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Wasting Money in the U.S. Military : Commodity With Biggest Loss? You Can Put It in Words

December 01, 1985|JOHN TAGG | Tagg is a San Marcos, Calif., free-lance writer and former speech and writing instructor at Cal State Northridge and UC Berkeley. and

Seven-hundred-dollar screwdrivers? Six-hundred-dollar toilet seats? Chicken feed. Hardware catches the public eye, and we all know roughly what a screwdriver or an ashtray is worth. But my guess is that the commodity on which the American military wastes more money than on anything else is words: wasted words, inefficient words, misplaced words, words that not only cost a lot to put on paper and distribute but that have enormous secondary costs in terms of inaction, inefficiency, and confusion.

Last year, the inspector general of the Navy, Rear Adm. H. C. Mustin, caused something of a ruckus when he announced his conclusion that one-third of the Navy's technical manuals were "deficient" and their management "a disgrace."

Various Pentagon officials dithered a good deal with comments like: "We do not feel it is having a significant impact on readiness." But the facts are that the inspector general was downright generous in his estimate that the 207,000 technical manuals the Navy maintains are only a fraction of the total number that the four military services use, and that technical manuals themselves are only the tip of the frighteningly vast iceberg of military documentation.

'By the Book' Procedure

The military seeks standardization for good and important reasons. The only way to coordinate the activities of large numbers of people at great distances is to go "by the book." But the modern military faces a serious problem. There are so many books with often inconsistent rules that even the most perceptive soldier will be hard pressed to find which one is the bible-of-the-moment.

And, let's be honest, a lot of today's soldiers have trouble reading the book once they've found it.

At the core of the problem with military documentation, setting a model of confusion for the whole system, is the set of documents that tells you how to write other documents: documentation standards. To represent the full dimension of the befuddlement here would take a long time, so let me give you a single, very realistic, example.

Let's suppose that you're a major in the Marine Corps. Your responsibility is to test a new automated device that has been developed to aid in combat, especially in amphibious landings and other combined land-sea operations. The device is a little black box (LBB) that you can carry in your hand. It is on-line with the headquarters computer, perhaps aboard a ship, and will give you instant access to certain information about logistics, weather, location of friendly and enemy forces, and so on. If it works, it would be very useful in combat. But if it doesn't work, or if it doesn't provide the information you can use the way you can use it in combat, it is a menace. Your job is to test the LBB and make recommendations.

Writing the Document

You begin testing. But the basis on which the higher-ups who decide whether to go with the LBB will make their decision is not your tests, but the documents that you write about those tests. How shall you write them?

Well, in the past you have worked on other automated systems for personnel and financial record keeping. When you tested those systems you used SECNAVINST (Secretary of the Navy Instruction) 5233.1B, "Naval Data Automation Command Document Preparation Standards." But on looking it over you find that SECNAVINST 5233.1B is intended for all automated data system documents except for tactical systems, those which would be used in combat. You are referred to another document: SECNAVINST 3560.1, "Tactical Digital Systems Documentation Standards." Here, in three volumes, you find a detailed description of a whole list of different documents which would be prepared in the course of developing, say, a software program for a system to be installed on a battleship. But the documents described don't seem to apply at all to the sort of hand-held communications system of the sort you're testing. Then you discover that SECNAVINST 3560.1 prescribes only the content , not the format , for documentation. This leaves you in a pretty fix because the content it prescribes isn't appropriate to the kind of documents you need to write. And it doesn't prescribe format at all.

In the section on "applicable documents" you are referred to two other documents, and only two, for format. The first is MIL-M-38784A, "Manuals, Technical: General Style and Format Requirements." But this document is specifically designated for use only on "user manuals." You're writing test reports, not user manuals, so you turn to the format standard which SECNAVINST 3560.1 prescribes for the format of all other documentation, everything that is not a user manual.

Guide for Writing Letters

That is SECNAVINST 5216.5B, "Department of the Navy Correspondence Manual." This, you find, is a concise and straightforward guide for writing letters! You are a good soldier. You want to do your duty. But a horrible realization is dawning on you. You can no longer avoid the conclusion that if you write the test report on the LBB strictly by the book you will have to deliver to the Marine Corps Development and Education Command a 130-page business letter. To try to follow the rules you have been given would make you look--and feel--ridiculous. Your only reasonable alternative is to fake it, to make up your own rules, and hope for the best.

And that is what thousands of other majors, and sergeants, and sergeants-major, and civil servants on hundreds of military bases do every day: make up their own rules and hope for the best. And that is why, compared to the cost in inefficiency, waste, confusion and error that we pay for military documentation, a $700 screwdriver is a bargain.

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