Touting Transparency

The Air Force links packets of information to make strategic decisions across the board.

Like nearly all responsibilities of government, defending the nation's citizens and interests is driven by knowledge. National defense not only requires knowledge of an adversary's intent and capability, but also of the U.S. military's resources and readiness to deter, dissuade, disrupt or defeat the unwanted action by the enemy.

During the past six decades, the Defense Department has developed thousands of information systems to support decision-making. Interconnectivity at the machine-to-machine level of these systems is uneven. As a result, leaders at every level of the Air Force must often rely on manual, labor-intensive processes to obtain information that should be readily available.

At units worldwide, for example, commanders and directors routinely must know their "burn rates," or how quickly they are spending allocated funds, particularly compared with similar units. They must determine variables ranging from whether their people and equipment are ready for deployment to whether discrepancies noted in workplace and housing inspections have been resolved. Yet obtaining routine information reports can be challenging and time-consuming.

The root causes are many. In large organizations, critical data are scattered across components, time zones and information systems. As these pockets of data are connected machine to machine, meaningful information can be extracted across the entire organization. Otherwise, the data assist only a limited few.

At the management level, there is insufficient attention to integrating data structures, particularly across functions. Managing aircraft, satellites and cyber assets depends on knowledge about their location and status, as well as their availability, based on maintenance and replenishment schedules. Yet linking data structures isn't always a commander or director's priority.

The solution requires an enterprise perspective and a commitment to providing decision-makers authoritative data that is accurate, reliable and timely. Processes used to translate data into meaningful information should be traceable, auditable, proven and trustworthy.

In 2006, the Air Force established the Transparency Integrated Product Team to accelerate the integration of data and processes and to ensure that every decision-maker has the right information at the right time.

The team provides a forum to bring together, and in some cases even merge, information from stove-piped organization silos. It began with a financial management dashboard that included metrics drawn from authoritative sources to improve the availability of fiscal data. With this information at commanders' fingertips, the demand for more cross-functional information grew.

Early success positioned the Air Force to set more ambitious objectives. Commanders now use the information to make operational decisions, such as monitoring and adjusting Air Expeditionary Force deployments. The service is refining its Defense Readiness Service, which pulls personnel, medical, training and individual readiness data from six sources and then displays summaries by unit, readiness requirement, AEF and subordinate organization. Better information, enabled by full transparency in data exchanges, means better decisions about how to apply resources and where to assume risk.

Understanding the impact of business operations on the Air Force's strategies includes everything from initial requisition to mission completion. Efforts to integrate such information have increased speed and precision, enabling commanders to deliver even greater agility.

In today's information-rich age and an environment of tighter decision cycles, freeing up mere seconds takes more than technological prowess. And when lives are at stake, those seconds can mean all the difference in the world.

John G. Vonglis is the Air Force's assistant secretary for financial management, and Michael W. Wynne is former secretary of the Air Force.

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