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Military relocation debate deadlocked

Military relocation debate deadlocked

ksaldarini@govexec.com

Military families could expect their furniture to arrive on time, their dishes to arrive unbroken, and timely claims reimbursement under the Defense Department's latest plan to fix its damaged relocation program, DoD officials said Thursday.

But without the moving industry's approval, the plan is unlikely to succeed, members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness said Thursday at a hearing on shipment of household goods.

"It is broke. It does need to be fixed. The question is what's the best way to fix it?" Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, R-Va., chairman of the readiness subcommittee, said of the military's relocation services.

DoD's full service moving project (FSMP) intends to replace what is widely considered a horrendous personal property relocation system. The system damages more than furniture, said Roger W. Kallock, deputy under Secretary of Defense for logistics. DoD's poor relocation record is a quality of life issue that negatively impacts morale at a time when retention is a top priority.

"The frustration of one move is significant . . . the frustration associated with a dozen or more often disillusions and discourages our men and women in uniform," said Lt. Gen. John G. Coburn, the Army's deputy chief of staff for logistics.

FSMP would improve the estimated 650,000 moves DoD families make annually by getting industry contractors to provide better service, DoD officials say. The plan would combine the best aspects of three pilot programs DoD is currently testing. One pilot program is selecting moving companies based on quality instead of cost, another allows military members to choose their own moving company and pay for it with a government purchase card. The third pilot, known as the Army Hunter test, provides service members with a total relocation package, combining one-on-one relocation counseling, a single point-of-contact, home buying and selling services, full recovery under claims processing and 24 hour service via a 1-800 number.

Defense officials are eager to get the FSMP test going, since the momentum for revamping DoD relocation services has been dragging on for at least five years. But several hurdles remain before military families can pack their bags without worrying whether they'll ever see the bags again.

Opposition from the moving industry is strong. Transportation providers don't want to be relegated to subcontractor status under an outsourcing arrangement that places all distribution in the hands of a sole contractor. They also don't want to settle claims through third parties or pay commissions to management companies.

"My industry has been and continues to be simultaneously whip-sawed from program to program," Joe Harrison, president of the American Moving and Storage Association testified. The overly complicated efforts DoD has put into this issue might make an observer "wonder whether those efforts were intended to solve the DoD Y2K problem rather than to develop a sound personal property transportation program for the military," he said in a prepared statement.

A General Accounting Office audit of the Army Hunter pilot program concluded that the Army's survey of customer satisfaction was flawed. GAO was unable to validate Army reports that satisfaction increased by 11.5 percent. DoD admits that the test was not perfect. In fact, the test revealed significantly higher costs for the program. But, DoD witnesses agree that the investment is well worth the price.

DoD's next step is to draft a solicitation for the FSMP test based on results of the ongoing pilot programs. Under the best of circumstances for DoD, a new relocation program would not take effect DoD-wide until 2001 at the very earliest, Kallock said.