The British Army’s battle with ineffective and inconsistent personnel data stretches back almost 50 years.
Shortly after the abolition of National Service in the early 1960s, it transferred all its manpower information from paper-based archives to a centralised database. For the next four decades, this database supported recruitment and deployment processes, and its contents were assumed to be correct.
It was not until a new system was introduced in 2007 that the Army realised how poor its personnel data was: fields were incomplete, regiment names were misspelled and incorrect information was rife.
A reactionary attempt to cleanse the data only served to reveal the extent of the problem. “We started identifying where the errors were and cleaning the data,” recalls Brigadier Richard Nugee, a former artilleryman and now the Army’s director of manning. “What we found after about six months was that the system was all wrong again. We weren’t tackling the cause, just the symptoms.”
It soon became clear that the Army’s poor-quality data was causing it to waste money. New recruits had been hired to replace soldiers who had not left, job roles had been assigned incorrect pay grades and scores of bogus entries had been added to the payroll – adding female, pregnant paratroopers was a favourite prank among mischievous cadets.
Despite this, Nugee found that his seniors needed convincing that these data quality issues warranted serious investment. “I had three months to prove that better data quality equals saving money,” says Nugee.
Prevention and cure
To do this, Nugee quickly put together what he describes as a “data-monitoring organisation” within the Army. This body has two responsibilities, he says: prevention and cure.
In order to ‘cure’ the poor quality of existing data, the army employed full-time civil servants to crawl through all personnel information and cross-reference it against other databases.
To prevent its spread, Nugee established a data governance council. Composed of various department heads and stakeholders, the council meets every few weeks to discuss any data quality issues and to share ideas about how to encourage Army personnel to observe data governance best practice.
This last challenge has not been easy. “The typical soldier is far more interested in the training he’s doing and going on operations,” Nugee explains. “When he’s cleaning his rifle, to put it bluntly, he hasn’t got time to be filling in a computer system.” The council has therefore focused its attention on Army administration staff, who are encouraged to chase up infantrymen for correct personnel data and to ensure that training and qualifications information are up to date.
One of the data council’s considerations is which categories of data carry the most tactical significance. “Does it matter if the data about where a soldier is born is not correctly filled in?” Nugee says. “It’s nice to know but do we need to know, compared to what blood type they are? That’s got to be right when they go out to operations, because otherwise it will kill them.”
As well as removing errors, improved data quality has allowed the Army to manage and develop its human resources more effectively. For example, a vitally important task in any military manoeuvre is to coordinate the firepower deployed in a particular battlefield. “One person needs to coordinate all the jets, rockets, artillery, helicopters and infantry so that when you fire rockets you don’t knock the aircraft out of the sky.” Training for this role takes eight years, but with its improved personnel data the Army can monitor the progress of individual recruits towards the necessary level of attainment, and therefore move them through training and onto the battlefield faster than they could previously.
As expected, the data governance initiative has more than justified the investment: Nugee estimates that the army has saved £15 million since the project began in 2008. “I’m prioritising data from a purely military perspective, according to what is important operationally and what saves us money,” he explains. “If I can save money in this field, then we can invest more in the front line.”