Army praised for management turnaround at Arlington cemetery

Thursday - 1/26/2012, 6:42am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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More than 18 months after a scathing Army Inspector General report about the poor management and oversight at Arlington National Cemetery, auditors have a different story to tell.

This one is not about mismarked gravesites, improper handling of fallen servicemembers' remains and what it called a "deplorable management climate." Rather, Lt. Gen. Peter Vangjel, the Army IG, said the cemetery has done a 180 degree turn in how it's managed and run.

"In short, the mismanagement and deficiencies we reported in June 2010 have been relegated to the past," Vangjel told the contract oversight subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Govermmental Affairs Wednesday. "Arlington is transitioning from crisis management to sustained excellence."

In the 2010 report, Vangjel's office identified 61 deficiencies. By the time it finished a re-inspection at the end of 2011, it found not a single one. The Government Accountability Office, working under orders from Congress, conducted a similar review. It also found there's been a huge turnaround at Arlington, though there's more work to do. GAO's Brian Lepore said the most important thing is sustaining the progress that's been made.

"One of the key things from where I sit is going to be ensuring the changes that have been made to date are sustainable and outlive the current leadership team," he said. "And to their credit, the review we did suggests they've begun the process of putting in place the kinds of procedures and systems so we don't ever have another situation again where it takes herculean efforts from very dedicated senior people to make this work."

Fixing the problems

So what did Arlington do? For starters, according to the Army IG, the new management team, led by executive director Kathy Condon, moved quickly to fix badly-damaged relationships between the cemetery's management and its workforce.

"The previous insular environment that contributed to mismanagement and substandard performance at Arlington no longer exists," Vangjel said. "The executive director has established a positive work environment, emphasizing cooperation, coordination and collaboration. Our workforce surveys demonstrate steadily improving morale, unity and organizational effectiveness."

Among the other 2010 problems the inspector general found were financial management issues such the Army not being able to account for some funds. The IG found those problems have largely been solved with Arlington's implementation of the Army's General Fund Enterprise Business System (GFEBS). The IG also had identified acquisition problems at Arlington. The report found Army personnel without background or expertise were administering and awarding contracts, and that the cemetery was out of compliance with several Army acquisition regulations. Now, Arlington has trained contracting officer representatives on board.

"The contracts are now properly aligned, with contractors possessing the requisite skill sets to perform required work to standard," Vangjel said. "New acquisitions are subjected to rigorous analysis, pre-award compliance checks, and contract packet reviews for quality assurance. While we still noted some errors in 2011, none were egregious, and the number was significantly less than in 2010."

The cemetery also reworked its existing contracts. For example, the cemetery had 26 separate service contracts in 2010. It now has 16, and cemetery officials say each recompetition of those contracts has led to final prices that were lower than the government's initial cost estimates.

Using technology to solve problems

Another big change to contracting has been in the area of information technology. All of Arlington's IT contracts are now being funneled through Army headquarters and the Army Information Technology Agency (ITA). Kathryn Condon, Arlington's executive director, said their work with ITA also let them create a consolidated call center for family members of loved ones who needed to schedule burials or ask other questions.

"Before, literally, most of the telephone calls the cemetery got went unanswered," she said. "Now, every call is answered. It's a great step forward." Other technology improvements include a new digital database that brings all of Arlington's paper records into the 21st century, accompanied by photos of each gravesite on Arlington's grounds.

"We examined, and soldiers from the Old Guard photographed, 259,978 gravesites, niches and markers," Condon said. "And the Gravesite Accountability Task Force coupled those photos with existing cemetery burial information that for the first time consolidated 147 years of cemetery records created from logbook entries, paper-based gravecards, and computerized burial records. We now have them in an accountable database."

Making it easier to find information

Within the next few months, Condon said Arlington will finish up work on a smartphone app that will let visitors access information about a particular gravesite. And if they're on the grounds of the cemetery, it will give them GPS directions to that gravesite.