Imagine pulling out your smart phone and calling up an app that tells you how much leave you have or when your next PT test is supposed to take place. Or provide proof of employment if you’re trying to get a car loan.
To make that a reality, the Air Force is launching the most sweeping overhaul of its personnel information technology systems in about two decades, said Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the service’s personnel chief.
The IT systems overhaul is one of two ambitious, multiyear projects getting underway at the Air Force Personnel Center. Also gaining traction in the coming year will be the service’s effort to revamp how it evaluates and promotes officers ― similar to the way it has revised the enlisted evaluation system. Grosso hopes that a new officer system will be in place within three years.
“We’re not trying to speed through this,” Grosso said in a Sept. 6 interview with Air Force Times at the Pentagon. “We need to get this right.”
When the sprawling, balkanized collection of personnel systems that has evolved over the years is consolidated and modernized, it will result in vastly improved services for airmen, Grosso said.
The clunky, dysfunctional IT systems are incredibly unreliable. Each month, about 5,000 airmen have problems with their paychecks because the personnel system isn’t connected to the pay system, she said. Some airmen don’t get the full amount they’re owed after a personnel action, such as a change-of-station. Other airmen don’t get paid at all without intervention.
That’s unacceptable, she said.
“Imagine how stressful that is for the individual,” Grosso said. “The time it takes us to fix it ― it can be weeks or months.”
The Air Force’s personnel functions are spread across 200 applications running on 111 different systems that date back to the 1990s. Grosso wants to throw out all of those old Air Force-run systems and allow a contractor to provide an integrated pay and personnel system in the cloud. She hopes to have that done by about 2021.
When the new system is in place, it will allow airmen to handle personnel matters on their mobile devices.
“Just like I do all of my banking on my phone, whatever interface you need with the personnel system will be done in a medium that’s easy for you, that you understand, that’s transparent, and easy and fast,” Grosso said.
The consolidation of all those system will also give the Air Force the ability to analyze the vast amount of personnel data it’s collected over the years.
“We have troves of” personnel data, Grosso said. “What we don’t have is the ability to leverage that data. Companies would love to have the data we have. This IT modernization will help us … really tap into this big data to have much more predictive analytics.”
Meanwhile, the Air Force is about to start seriously working on the first major reforms to the officer performance management systems since 1988.
It’s something that’s long overdue, Grosso said.
“If you just think about 1988 ― what the world looked like, what the Air Force looked like.” she said. ”You look at it today, it’s dramatically different.”
Grosso said her office is going to complete a “concept of operations,” a road map for what parts of the evaluation system need to be fixed and the time frame for doing so, by the end of November. After that, service officials will determine the best way to do it.
It will probably take a year or two to design a new officer evaluation system, she said, and another year to roll out those changes.
Nothing is certain about what it will look like, she said, but one change the Air Force is considering is to move the officer ranks to a series of static close-out dates, similar to the changes made to the enlisted system in 2015. If implemented, all officers of the same rank would have their performance reports done at the same time, rather than being staggered throughout the year.
`The officer performance system also has a grade-inflation problem that needs to be addressed, she said.
“Honestly, in any performance management system, military or nonmilitary, we know inflation is a problem,” Grosso said.
The Air Force will look at how the other military services handle grade inflation, as well as how the “forced distribution” system of quotas worked for the enlisted overhaul.
Now that three years have passed since the Air Force unveiled the enlisted evaluation system reforms, the Air Force is beginning to review what went right, what went wrong, and what needs tweaking. For example, Grosso noted, her office is sometimes asked whether technical sergeants up for promotion to master sergeant should be evaluated under the senior noncommissioned officer stratification process, instead of through forced distribution.
The overhaul of the IT systems will give personnel officials a better way to calculate the forced distribution quotas, she said. Now, those numbers are crunched by hand and entered into spreadsheets. While the people doing that work are capable and working hard, it’s too easy to make mistakes, she said.
“It’s really important for the individual,” Grosso said. “It’s important for the fairness of the institution as a whole, to make sure those numbers add up right. That should all be done literally in a snap with electronics.”
The officer ranks want more guidance on stratification, or how officers are judged against their peers, she said. The Air Force also wants to make sure the categories it uses to differentiate between different levels of performance are set right.
The Air Force could also rethink whether it needs a promotion recommendation form that is separate from the annual performance evaluation, she said, or whether the two could be combined. And officials will look at whether company grade officers should have a different form, measuring a different set of characteristics, than field grade officers, who focus more on strategic matters.
Stephen Losey covers Air Force leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times.