Senior Army leaders said they’ve learned lessons from the problems with privatized housing that can be applied to prevent similar failures in privatizing any quality of life program.

Some lessons: Don’t abdicate responsibility. Keep your eye on the ball. Listen to your people.

The leaders held a town hall Tuesday with soldiers and family members at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting in Washington.

One example is the expected transition of the process for managing household goods moves to a single civilian contractor, noted Joyce Raezer, former executive director of the National Military Family Association, who asked for the leaders’ input on lessons learned. U.S. Transportation has started the process of handing over the move management, in efforts to make the quality of household goods moves better for service members and their families.

All the senior leaders urged soldiers and families to push to get the right person to resolve their issues in any area. “We’d like things solved at the lowest level, but get them up to the right level where people have the authority to fix it,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville.

“If you can’t, get it up to us and we’ll fix it.”

Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said that when the problems with mold, lead paint, rodent infestations and other issues in housing surfaced in the Spring, and officials conducted inspections, he visited housing at Fort Jackson, S.C., and Fort Eustis, Va., “and realized that we just essentially outsourced it.”

“We reduced the resources and abdicated responsibility,” he said. When he returned to give his assessment to former secretary of the Army and former chief of staff, “It was pointing the thumb more so than pointing the finger...

“You can put a lot of policies in place and you can float resources, but it’s a leadership issue,” McCarthy said.

These efforts require communication and relationships with all all involved, he said. The process to resolve the housing problem is ongoing. McCarthy said he will continue to meet with the CEOs of the companies to drive toward solutions and needed outcomes, he said. But when leaders aren’t engaged as they should be, they can’t put together the right metrics for incentive award fees, to reward the best performance.

McCarthy said leadership must make sure the companies build a recapitalization schedule to rebuild the homes, make sure the companies are making the right investments in the houses, and monitor the depreciation of the houses over time.

In addition, he said, commanders on the ground weren’t empowered to do the right things for soldiers and families with housing issues.

“It was a leadership issue and had gone on for far too long,” McCarthy said.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said he’s learned that the Army leadership has to keep the chain of command involved, and have feedback loops for soldiers and families. When new housing was first being built at Fort Campbell, Ken., under the privatized housing initiative, “We said, ‘Wow, we’re finally getting this right.’ But we took our eye off the ball, quite frankly,” McConville said.

“Because we kind of walked away from it, weren’t checking it, it just wasn’t getting done,” he said. The chain of command needs to understand they’re responsible for barracks, and for family housing. “That’s just good leadership in caring for people.”

There also must be checks and balances to make sure that the entities being paid to deliver quality housing, quality moves, quality health care are actually doing so – or they don’t get paid, McConville said.

“We’re a military organization. We’re not a private company,” he said, and the Army leadership has responsibility for the well-being of their soldiers and families. “We own that responsibility. That’s what makes us different,” he said.

The feedback mechanisms are important, he said, such as the commanders’ quarterly town halls where soldiers and families can bring issues to their leadership.

“We want command at every level to be taking care of these things,” McConville said.

“This encompasses more than housing,” said Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston. “Not only leadership…. But you have to take some action. You have to put down the cell phone, look people in the eye and actually talk to them. And then you don’t just hand them off to somebody else,” he said. That leader needs to stick with that soldier or family member until the issue is fixed, whether it’s housing or PCS or other issues, he said.

“ An app doesn’t’ fix it all. …. You know your people.” In most cases, Grinston said, somebody knows there’s a problem, but didn’t take action. “We have to get all of us involved at the ground level and not just identify it…. But keep pushing to the appropriate level until we get the right answer.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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