British Army data quality programme tackles ‘whole army’ concept

The British Army’s data quality programme faces a challenge with moves to unify regular and territorial soldiers into one force

The British Army’s data quality programme faces a new challenge with the "whole army" concept – unifying regular and territorial army soldiers into one force – announced by Philip Hammond, secretary of state for defence, in November 2012.

Martin Richley, head of the Army Personnel Data Management Organisation (APDMO), told delegates at the recent IRM UK Data Governance conference in London that future data quality and data governance efforts will be affected by the whole army concept, though it is not yet clear how. 

“From a policy point of view we initially concentrated on the regulars, not the territorials, because that is where the financial, operational and reputational risks arising from poor data principally lay. The Strategic Defence and Security Review and its Reserves scion, ‘Future Reserves 2020’, changes all that, and we have started looking at the quality of TA data,” he said. 

"‘Thank god someone is taking an interest’ has been the reaction so far.”

The army’s data quality programme received a data governance best practice award in 2010, presented at the same conference series. Richley gave an update on progress during the three years since and looked ahead.

In an interview with Computer Weekly two years ago, Giles Baxter, assistant director of manpower systems at the Directorate of Manning at British Army Headquarters Land Forces, related how the army’s data quality programme improved cost control, manpower planning and laid the basis for better business intelligence. 

He said the army’s experience of solving its data quality problems, since the introduction of the Joint Personnel Administration, with provided lessons for other, non-military organisations of significant size. One strong lesson, he said, was that the business afflicted by a data quality problem should own it, and not leave it to IT.

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The JPA was built around the process layer, not the data layer, he said. “There was no single table of data about a soldier. The bit that we collectively forgot is that the data in JPA drives other strategic planning processes, and manpower planning is one of them,” Baxter said.

“We had very little reliable data to even say how many people were in the Army.”

Army data quality project

The Army’s data quality improvement programme began in earnest in December 2008, with a data management and governance programme headed up by Detica, a consultancy firm. Detica helped create the APDMO to provide an enduring focus on data quality.

At the end of 2009 – after over a year of recession during which few left and many wanted to join the Army – the service found itself moving rapidly from a position of being thousands undermanned to being over its endorsed limit of 103,000 and still heading upwards. That meant a cost pressure of over £100m.

“We realised we had overestimated the number of people who were going to leave because the data about ‘run-outs’ – soldiers coming to the end of their contract – was wrong,” Baxter said.

However, because of the data quality programme, the situation could be addressed. The Army scaled down recruitment in 2010 to compensate, saving £40m. The entire data quality programme had cost £4m.

As of 1 January 2013, the army had 94,610 trained regulars, 8,670 regulars under training and 19,040 trained territorial army (TA) soldiers, with just under 6,000 TA personnel under training, reported Richley. It has hundreds of thousands of pensioners, 50 different nationalities – foreign and commonwealth as well as Irish – 17 ranks, from private to general, and 250 trades. Naming conventions, even within the same rank, are complex and it is spread across the world, often in areas inaccessible to the internet or mobile phones. Personnel costs account for 27% of the national defence budget overall, but 74% of the Army’s. The army is bigger than the navy and air force put together, he commented.

The JPA is managed centrally, across the Royal Navy and RAF, as well as the army. It was managed by EDS/HP, but CSC took it over in November 2011.

Spending freeze reduces efficiency

There has, Richley confirmed, been a two-year "change freeze" on the JPA since March 2011, due to end in September 2013. This has meant that hardware and software upgrades, that would have made data quality efforts more effective, were put on hold.

Richley said GW Berragan, the member of the Army Board responsible for personnel, ordered a 60% improvement in data quality for key areas in April 2012, and this was achieved. The ability to monitor trainees through initial training, both for the regulars and the TA, has started. And an advanced analytics tool, from SAS, is being used to undertake complex analyses on personnel data.

There is now a wider acceptance across the army of a need to improve data, because personnel have seen the results, said Richley. A data champions working group works across the hierarchical command structure of the army. And, from a soldier’s viewpoint, matters such as promotion benefit from more accurate data.

The plan to integrate regulars and reservists represents a chance to influence data governance and data quality, said Richley.

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