To rectify recordkeeping gone awry at Arlington National Cemetery, Brad Antle convened the best of the tech industry and sorted through every step of the process.
Americans were stunned when the news broke a few years ago that poor recordkeeping at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) had resulted in misidentified gravesites and lost veterans' remains. The chaos at some of the nation’s most hallowed grounds was the consequence of non-automated, paper-driven processes and mismanaged offices. In 2010, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) asked the Northern Virginia Technology Council to help get the cemetery's bookkeeping back on track. Brad Antle, president and CEO of Salient Federal Solutions and chairman of NVTC, responded by assembling a task force of 17 industry members to assess the situation and sending the group's recommendations to Army Secretary John McHugh.
When we first came in, there was incredulity and disbelief. I think it was like how the public felt upon hearing what was going on. There was a sense of "how did this happen?" Over time, we developed an understanding of how this process evolved, and you could see there were opportunities for these errors to creep into the system. It became a little bit more obvious how these things were able to happen. What stood out most was the sheer amount of manual processes there were.
We realized there was a significant volume [of information] coming in that needed to be dealt with. And they aren’t overly staffed. It didn’t take much to make the magnitude significant.
After the initial briefing, it was about systematically going through each step of the process, understanding how things came in to the cemetery, what kind of paper trail there was and where the issues were cropping up. We examined the process from initial contact with the cemetery all the way to interment.
The solutions we came up with were largely process-oriented. Most centered on how ANC dealt with interment. Their processes were antiquated, largely paper- and fax-driven, and so we put together an approach that was much more automated and leveraged technology to support the processes so they would have fewer opportunities for errors.
We needed to eliminate things like faxes, which don’t have any traceability, and have ANC rely more on traditional forms of electronic communication that have auditability. Faxes just aren’t a positive form of communication. You don’t know if a fax was received. With e-mail, you can actually go back and find an audit trail; you can see when it was sent and received. Eliminating steps in the process that didn’t provide an audit trail — that was a priority.
Our solutions weren’t necessarily technology-dependent. They didn’t require a lot of investment in new technology, but they certainly relied on current technology to make the processes more efficient and dependable.
ANC actually started making some of the recommended changes before our report was even finalized. Once it was finalized, they reviewed it and continued to make improvements to their existing system, taking into account many of the recommendations that were made in the study.
Since then, they’ve made strides and corrected a lot of discrepancies. They’re improving processes so the opportunities for mistakes have been greatly reduced. The folks at ANC are eager to find ways to improve their business processes. They aren’t all the way there yet. This isn’t a problem that cropped up overnight, and it’s not going to go away in a day. But they’re making a tremendous amount of progress.
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