'A Lot of Patches'

By Elizabeth Bennett Print this article Print

Soldiers back from combat see their salary docked or withheld, as the Army strives to update its payroll and personnel systems.

'A Lot of Patches'

The Army updated both the payroll and personnel systems in 2004. In the spring of that year, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service recoded the hazardous-duty pay field in the decades-old payroll application so it would recognize soldiers with the entitlement until they were no longer eligible for the extra pay.

It took the Army so long to get around to making the fix to the payroll system, Reid points out, "because of the age of the payroll system and the status of documentation. There are a lot of patches. You have to be very careful. It's not just an issue of money and consultants."

The payroll system, which consists of millions of lines of code, is not fully documented, he adds. Any change in the software involved minimizing the risk of breaking some other part of the system. To complicate matters, there are more than 1,000 pay grades, entitlements and allowances for which a soldier could be eligible.

The shortcomings of the pay process still crop up when active-duty soldiers are separated from their units, according to Patrick Shine, deputy director for operations at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.

When a soldier is evacuated for medical or emergency leave, far more human intervention—such as to record the length of a hospital stay—is required and that often means additional data-entry errors, Shine says. And the more records adjusted, the greater the margin of error, he adds.

As for the fix to the personnel system, the Reserve implemented an automated process for soldiers mobilized for combat that eliminated duplicate data entry, according to the Army.

With the automated process for mobilization, a Reserve unit pay administrator retrieves a unit mobilization order from the personnel system through an ActiveX software component embedded in a Web page that allows technicians in the field to view and edit files in the personnel database. When he retrieves the order, the application instructs him to answer a series of questions related to the order, such as how each soldier will get to the mobilization station and his start and end dates of deployment. The program then automatically determines a reservist's base pay and entitlements.

Once a printout of the order is approved and signed by the unit commander, the soldier's data, along with the data of all other soldiers processed that day, is sent at night in a batch to a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database at Reserve headquarters in Fort McPherson, Ga. That server consolidates and reformats the pay-related data, such as date of mobilization and basic pay entitlements, into a column format that the Reserve payroll system can recognize.

When the data is properly formatted, finance workers at the Reserve pay center in Fort McCoy can view a flat file of the order roster via a browser-based application that runs an ActiveX control, and then upload it to a local file server. From there, a worker exports the file to the Reserve payroll system for processing.

According to the Army's Reid, 97% of soldiers are now paid correctly within the first month of deployment. Why not 100%? The payroll system might reject a pay input if it conflicts with an existing pay status, or human error might lead to a delay in recording a soldier's new orders, Reid says.

Just as there were several reasons for the delay in upgrading the payroll systems, there are multiple reasons why it took so long to fix the personnel system.

First, from a technical standpoint, the business rules of war deployments are very difficult to automate because entitlements can change from month to month depending on troop movements, says Tom Willson, a Reserve subcontractor for Anteon, a Fairfax, Va., systems integrator. Willson helped build the personnel system and is currently responsible for developing and writing add-ons for the application.

For example, a unit is entitled to hostile-fire pay (approximately $225 per month) for 30 days following an attack or if it is operating within a certain distance of an attack. If Congress passes legislation that gives soldiers additional entitlements, the records of all soldiers would have to be amended. "There are twists and turns on entitlements," Willson says, and changes have to be submitted from a field officer to the pay office during the month in which a soldier is eligible for them, not before.

Another reason the system was not upgraded sooner, according to Shine, is because the Army and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service believed that the new integrated pay and personnel system was "just around the corner."

This article was originally published on 2006-05-06
Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.
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