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Military Update: DIMHRS program dumped as ‘a disaster’

By TOM PHILPOTT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 20, 2010

After spending $1 billion and 12 years of effort, Defense officials have pulled the plug on a hapless plan to bring the four military branches under a single payroll and personnel records system.

"This program has been a disaster," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. He said he applauded the decision to kill what proponents said would be the largest, fully-integrated human resource system in the world.

"Many of the programs that I have made decisions to cut have been controversial within the Department of Defense," Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained to senators. "I will tell you this one was not."

The object of so much disaffection is the Defense Integrated Military Human Resources System (DIMHRS), known as "Dime-ers."

Secretary Gates clearly wasn’t a fan of the title or program, which at its peak employed 600 military, federal civilians and private contractors who tried to use off-the-shelf technology to meld up to 90 automated systems that continue to run across DOD.

"I would say that what we’ve gotten for a half billion dollars is an unpronounceable acronym," Gates quipped, though his cost estimate was short by half. The Government Accountability Office says a billion dollars had been spent on DIMHRS through 2009.

Its demise leaves the Army, Navy and Air Force still reliant on archaic, problem-plagued payroll and personnel systems. Required upgrades had been postponed again and again over the years, always in anticipation that all services would be moving to, and satisfied with, DIMHRS.

It was to start in the Army in April 2006. But this and four other initial deployment dates were set and cancelled. Last spring, Defense officials advised the Army, Navy and Air Force they could pursue their own personnel and payroll system upgrades.

More than time and money had been lost, however. Military personnel, particularly Guard and Reserve members, increasingly have been frustrated by pay and personnel record errors. The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves urged two years ago that a single, integrated pay and personnel system was needed "as soon as possible" to rectify inadequacies in fragile legacy systems.

More than 90 percent of Army Reserve and Guard soldiers activated to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq through 2003 reported significant pay errors. Aggressive actions were taken to lower that rate but without the benefit of what was needed — a modern payroll system that no longer treated active and reserve component members differently.

The current systems use programming language from the late-1960s that are unable to handle complex changes. When new pays are adopted, it was taking the Army on average 12 to 18 months to automate. Some pays, like medical bonuses, can’t be programmed and must be calculated manually.

DIMHRS was to relieve all of that. It would track assignments, process orders and show immediate changes to members’ duty status to ensure timely, accurate pay, benefits and service credit. Members would be able to monitor a single comprehensive record online, including any health or safety incidents which would bear on future benefits.

The goals were good, Mullen told Sen. Roland W. Burris, D-Ill., when the senator heatedly challenged the decision to shelve DIMHRS after so much time and expense. "It’s just we’re not getting there with DIMHRS," Mullen said. "We are wasting our money."

The Marine Corps alone began a decade ago to move to a combined personnel and payroll system, the Marine Corps Total Force System (MCTFS). The Navy as far back as 2006 wanted to adopt MCTFS but Congress balked, with GAO noting that $668 million already had been invested in DIMHRS.

Six years ago, after multiple pay problems surfaced again for mobilized personnel, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service stopped waiting for DIMHRS and announced it would phase in a more reliable, effective interim pay system, the Forward Compatible Payroll. FCP promised far fewer errors, an easy-to-read Leave and Earnings Statement and instantaneous adjustments to pay records. But the FCP never started.

Again, the rationale seemed to be not to spend millions more on an interim payroll fix when DIMHRS was so near. Thus an aging, problem-plagued military pay system went uncorrected.

Neither Mullen nor Gates spoke of the services salvaging parts of DIMHRS to use for their own system upgrades, though that seems to be the intent. Burris had pressed Mullen to explain why the Office of Personnel Management can operate one pay and personnel system for all federal civilians yet DOD can’t do that for its military population.

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