05 May 2015

Why the Navy can benefit from a new personnel network

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter seems like a man on a mission. After a conference of senior commanders that reportedly included a ban on PowerPoint, SECDEF has set his sights on defense personnel management systems. Luckily, the Navy has already started some overhauls to its personnel records systems. The “My Navy Portal” system is the first step to making sense of the tangled web of websites now required for Sailors to manage their records. At first look, it seems promising.

If you’re like me, “My Navy Portal” (MNP) brings with it the feelings of excitement and dread heretofore only experienced by Chicago Cubs fans. The excitement: military personnel raised on the Internet (those pesky Millennials you’ve read so much about) may finally graduate from the opaque labyrinth of websites, mass emails, spreadsheets, and smoke-filled rooms that generates orders to Fallon. The dread: the Navy will over-engineer the whole thing and inevitably screw it up. But take heart, I’m an O-4 with some ideas for Big Navy, that’s a recipe for success if I ever heard one.

Before we dig into ideas for the future, let’s take a fantastic voyage through four of the most common Navy websites that are probably related to personnel management. I say probably because who actually knows? Not included in this quick rundown: NKO, FLTMPS, myPay, DTS, iNavy, ESAMS, NFAAS, TRiPS, and who knows how many other sites?

The BUPERS website, which will help me drop my letter, call (but not email, oddly) my detailers (disclaimer: other communities provide email addresses; but my community currently lists just the detailers’ callsigns, which, to many aviators’ dismay, are not searchable in Outlook), and find other broadly career-related info, but doesn’t say much about my snowflake-like journey through this big scary Navy. It also links to…

BUPERS ON LINE (BOL). This site has everything! My PRT info is in a fairly non-user friendly subsystem called PRIMS. My record is called an OMPF, and it’s a compilation of scanned copies of documents that don’t talk to my other record, which is my OSR, or maybe it’s my ODC, or maybe it’s… Well, it’s triplicated at least and seems pretty comprehensive. Unless I get a new medal (and I will, because everyone does), then I have to update…

NDAWS, which is maintained by my command admin (not me) and has records of all my decorations, except unit awards. Those live…

On NSIPS! Unlike the other sites, this is the Navy’s INTEGRATED PERSONNEL SYSTEM! So it should talk to all the other sites and make BOL, NDAWS, and the BUPERS site obsolete. Except it doesn’t.

Case study:

When you’re up for a board, the board separates your record from your OSR (which is fed by a DOS based system maintained by a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters in a basement in Millington, probably). It looks older than NAVFIT98 (as in 1998, as in the year next year’s new enlistees were born), our evaluation system, which doesn’t talk to any websites and requires me to print out and fax or email my FITREP to the board when things don’t line up (true for any item missing from my record). Because one day computers will talk to each other, but they don’t in 1998.

Anyway, if the copy of your record that a board will see has issues, you’ll have no idea unless your detailer calls you. Because detailers are the only ones who can look at the record that the board will actually evaluate ahead of time. And if there’s a problem, you can correct it on your OSR (or ODC, or OSR, or NDAWS, or PRIMS, or NAVFIT, or Friendster, or wherever) as much as you want, but it won’t go to the board unless you email it to them. Helpfully, you can download most items from your OMPF on the BUPERS website and send it back to BUPERS.
Technically you’re emailing the board, which meets right next to BUPERS, but sequesters itself from your OMPF, a system that doesn’t feed your summarized record (OSR), which is what feeds the board. (Confused? You should be.)

Sometimes, detailers miss problems because they’re using a million different computer systems too. Or, they’ll contact you and tell you there’s a problem when there isn’t. For example, my detailer told me that I had three instances of an award, when I actually only earned two. He said it was no big deal because the board would only have two citations… so to the board it’ll just look like I’m a dummy who can’t manage his own record. Which is true (the record part, not the dummy part).

This is just the surface. I’ve also got information for which I’m responsible on NKO, DEERS, DTS, NFAAS, myPay, milconnect, move.mil, and who knows what else? (A new one appears every month, it seems.) The best part is that none of these sites seem to share information, since I’m constantly logging on to different sites to verify information that exists elsewhere. When we bought a house, my address had to be updated in no fewer than four sites, including one or two that I had no direct input to at all.

Meanwhile, my phone connects my contacts, social media, calendar, and photos of my lunch seamlessly and allows anyone I know to find out everything about me in moments. But my job is completely stovepiped, it’s scattered across a dozen websites with outdated security certificates, partially correct information, and redundant info. There’s no central place to go to find out what jobs are available, what awards I have, what my leave balance is, or even who my boss is (or his boss, or his boss, or their contact info). When I want a new job somewhere, I ask around, find out who knows the skipper or XO of that unit is, see if someone will vouch for me, maybe arrange a phone call or interview, and then beseechingly implore the detailer to please, please, please get me that job.

But I only know what’s happening around me if my detailer tells me. If there’s a need for a reasonably-likeable, French-speaking, baseball-loving, 1320 out there (is there?), the only way to know is word of mouth and/or a wink and a nod from the detailer, who may not want me there because he’s trying to groom me for command. But what if that’s where I want to go? Why can’t I search for jobs that would fit my interests, contact the responsible CO/XO, talk timing, and then see if my detailer can make it work?

I’m here to serve, but maybe, over the course of ten years, I’ve learned that I serve better as the US Navy’s baseball fan liaison to the French Navy than I do as the guy handing out the basketballs at the base gym (I assume that’s an O-4 billet). What if the CO of the US Navy Sports Fan Liaison Brigade (again, I assume that’s a thing) knows what he needs but can’t find me, his dream employee?

I know, nightmare scenario. Let’s get practical.

SECDEF mentions social networking sites as a potential model. Sites like LinkedIn and RallyPoint look to create a social network for professionals and military members (not necessarily mutually inclusive, am I right?) to make connections and hopefully make those dream job/dream employee match-ups happen. But why doesn’t the Navy do this on its own using My Navy Portal (MNP) as a starting point?

I’m sure the answer relies on something like, “different contracts for each website,” [PDFs] and “it would cost too much to set up,” and “security concerns,” which are probably partially true. But they’re also excuses for doing a poor job of managing people. I’ve seen Sailors explain to their CO that something was too hard to do, citing bureaucratic inertia, too many different source documents, and an undue burden on personal time. Imagine the results for that poor Sailor.

In the words of one of my COs: “Hard is authorized.”

What would this mythical unicorn look like? Well, disclaimer, I am not a web designer or programmer or even a fan of “the Big Bang Theory,” but here’s my idea.

Each command becomes its own “community” and the assigned personnel are members of that community. Important to this process would be tagging each unit with pertinent information: “sea duty,” “staff job,” “kinetic operations,” “FA-18 Super Hornet,” “Chick-Fil-A out front gate,” so that by association, each member of that command has those attributes by virtue of being there.

In addition, each Sailor’s quals, awards, evaluations, and even family information can be entered in the system (it looks like MNP will possibly incorporate some of these things eventually). So now a Sailor is associated with a level of experience, specific qualifications, and personal performance.

Imagine being a unit CO. He needs a 12XX that has experience on a sea-going staff, was a command legal officer, and loves Diet Coke (don’t ask why). He can use this site to search for legal-o’s on sea-going staffs and neck it down from there, or he can just hunt down 12XXs who love Diet Coke by searching the whole Navy (spoiler alert: it’s everyone).

If I want to move to El Centro and run the Motorcycle Safety program, I can find the guy who’s in the job, and start the conversation just by searching “middle of nowhere” and “motorcycles.” We talk, we figure out that the timing looks good, and I reach out to my detailer, who consults the monkeys in the basement (I assume they’ll survive the digital revolution), and ba-da-bing, I’m packing up my wife and kids and heading to La Pasadita for celebratory burritos.

Anyone who’s transferred to a new command has learned one thing: They are the first person ever to transfer between commands, apparently. Currently, the number of datapoints and web databases and phone trees that need to get updated when transferring between commands is almost uncountable. But what if it was as simple as the admin chief from the old unit clicking a “detach” button on your profile and the new chief clicking “attach”? Boom, you’re transferred. Take a second to update your address and the site pushes that info to DEERS, myPay and other non-Navy sites, and you’re set. These DoD sites will probably survive the purge, but let’s make our Navy site capable of talking to them so you don’t have to.

Using a social network construct would let you easily explore your chain of command (if each unit is a community, the small communities can be grouped under the larger ones, from squadron, to wing, to TYCOM, etc.). If you were tagged with your rank and designator, then you could also be tagged with a detailer, or your profile could just have a link that says “My Detailer” or “BUPERS FOR ME!” or something.

Command pages could host instructions, calendars, admin information, addresses, photos, phone numbers, etc. Personal pages could include dream sheets, private messaging options, even chat (you know the Navy loves its chat!) so that when you find the guy with the job you want, you can start a conversation right away.

Gone are the days of hand-updated phone trees or scrambling to update command biographies for changes of command. A brief career summary could be easily displayed on your profile page; once the old skipper leaves, the chief changes the XO’s job to CO and a little note says: “CDR Schmuckatelli assumed command of Basketball Distribution Det ONE on 15 April 2015” on his profile.

The unit’s “community” page could even have a setting that creates a sanitized public profile that doubles as the command’s website, a constantly updating social network page.

My page would have my personal info, my quals, my awards, my chain of command, e-leave links (which would live on this site, not an external one), my FITREPs (ditto), and a nice summary of my career (2000: assembled in the Naval Architecture lab at the Naval Academy).

Again, I am by no means a web guy, so I can’t tell you which 1 goes next to which 0, or how many pages have to be made, or how much it will cost. But I can see that this sort of site could have huge growth potential. I don’t know who’s in charge of making this happen; it has to be someone who works for VADM Moran, but there isn’t an intuitive social media page where I can find out who BUPERS’s “Director of Future Social Media” is… yet.

In this man’s humble opinion, the link between records management, career management, detailing, and job searching needs to be the future vision for My Navy Portal (which, by the way, is not the worst name ever; a million thanks for not making it a ridiculous acronym, ugh). It would be a massive undertaking, but one that could revolutionize our personnel system, reduce administrative distractions, comply with SECDEF’s vision, and lead the way for changes throughout the military.

Sure it sounds tough; but remember, Big Navy: hard is authorized.

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