If people can trade stocks and buy running shoes on the Internet, why should they still have to stand in long lines in an Air Force personnel office to check their records, apply for reassignment, or put in for retirement?
Last year, Lt. Gen. Donald L. Peterson, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for personnel, put that question to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph AFB, Tex. The general asked officials there to study the idea of letting members use home and office computers to do the sorts of things that traditionally required a trip to their base personnel flights.
The center probed the possibilities and, a year later, it launched phase one of the "virtual Military Personnel Flight"-also known as vMPF.
As the name implies, the vMPF is an electronic replica of the traditional personnel office that serves military members on a base. Like the real thing, the virtual personnel shop will supply information to visitors, allow them to check their records, and within limits, let them initiate actions that formerly have required in-person visits.
At present, members still have to hand-carry some of their computer-generated paperwork to their local personnel flights for final action, but with time, they should even be able to "sign" documents electronically and receive their commanders' approvals online.
Easing Into the System
The system is being phased in as new technology becomes available and the personnel center is able to exploit it. Since late July, for example, members have been able to tap into the vMPF Web site from their home or work computers to check on re-enlistment eligibility, verify personnel records, apply for humanitarian reassignments, and other transactions. Expectations are that, within a year, airmen using computers and the Internet will be able to perform more than 80 percent of the functions previously handled by base personnel shops.
Two factors dictate this gradual approach, said Jan McIntosh, the vMPF program manager.
First, he said, "We wanted to bring on some very basic, elementary user applications ... so that Air Force members could sign on and we could break them in easily to what vMPF is going to be one day."
The second reason for a go-slow approach: USAF's Personnel Data System is being modernized. Plans call for the new PDS to be online by next spring. "To take full advantage of a Web-based system, we need for that modernized system to be there," McIntosh said. "When it does, we'll get still more sophisticated."
The modernized system will speed both the flow of information into the personnel system and the rate at which it can be retrieved. McIntosh explained:
"Today, if an airman at another base wants to change his address, he has to walk over to the real MPF and fill out a form. Then, some technician at the MPF must put in the information and update the base-level file there. After that, it [the base-level file] comes up here and updates our files at the personnel center. Using the modernized system, there is no base-level system. The only file will be here, so when data gets entered, it will come directly here and update almost instantaneously. The Web-based system needs that kind of high-speed interactivity to do well."
The full-scale vMPF still is some months away, but the center hopes to expand its capabilities a bit this fall. "We're still in the planning stages," said McIntosh, "but we're going to try to deliver a few more applications in October."
On the drawing board: Letting members obtain the "proof of service" letters they need for VA home loans; apply for permissive permanent change of station assignments; make join-spouse applications; and put in for identification as a sole surviving son or daughter.
"There are a few more that we're considering, but those look like good possibilities for October," said McIntosh.
The Web-based personnel office is not so much a radical departure as a natural result of the Air Force's long involvement with computers.
Not long after World War II, the service began feeding some of its voluminous records into machines. The traditional "morning report" became one of the early casualties of the technology when it was replaced by electronic reporting. With time, personnel officials gathered a wealth of computer-based data on members. Until recently, little of it was accessible to individuals unless they physically visited their personnel flights.
In 1962, the Air Force commissioned Rand to conduct a study on how it could maintain command and control of its weapons after a nuclear attack. About the same time, the services were developing systems that allowed geographically separated units to share computer-based information. This effort to develop systems that could survive a major strike and keep scattered elements in contact was one factor leading to creation of the Internet.
Interactive at Last
In time, connections originally developed for command and control of forces were put to other uses--among them, the sharing of personnel data. By the 1980s, the Internet was emerging in the civilian world. In the early 1990s it became interactive, as retailers let customers place orders over their Web sites and entrepreneurs opened the first virtual bank.
Gradually, USAF developed its own Web sites, including one at the personnel center. Until recently, however, members could only view information, not act on it. Then, with development of the Assignment Management System they were allowed to enter their assignment preferences and react in other limited ways to the information that the Air Force provided.
That, said McIntosh, was the first step toward the vMPF.
The final decision to press on with the virtual flight approach was sparked by a series of focus groups assembled by the Air Force to suggest improvements in the personnel system. Some 1,500 members and dependents aired their views. The result was a new, five-part and five-year plan to update the personnel system. The vMPF system is one of the first suggestions adopted.
Others proposals, now in various stages of implementation, include:
Giving field commanders more personnel capabilities when their units are deployed.
Mounting new efforts to determine how to attract and retain military and civilian members and to define the pool of potential recruits more clearly.
Streamlining, by the end of Fiscal 2003, all personnel processes to make them more efficient, reduce expenditure of man-hours, and eliminate some levels of review.
Implementing a total force management approach to support the Guard, Reserve, civilians, and contractors to determine how best to utilize all their talents and provide for their professional development.
At present, the vMPF system is available to active duty, Guard, and Reserve members but not to civilian employees. McIntosh pointed out that there are several development efforts going on simultaneously.
"The vMPF is basically for military only," he said, "but there is a Palace Compass Defense Civilian Personal Data System, which is the civilian equivalent to what we are doing. I know there have been discussions about moving the two efforts closer together."
When the vMPF is fully operational, members will be able to do much of their business with personnel officials from their home computers in much the same way as they use online shopping networks.
A Typical Transaction
McIntosh described the course of a typical transaction. "First," he said, "you would come to our Web site at the personnel center (www.afpc.randolph.af.mil). There, you would see a button for vMPF. You'd click on that, and it would take you to a page showing various kinds of information. There is a briefing on what the vMPF is, a section giving answers to frequently asked questions, and a little tutorial that tells how to use the system if you have never logged on before. It also talks about whom to contact if you have problems.
"Let's say that you have been here before, however, and you know how to get around. You just click on the button labeled 'Log In' and it will take you to a page with a little menu system.
"Then, let's say that you are coming up for promotion and you want to make sure that all the items in your duty history are accurate. You would click on the item for duty history and it would bring up a screen showing all the places you have been and all the jobs that you have held. Obviously, that's of interest to the promotions board so you want to make sure the history is accurate. If everything is fine, you have confidence that your record is squared away.
"But, if you think that you see something that isn't right, it will tell you how to go over to the actual MPF and get it corrected."
The fact that a member can see his records but not change them still is one thing that separates the virtual MPF from the real one, but that eventually may change.
"At this early stage, we are doing a little paralleling operation," noted McIntosh. "By next year, with the system more sophisticated, you may be able to send an e-mail here to the center or correct your records in some other way without having to go to the MPF. We may be able to talk back and forth with the e-mail address you gave us."
What keeps the system from becoming fully interactive right now?
The main roadblock is so many important documents still have to be signed by the member, endorsed by a commander, or both.
The current vMPF system will allow a member to call up a form on a computer and will provide step-by-step guidance on how to fill it out. When finished, the member can print it out with all the blocks filled--a process similar to filling out an income tax form with a do-it-yourself program. And like tax forms, many military documents need signatures. At present, there is no reliable way to take that step online.
The problem may be solved before long, however. Congress recently enacted legislation allowing for "electronic signatures," and the Air Force eventually will be able to accept them.
"There already is a DoD program to issue 'intelligent' ID cards," said McIntosh. "They will have a little chip on them. If you wanted to do secure transactions or put your signature on something, you would just put your card into a reader and it would authenticate that you are who you say you are. It's like the new credit cards with chips in them that allow you to buy things on the Web. It's a technology that most industry is moving toward."
He went on, "One thing they have left to do is to come up with a universal card reader that would attach to your computer. You'd just swipe your card the way you do at the gas station."
When the full system is in operation, Air Force members will be able to apply for retirement and separation online. They will be able to change an address or update their marital status. In this last case, they still may have to show marriage certificates to their bosses and have them certify that the person did actually get married.
"Basically," concluded McIntosh, "most of the things they do now at a real MPF will be possible on the Internet."
Even when electronic signatures become a reality, however, the virtual MPF will not completely replace the real one.
"Things such as issuing ID cards still will remain pretty much a manual process," said McIntosh. "We aren't going to get away from that any time soon because of the laws and benefits that are associated with it. Our enlisted folks also still have to go over and take promotion tests that are proctored by living people. So, we probably aren't going to end that very soon, either."
McIntosh went on to say that there is in the works a new program that will move toward keeping only electronic and digital records, but the Air Force is still a few years away from that.
"We have to maintain paper records for a while," he said. "There also are some kinds of counseling that are required by law to be face-to-face. Those are the kinds of things that we're going to have to stay with for a while, until laws or policies change or new technology comes along that will allow us to automate them."
The Air Force is taking pains to assure members that their privacy will be protected. Like commercial Web sites, vMPF will require users to log on with identification codes and passwords. They will create their own by entering the Web and supplying basic information about themselves such as their pay dates and unit identifications. Once they log in with these unique names and passwords, officials say, all the information they send over the Internet will be encoded and no one else can read it.
"Say that a sergeant logs on," said McIntosh. "The way the security is structured she is the only one using the vMPF who can see her records. Again, the vMPF is a self-service, customer-based platform. That's the whole idea.
"Now, if she fills out an application for retirement, she'll go into her records and pull down the application, and she'll fill out the form online and she'll transmit it. After that, we will build an electronic work flow process that will ship her application on to her boss' in box, and he will open it up and approve or disapprove. He will not have access to her information per se, but when it comes time for her boss to hack off on some action that he needs to do, it will be shipped over to him electronically.
"It is the same process that we would go through with a real MPF, except it's electronic instead of paper crossing people's desks."
No Total Immunity
Is there any danger that hackers can get into the system, create a make-believe member, and receive pay and other benefits? McIntosh thinks not. "No system is immune to a really determined hacker," he said, "but our information isn't financial or national security, per se, so it probably wouldn't attract them. As for their getting in and creating a brand-new record from scratch, no, they couldn't do it."
Since most current Air Force members are part of the generation brought up with computers, officials think few will be put off by the vMPF approach. "By and large," said McIntosh, "we think most people will be computer literate enough to handle the new system, but there always will be a certain percentage of folks who are not going to be all that comfortable with it, especially in the beginning. So the real MPF still will be there as a bricks-and-mortar institution at every base, with live people willing to help."
For those persons who are able to get to the Internet but still need help working the system, warm bodies will be available as well.
"We're building up an AFPC call center as part of the system," said McIntosh, "because we know that as this program matures, people are going to want to talk to a human about things. They will be filling out an application or something and want to be sure they did it right. We're setting it up so you can call on an 800 number, or send an e-mail, or chat interactively with a technician. Any time you come up with a Web-based platform, you have to have a call center for folks who have difficulties or questions. We're certainly going to be no different."
A strength of the virtual personnel flight approach, officials say, is that it will let people work at their own pace. Unlike a personal interview, an online session need have no time limits and users will be under no pressure to make decisions on the spot. They can set their own pace, take a break to think things over, and return to the vMPF confident they can pick up where they left off.
When the member has made up his mind, however, he won't have to wait in line to see a personnel specialist or make an appointment to file an application. "That's one of the good things," said McIntosh. "The vMPF will be open 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year. If you wake up one Sunday and decide you want to take an action, you don't have to wait until Monday."
Officials expect another benefit: The online service will spare human MPFs some of their more grinding, routine jobs. "It will give us the opportunity to spend more time doing those very important jobs of counseling and records management," McIntosh said. "Those things are done pretty well today, but obviously, given more time, everything could be done better."
Yet another advantage is that members are likely to take less time from their jobs to do personnel business. Some still may use office computers to contact the vMPF, but officials think that most will use their home computers.
As the site is refined, it will allow members to transact almost any kind of personnel business from virtually any part of the world. In the future, when you see TV shots of an officer working at a computer in a remote contingency site, don't assume he is refining the battle plan. He may just be updating his duty record or changing his marital status.
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