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M21-1-MR, Part II, Chapter 6

Chapter 6. Inquiry Routing and Information System (IRIS)

1. IRIS Policy and Procedures




Introduction

This topic contains information on Inquiry Routing and Information System (IRIS) policy and procedures, including


  • background on the IRIS function

  • the definitions of terms that apply to IRIS

  • the use of e-mail responses for development purposes

  • e-mail responses requiring clarification

  • the differences between e-mail, IRIS, and hard-copy letters

  • determining which type of response to use, and

  • responding as the sender requested.



Change Date

May 18, 2009



a. Background on IRIS Function

The Inquiry Routing and Information System (IRIS) is the Department of Veterans Affair’s (VA’s) Internet-based, public message management system. All electronic messages received from the public through VA Internet web sites will be directed to IRIS.
IRIS provides VA customers with secure communication of personal data, should they voluntarily choose to send it to VA.

Continued on next page

1. IRIS Policy and Procedures, Continued


b. Definitions of Terms That Apply to IRIS

The following definitions apply to IRIS:


  • Inquiry, Query: A question submitted to VA from a veteran, claimant, beneficiary, or other member of the public. Use of the term “inquiry” for all e-mails and IRIS communications from the public is a bit of a misnomer. E-mail and IRIS both offer the public the opportunity to present suggestions, information, compliments, and complaints.

  • Message: The term message as used in IRIS includes all types of electronic messages VA receives from the public and is synonymous with “correspondence”. While typically less formal, e-mail and IRIS messages are essentially nothing more than web versions of the types of paper correspondence regional offices receive daily. Electronic messages are just short on the formal structures of normal hardcopy correspondence.

  • Responder: A VA employee assigned to review and respond to e-mail and IRIS messages.

  • Distribution of Operational Resources (DOOR): A workload measurement system used to determine the effectiveness and staffing needs of each VBA office.

  • Sender: A veteran, claimant, beneficiary, or other member of the public, who uses e-mail or IRIS to convey a question, suggestion, information, compliment, or complaint to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

  • Veterans Assistance Inquiry (VAI): A VAI is a tool used to record and control an unresolved issue for a follow-up action subsequent to a personal contact (such as a telephone call or personal interview) with a member of the public. Note: IRIS is used to create and control VAIs.

Continued on next page

1. IRIS Policy and Procedures, Continued

c. Use of E-Mail Responses for Development Purposes

In some cases, claimants will respond to a development letter, hearing election letter, or other developmental related letter by use of e-mail in IRIS.
Any claimant response by e-mail shall be considered an “official” response and shall be processed following the steps as indicated below:




Step

Action

1

Review e-mail to determine if it is in response to a developmental request.

2

Respond to the inquiry.

3

Print a copy of the inquiry and response.

4

Provide a copy to the claimant’s POA (if applicable).

5

Forward the inquiry and response to the appropriate Service Center team.

6

Document all actions in Internal Notes.




Notes:

  • If the power of attorney (POA) is sent a copy of the e-mail, document this in Internal Notes.

  • In most cases the “appropriate” team to respond will be the Pre-Determination Team.



d. E-mail Responses Requiring Clarification

In the event the e-mail/IRIS response needs clarification, the team receiving the printed e-mail/IRIS response will initiate the action(s) required.


e. Differences Between E-Mail, IRIS, and Hardcopy Letters

Generally speaking, e-mail and IRIS responses are less formal than responses prepared on VA letterhead.
Responses to electronic messages typically are much shorter and do not have the “feel” of a traditional letter sent through the U.S. Mail.
The principles, tools, and techniques reflected in Reader-Focused Writing (RFW) should be applied to responses to IRIS inquiries.

Continued on next page

1. IRIS Policy and Procedures, Continued


f. Determining Which Type of Response to Use

The sender will indicate how we should respond, and how they would like to receive their response. The three main types of responses are


  • a hardcopy letter sent through U.S. Mail

  • a telephone call, and

  • an electronic response (IRIS).


g. Responding as the Sender Requested

Every effort should be made to ensure that you respond to the sender as he/she requested.
There are circumstances, however, where you may not be able to respond as requested. When that occurs, proceed as follows:


  • If you try to call and cannot reach the sender but the sender has voice mail, leave a simple voice mail message that you attempted a call and will call back. Do not leave any personal information on the voice mail.

  • If there is no voice mail and you have an e-mail address, answer via e-mail or IRIS that you “attempted to call but could not reach you so I am responding by IRIS.”

  • If there is no way to reach the sender electronically including by phone, then respond via VA letterhead.

You should also use IRIS as appropriate to inform the sender that we “telephoned you on (date), and answered your questions” or we “wrote you a letter dated (date), outlining your issues and responding to them.” This will ensure that there is a record that we, in fact, did respond.


Note: This information should also be shown in “Internal Notes.”



2. IRIS Responses




Introduction

This topic contains information on IRIS responses, including


  • IRIS links

  • general steps for responding

  • reading the sender’s message

  • considering the sender

  • anticipating the sender’s needs and reactions

  • re-reading the message

  • drafting the overview sentence

  • gathering information

  • preparing the response

  • use of salutations

  • use of helpful headings

  • types of mandatory closings

  • standard closing

  • nuisance mail closing

  • signature block

  • attachments

  • editing the response

  • proofreading the response

  • security implications

  • follow-up and control after sending the response, and

  • claims file issues.



Change Date

May 18, 2009



a. IRIS Links

For more specific information on the preparation of IRIS responses see:


  • IRIS Items Everyone Needs to Know at http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_ITEMS_THAT_EVERYONE_NEEDS_TO_KNOW.pdf

  • IRIS Responders Instruction Guide at http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_RESPONDERS_INSTRUCTION_GUIDE.pdf

  • List of IRIS FAQs at http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_FAQs.doc

  • Glossary of IRIS Standard Responses at http://vaww.va.gov/IRISINFO/docs/IRIS_Standard_Responses.doc

Continued on next page

2. IRIS Responses, Continued


b. General Steps for Responding

The table below shows the general steps to follow when responding to an IRIS inquiry.





Step

Action

1

Read the sender’s message.

2

Re-read the message.

3

Draft an overview as an outline for the response.

4

Gather information using your outline.

5

Respond to the message.

6

Follow-up and control any additional issues.

7

Consider whether the message and response should be placed in the veteran’s official records.




Reference: For more information on the steps to follow when responding to an inquiry, see M21-1MR, Part II, 6.2.c-i.



c. Reading the Sender’s Message

Begin the response process by reading the sender’s message. When doing so, be sure to


  • consider the sender, and

  • anticipate the sender’s needs and reactions.



d. Considering the Sender

When reviewing the sender’s message, read “between the lines” looking for words or phrases that will help you answer the following questions:


  • Should the tone of the response be formal or informal?

  • Would a hardcopy letter or phone call response be more appropriate?

  • What is the general nature of the message? Is it simply a basic “needs information” request?

  • What is the general tone of the message?

  • Do we need to include an “up-front” sentence to acknowledge the sender’s situation (such as, “We’re sorry that you’re having trouble getting answers to your questions.”)?

Continued on next page

2. IRIS Responses, Continued


e. Anticipating the Sender’s Needs and Reactions

When reviewing the sender’s message you should also anticipate the sender’s needs and reactions by


  • asking yourself how you would react if you received a response from VBA on the issues raised in the sender’s message, and

  • anticipating possible negative reactions and how to best deal with them.

Consider a telephone call response or an opening sentence that puts the sender at ease. For example, if the sender expressed frustration because of an inability to find out how to reopen his claims, an appropriate opening would be: “We’re sorry you’re having trouble finding out how to reopen your claim. This e-mail will tell you the steps you need to take in order to do that.”





f. Re-Reading the Message

At this point it is appropriate to re-read the message in order to determine the questions that need answering and to ensure you make good assumptions.
Note the Asked and Implied Questions: Note the specific questions (both directly asked and implied) and any other issues that need to be addressed or may be helpful to the sender. Place the questions or issues in order, the main question or issue first, and outline the rest of the message.
Make Good Assumptions: Based on the sender’s message, you will need to make good assumptions regarding the amount of detail you’ll need to include in your response. It may not be possible to make these assumptions based upon the message alone. Think about other indicators; for example, the sender may understand certain terms because of current or recent experiences with VBA.



g. Drafting the Overview Sentence

Using the outline discussed above, draft the overview sentence. The following tips apply:


  • if you have only one question or issue, an overview sentence is not needed, and

  • the overview sentence does not need to be lengthy.


Example: “We’re responding about the status of your claim and how to get to our office.”
The example above provides a concise but effective overview sentence.

Continued on next page

2. IRIS Responses, Continued


h. Gathering Information

At this point you need to begin gathering the information needed to properly answer the sender’s concerns.
In most instances, our electronic responses will only give information. If, however, a combination answer is required, such as “Here’s the information, and you need to…”, it is essential that the answer be clear and placed at the beginning of the main message or in the overview sentence.



i. Preparing the Response

Follow the steps in the table below to ensure a high quality, professional response.




Step

Action

1

Use an appropriate salutation.

2

Have information and/or notes for response ready and use, if appropriate, an overview sentence.

3

Consider using headings within the response.

4

Use the mandatory closing paragraph and signature block.

5

Edit the response.

6

Proofread the response.

7

Follow-up and control (if applicable).



j. Use of Salutations

Begin the response with a salutation. Some examples of salutations are


  • Ms. Jones:

  • Captain Smith:

  • Dr. Williams:

General guidance on the use of salutations is shown below:




  • As a general rule, avoid the use of first names, even if that is how the sender closed the e-mail.

  • If the sender uses a title, use it in your response.

  • The use of “Dear” in the salutation is not necessary in e-mail responses.

  • If the sender does not provide his/her name

  • try finding their last name using the Internet address

  • if a claim number is indicated, use that to determine sender’s name, or

  • if all else fails, the use of “Sir” or “Madam” is appropriate.

Continued on next page

2. IRIS Responses, Continued

k. Use of Helpful Headings

If space is available, consider the use of headings within your response.
Advantage of Using Headings: Results in a more reader friendly, reader-focused response. In lengthier responses, headings help readers navigate while reading.
Disadvantage of Using Headings: If there is a lack of white space in your response area, use of headings could make the response look compressed.
Important: Be aware that you must adjust the RFW techniques to fit the workspace and the type of message you are responding to.



l. Types of Mandatory Closings

There are currently two types of mandatory closings:


  • Closing - Standard, and

  • Closing - Nuisance Mail.



m. Standard Closing

The mandatory standard closing is provided below:
“Thank you for contacting us. If you have questions or need additional help with the information in our reply, please respond to this message or see our other contact information below.”
This standardized text is required in every response to an IRIS inquiry except


  • in Internal Notes, or

  • in a VAI.



n. Nuisance Mail Closing

The mandatory nuisance mail closing is provided below:
“We have already appropriately responded to your other requests for this same information. Therefore, we must discontinue any further responses to you regarding this issue. Please feel free to contact us at https://iris.va.gov, call us toll free at 1-800-827-1000, or visit our web site at www.va.gov anytime if there is another way we may assist you." 

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2. IRIS Responses, Continued

o. Signature Block

In all IRIS responses, the below standard signature block should be used immediately after the closing paragraph:
Sincerely yours,

John B. Doe

Veterans Service Center Manager
(employee identifier)
cc: (if applicable)

How to Contact VA

On line: www.va.gov
By phone: 1-800-827-1000

1-800-829-4833 (TDD hearing impaired)


By letter: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Your Address



Your City, State Zip Code




p. Attachments

If attachments are being sent with the response, the attachment should be noted in the body of the message and after the closing block.
Note: Senders cannot send attachments in IRIS, as the system has a security feature that prohibits such use.

Continued on next page

2. IRIS Responses, Continued

q. Editing the Response

Before sending the response, use the checklist below to ensure a thorough edit of the response.




Step

Action

1

Ensure the tone is appropriate.

2

Ensure contractions and pronouns are used freely.

3

Ensure active voice usage when appropriate.

4

Ensure paragraphs and sentences are concise and as short as possible.

5

Ensure the information in the response is accurate.



r. Proofreading the Response

All VBA responses should be carefully proofread prior to sending.
Never depend solely on the Spell Check feature in IRIS. While this feature will highlight some of the errors in the message, it will miss some of the common types of errors, such as their/there, hour/our, it’s/its.
If there are typographical and grammatical errors in the response, the recipient could lose confidence in the accuracy and reliability of your information.



s. Security Implications

If the message being responded to contains personal information, such as a Social Security number or claim number, the reply should not include this information. Internet e-mail is not secure, and any personal information is vulnerable to interception.



t. Follow-Up and Control After Sending Response

If you need to follow-up or control an issue after sending the response, do so immediately.
You can create a VAI by using IRIS to create a “New Inquiry” and place your note in the “Internal Note” section.
Important: Our customers expect us to deliver on what we say we will do. Failing to meet this expectation results in a lack of confidence in the agency and will cause unacceptable customer service satisfaction.

Continued on next page

2. IRIS Responses, Continued

u. Claims File Issues

Some types of IRIS or e-mail inquiries will require that the message be retained in the claims file.
Examples:

  • dependency information, and/or

  • information related to claims development



3. Timeliness Standard for Responses




Change Date

May 18, 2009



a. Timeliness Standard

The timeliness standard for responding to e-mails and IRIS messages is five workdays.
This standard is automatically programmed into the IRIS application.
The Compensation and Pension program goal is to respond to 90 percent of IRIS and e-mail messages within five workdays.
Note: Sample size is always 100 percent.



4. IRIS Security




Introduction

This topic contains information on IRIS security, including


  • a general description of IRIS security

  • IRIS security concerns, and

  • the use of passwords in IRIS.



Change Date

May 18, 2009



a. General Description of IRIS Security

IRIS is a secure application. The application resides on a secure server behind a firewall. When either a sender or a responder connects to IRIS, an encrypted connection is established.
Unlike e-mail, sender’s messages and VA response messages are retained in a database on the IRIS server, much like a post office box.



b. IRIS Security Concerns

Potential release of veteran’s personal information becomes a concern when IRIS sends an e-mail message to the sender that a response is waiting to be read. The IRIS e-mail message contains no personal information, only a link back to the VA response in the database.
Privacy becomes an issue if a person other than the sender has access to the sender’s e-mail, giving that person access to the sender’s personal information.



c. Use of Passwords in IRIS

Each Public Contact Team, National Call Center, Pension Maintenance Center, Fiduciary Hub, the IRIS Response Center and Records Management Center is assigned a unique user name and password for IRIS log on.
The login user names and passwords are created and released only on a business-need basis.



5. Reporting Work Credit




Change Date

May 18, 2009



a. Reporting Work Credit

When reporting work credit, include only completed hardcopy correspondence replies in the timeliness data reported in Distribution of Operational Resources (DOOR) for completed correspondence actions.
Completed correspondence actions reported in DOOR are only those that are


  • entered on VAF 21-7288c, Correspondence Log, or equivalent electronic log, and

  • not related to a claim number.


Note: Correspondence related to a claim number must be reported by way of an end product (EP).



6. IRIS-Related References




Change Date

May 18, 2009



a. IRIS-Related References

The following table provides reference information and material related to the IRIS program.




Topic

Link

Topics Listings in the IRIS

http://vaww.va.gov/IRISINFO/docs/Topics_Listings_in_the_IRIS.doc

IRIS Participants Dropdown box Listings

http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_Participants_Dropdown_Box_Listings.pdf
http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_Participants_Dropdown_Box_Listings.doc

IRIS Items That Everyone Needs to Know

http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_ITEMS_THAT_EVERYONE_NEEDS_TO_KNOW.pdf
http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_ITEMS_THAT_EVERYONE_NEEDS_TO_KNOW.doc

IRIS Responders Instruction Guide

http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_RESPONDERS_INSTRUCTION_GUIDE.pdf
http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_RESPONDERS_INSTRUCTION_GUIDE.doc

Continued on next page

6. IRIS-Related References, Continued



a. IRIS-Related References (continued)




Topic

Link

IRIS Reports Instruction Guide

http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_REPORTS_INSTRUCTION_GUIDE.pdf
http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_REPORTS_INSTRUCTION_GUIDE.doc

IRIS Reports Presentation (PowerPoint)

http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_Reports[1].ppt

IRIS Local Admin and Admin-Pub Instruction Guide


http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_LOCAL_ADMIN_AND_ADMIN-PUB_INSTRUCTION_GUIDE.pdf
http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_LOCAL_ADMIN_AND_ADMIN-PUB_INSTRUCTION_GUIDE.doc

Recorded Training

http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/Link_To_Recorded_Training.doc

IRIS Key Terms

http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/LIST_OF_IRIS_KEY_TERMS.doc

IRIS FAQs

http://vaww.va.gov/irisinfo/docs/IRIS_FAQs.doc

Glossary of IRIS Standard Responses

IRIS Instruction Guides - IRIS Information





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