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How Much Patriotism do Military Bands Inspire? Watchdog Wants Better Measures

A report published Thursday recommends that the units better assess how effective they are at "enhancing the morale of troops."

When talking about the arts, it is often said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." The Government Accountability Office isn't so sure this is true for music, though, at least in the case of U.S. military bands. The watchdog on Thursday issued a report recommending that the Defense Department do a better job of measuring how the bands are doing at accomplishing their mission of "inspiring patriotism and enhancing the morale of troops."

The GAO report is part of a review requested by the House Armed Services Committee, which stated that it "believes that the services may be able to conserve end strength by reducing the number of military bands" and asked for an assessment of the costs of military band operations.

According to GAO, military bands decreased across the service branches from 150 in fiscal 2012 to 136 in fiscal 2016, and total military personnel authorizations dedicated to bands decreased by 7.5 percent (7,196 to 6,656) during the same period. The operating costs similarly decreased across all services

GAO's report lamented the lack of objective measures of anything other than simple numbers on costs and personnel.

The military services’ approaches do not include measurable objectives or performance measures that have several important attributes, such as linkage to mission, a baseline, and measurable targets, that GAO has found are key to successfully measuring a program’s performance… Doing so could provide decision makers with the information they need to assess the value of the military bands relative to resource demands for other priorities.

Each service -- and, in some cases, each band type -- provided GAO with missions compiled in the report. The U.S. Navy Band, for example, "elevates esprit de corps, enhances Navy awareness and public relations, supports recruiting and retention efforts, preserves the Nation’s musical heritage, and projects a positive image at home and abroad," whereas the Army's The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps "provides support to the White House, DoD, and other governmental and civic activities in the National Capital Region."

Service officials told GAO that they use social media and audience attendance to track the efficacy of the bands. According to GAO, "101 of 125 bands (or 81 percent) responded that they track social-media analytics, such as frequency of mentions on Facebook." The report suggested the services each establish baselines and targets -- including social media engagement, attendance and recruiting numbers -- to assess whether the bands are meeting their missions. GAO recommended that using such markers should continue and that "the information the services already collect and the additional steps they have been taking to measure their bands’ effectiveness could inform and guide efforts to establish such measurable objectives and performance measures."