viewed as unalterable. Instead of thinking outside the box, sometimes the answer is to look inside the box, take out the pieces, and evaluate them."

"Then change what's inside the box."

Burandt-Partin is also known to pose her probing questions from the standpoint of a retiree or annuitant customer. "So, if I'm spouse Julie," she will begin, "how would I…."

That shift of perspective is a difference-maker. It opened the door to a host of changes:
  • Prioritizing and monitoring survivor accounts.
  • Streamlining annuity processing by replacing manual data entry, workbooks, and calculations with automated calculations and data feeds.
  • Simplifying the School Certification process, reducing the certification cycle to annual instead of each term, eliminating school official signature or documentation, using the School Certification as proof of the student annuitant's annual eligibility, which eliminated the requirement for a separate form, and developing the first customer-focused askDFAS online upload tool for School Certification documents.
  • Reducing the number of annuitants who need to submit a twice-yearly Report of Existence.
  • Making annuitant forms digital and easier to fill out and submit, with Form Wizards for high-volume forms that integrate electronic signatures and verification so forms can be filled out and signed online and uploaded via askDFAS.
  • Providing more explanatory information online, with special focus webpages, how-to checklists and videos, a new survivor-focused newsletter, expanded FAQs, and a Facebook Live event on Military OneSource.
Collaboration Wins
The changes were only possible because of intense coordination and collaboration. Burandt-Partin and her team collaborated with internal DFAS partners, such as the Office of General Counsel, Corporate Communications, the Cleveland Customer Care Center, Information Technology, askDFAS, Leveraging Technology, the Customer Experience Team, and GoDocs. The changes also required close collaboration with partners in the Branches of Service and the DoD Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

"These initiatives have changed our relationship from service provider to valued business partner," Burandt-Partin said. "For example, as we worked on projects with the Army, they saw that we took their feedback and ideas seriously and followed through. So they were more enthusiastic to partner on additional projects."

While there are still plenty of projects on the board, Retired & Annuitant Pay sees the difference in increased customer satisfaction, reduced processing times, and reduced processing costs.

"Now, we are looking toward a future where we will focus people on things that need human attention, not the data entry, workarounds or manual corrections," Burandt-Partin said. "Where we can pay more attention to the customer, not the paper. And without so much time spent on the administrivia, we can truly take care of our customers in the way they deserve."

Robert Edwards, director of DFAS Cleveland, added, "This award is but one example of Julie Burandt-Partin's commitment to providing the best possible support for our retirees and their families. Her creative nature and dynamic leadership inspire her team and serve as major motivating factors in their constant pursuit of making business processes as efficient as possible."
Page updated July 22, 2021