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6 fixes for the Navy's records mess

Nov. 4, 2013 - 05:51PM   |  
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Sailors have complained for years about the Navy's broken personnel system. It's overloaded with bureaucracy, redundant and frustrating, and at times makes it downright impossible to update your records.

Sailors have complained for years about the Navy's broken personnel system. It's overloaded with bureaucracy, redundant and frustrating, and at times makes it downright impossible to update your records.

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Sailors have complained for years about the Navy’s broken personnel system. It’s overloaded with bureaucracy, redundant and frustrating, and at times makes it downright impossible to update your records.

But a number of factors (management changes, a damning investigation and louder complaining) have brought a renewed sense of urgency to the matter.

And the top brass is promising change.

It’s a priority to “make sure that we’ve got the most accurate service records we can have — to get the service [record] entries right,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told Navy Times. “I think we really need to lay it down and say, ‘What are the issues our people have with this?’ and then sort them as top priority.”

Leaders have already identified a handful of fixes, including:

■Creating a “one-stop shop” for sailors seeking help — and giving that help through simple instruction.

■Reducing the number of databases — and their ever-growing list of related forms — sailors have to contend with.

■Granting sailors the power to log into the systems and make some changes themselves.

The bad news: Those fixes won’t happen overnight.

“We’re going to take this slow and easy,” said Vice Adm. Bill Moran, who, as the new chief of naval personnel, is overseeing this overhaul. “There are no quick fixes. I can say that I have this for action and I’m accountable to the CNO and the fleet for getting this right. What I can promise sailors is slow and steady improvement and that I’ll keep them informed as we move down this road together.”

'Feeling frustration'

An internal study conducted last year found rampant flaws in the Navy’s electronic service record. The probe examined records of 750 sailors from 39 active and Reserve commands, spread across the spectrum of warfare communities, and found problems in every record reviewed.

Navy Times obtained a copy of a PowerPoint presentation encapsulating the report’s findings.

“The absence of standardized processes, confusing and conflicting policy, and a system-wide lack of training all but guarantee that a majority of personnel records are inaccurate and/or incomplete,” the presentation states.

Then on July 1, the Navy launched its RAD campaign, aimed at “reducing administrative distractions.” Through a website, the Navy collected sailor-identified problems and asked service members to vote on the most critical. The top issue? Too many databases and personnel systems for sailors to contend with.

“The amount of man-hours a [petty officer first class] spends trying to fix his or her service record is absolutely incredible,” wrote one sailor. “Why on earth do we have a system in which I have three different service records, all of which need to be 100 percent correct, none of which barely talk to each other, all of which have different lines of communication with other systems, I mean it’s just a mess. If the Navy knew how much time is spent trying to fix these things, leaders would shudder.”

This complaint is similar to hundreds of others posted on the RAD website (

The bottom line: Inaccurate records affect almost every part of a sailor’s life and career. If your evaluations and awards are wrong or missing, it can directly affect whether you can advance or re-enlist. If your quals aren’t right or are missing, it can affect your ability to get the next set of orders to the special billet you want. And if your family data isn’t accurate, you might not be getting the correct pay.

And that’s what has sailors most frustrated; sometimes it takes weeks, months and sometimes years — if ever — to get things fixed.

Moran said he relates to upset sailors.

“Seems every time I go to medical, I’m faced with filling out the same forms and giving the same information,” he said. “It’s like the system forgets who I am. If I’m a flag officer, and I’m feeling this frustration, I can imagine what it’s like for those on the deck plates.”

Understanding the problem is one thing, fixing it is another. Here’s a more detailed look at six ways the Navy is hoping to ease the burden of updating your pay and personnel records:

1. New management

Navy Personnel Command took ownership of the Navy’s 68 personnel support detachments on Oct. 1. The PSDs had been overseen by the head of Navy Installations Command, which made little sense and only fragmented the Navy’s personnel system further.

The Navy has worked for several years to fix this, and now, for the first time in the Navy’s history, there’s a direct line from the sailor walking in the door of his PSD to the chief of naval personnel in Washington.

So what does this practically mean for a sailor?

It means if there’s a systemic problem, it will be faster and easier to get it identified and fixed. It also means, officials say, there is direct accountability that your records will be updated properly and in a reasonable amount of time — and you’ll have a way to appeal if that’s not done.

2. Ending 'multiple-stop shop'

Sailors have three main spots officials say should be routinely checked to ensure your records are updated:

The Electronic Service Record, or ESR. This is the sailor’s individual display of his or her personnel data that’s entered in the Navy Standard Integrated Personnel System, or NSIPS. This is used to perform some, but not all, Navy pay and personnel transactions. Both sailors and their commands have access to the system to view all of their sailors’ records.

■ BUPERS Online, or BOL. This contains basic summary data, duplicating — in most cases — what’s in the ESR.

■ The Official Military Personnel File, or OMPF. Simply put, this record, which sailors access through NSIPS, contains images of every document that used to be in the paper field service record. This record is what selection boards use to read a sailor’s evaluation write-ups and award citations. If it’s not in the OMPF, the board can’t see it.

Angering many sailors is the fact there is much overlap among the systems in terms of content, and that data must be entered manually three times.

“We know what sailors want, and many expressed this through the RAD process — a one-stop shop where they can do all things personnel, and we want that, too,” Moran told Navy Times in an Oct. 17 interview. “But right now, we have a multiple-stop shop that must be consolidated, but done carefully, ensuring we don’t create more problems than we’re fixing.”

With the blessing of the Navy’s most senior leadership, Moran said he and his staff have been given the authority to “take a hard look at all our personnel IT systems and work to streamline them where we can.”

The goal, he said, is to either find one database that can store all of a sailor’s data and easily allow that information to be updated, or consolidate as many as possible and then find a way to connect them so the data is shared between them.

Either way, the result is the same: Sailors get their one-stop shop, personnel officials only need to update data in one place and all the shared databases will be updated at the same time.

3. 'Plain English'

The Navy also wants a better way to talk to sailors. Too often, record-update tutorials are bogged down with acronyms and bureaucratic speak.

“We really have to get away from talking personnel geeky stuff to sailors,” said Ann Stewart, who is now in charge of the Navy’s pay and personnel support at Navy Personnel Command. “So we intend to lay it out in plain English. Instead of telling them about processes, we plan to give them one place to go, where they can get information on what we’re calling ‘life events,’ such as re-enlisting, getting married and transferring to a new command.”

Again, the goal is to also streamline this support, and to put it in a central site that is easy to access.

“The idea is to have one place where sailors know to go,” Stewart said. “And they can get information on their life event, whatever that is, and have it in a language they can understand.”

4. Self help

The Navy is also looking for ways to cut out the middle man and enable sailors to update their service records themselves.

This could be similar to how sailors apply online for leave using eLeave. Sailors simply log in to apply and their request is then approved by their supervisors electronically.

A test program should be launched before the end of the fiscal year, allowing sailors the ability to update their emergency contact information. If successful, officials will quickly try to expand the ability to other items in your electronic service jacket.

5. Virtual help desk

So what happens if you can’t fix it yourself, your personnel support detachment is lacking and your own command is ignoring your pleas?

The Navy is looking to give sailors an avenue to air grievances, and get some help, directly from personnel command.

A pilot program will launch later this fiscal year that will allow sailors to query personnel command about a particular issue. They’ll be given a help-desk type ticket with a tracking number for their requests and receive troubleshooting advice directly from the command.

6. Awards database upgrade

Though it’s not on the front burner, Navy officials say they are also working to improve how sailors keep their awards records accurate and up to date.

The database that contains both unit and personnel awards — what the Navy calls the “definitive source” — is maintained at the Pentagon, not at NPC.

Before an award can be added to your service record and Official Military Personnel File, it has to be verified against this independent database.

“If we’re consolidating data sources, it would make sense to either move personnel awards under NPC, or find a way to allow the databases to cross-populate sailor data,” said a Navy official familiar with the discussion.

In the RAD campaign, many sailors and officers highlighted the awards database as a significant source of anger.

“I am a Senior Chief that was trying to update my medals/ribbons, to ensure that I am in proper dress uniform,” one sailor wrote. “I no longer have the patience to search through numerous websites (which I wouldn’t have to do if we still kept service records maintained by sailors) and may be walking around in improper dress uniform. If a Senior Chief cannot figure this out, how is a junior sailor supposed to? Either fix/consolidate web-based records or bring back paper service records that can be updated by admin at individual commands.”

Moran stressed that accomplishing all these goals will take time and money, two things in short supply these days.

“Nothing is going to happen overnight with any of this and we’re going to crawl first and walk before we run,” Moran said. “We’ve learned from watching other organizations that there’s a tendency to try and fix things by throwing IT at the problem, and though we are aware we’re dealing with some antiquated systems, we have to make sure we get the processes right first.”

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