WASHINGTON – For a glimpse into how the military services might provide quality morale, welfare and recreation services and programs despite continuing budget pressures, the transformation program the Air Force Services directorate has been rolling out for the past two and a half years is worth a look.
Each service administers its own quality-of-life programs, and the offerings vary widely – even within a service’s installations, depending on the location and the size and demographic of the population served, explained Ed Miles, Department of Defense’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation, or MWR, policy director.
So even as the entire military suffers the effects of budget cuts and sequestration, each service is looking for new efficiencies and innovations to minimize reductions to their programs and services.
In some cases, as demonstrated by the Air Force’s services transformation initiative, it’s actually improving the quality and accessibility of MWR – despite cuts in both the appropriated funding and staffing required to provide quality-of-life programs.
The effort began with an extensive review of existing programs and services and an assessment of which most directly affect readiness in the event that all can’t be fully funded, explained Air Force Col. Thomas Joyce, services director at the Air Force Personnel Center in San Antonio.
Based on those findings, senior Air Force leaders designated six core activities: fitness, appropriated-fund dining facilities, child and youth care, youth activities, outdoor recreation programs and libraries, he said.
“We have identified core programs that, if we only have ‘X’ amount of money, these are the ‘must-haves’ from an enterprise standpoint in terms of their contribution to readiness and developing and sustaining resilient Airmen and Families,” Joyce said.
Meanwhile, the Air Force unveiled several pilot programs to determine if new ideas being considered worked as well in practice as on paper in improving MWR services and programs.
One, now offered at six Air Force bases, enables Airmen, their Families and civilian employees to visit their base fitness center at their convenience, even after the paid staff has left for the day. By swiping their common access card at the front entrance, they can work out 24/7, unaffected by reduced manning that has affected many fitness centers, said Michael Bensen, deputy services director.
The experiment, introduced in March, has proven itself a winner at Joint Base Andrews, Md.; F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.; Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.; Scott Air Force Base, Ill.; Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.; and Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. Less than halfway through what was planned as a year-long pilot program, Air Force officials already have asked for Defense Department approval to expand it service-wide.
Another initiative, moving forward at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, bundles many of the services activities under one roof.
The new Eielson City Center, opened in late March in a former base exchange complex, now includes a community center, golf simulator, television lounge, snack bar, pool tables, air hockey and foosball tables, library, movies, exercise equipment and children’s playland.
The arrangement makes it convenient for Airmen and their Families to relax and unwind, particularly during the long Alaskan winters. At the same time, it enabled base officials to consolidate many the administrative and logistical functions required to run the programs and activities.
The Air Force is considering expanding this “community commons concept” for more testing and possible servicewide use, Bensen reported. “If you think about it, this is how a town parks and recreation program operates. It gives you synergies from a programming perspective,” he said.
One of the challenges of quality-of-life programs, Joyce said, is recognizing when to eliminate an existing service or program. In some cases, the Air Force has found value in partnering with municipalities and private companies outside their gates to provide what the military no longer can.
One successful example, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, has teamed the base with the commercial outdoor recreation company REI to provide rappelling, kayaking and other recreational programs and instruction.
Base participants get discounts, and the Air Force saves the costs of running its own programs, Bensen noted. “You get a quality experience at a reduced cost,” he said.
One of the most popular initiatives being rolled out by Air Force Services targets appropriated-fund dining facilities.
Recognizing that Airmen with meal cards typically were eating just one meal a day at their dining facilities, Air Force officials set out to win them back. The Air Force Personnel Center funded a new food transformation initiative at five bases, hiring respected commercial food service providers to make their appropriated-fund dining facilities more like commercial restaurants. Airmen with food service specialties now get to work directly with private-sector pros, delivering higher-quality services at a lower cost.
As a result, Airmen are eating twice as many meals at their dining facilities, and their civilian counterparts on base are joining them, Bensen reported. And when Airmen at the participating bases aren’t close to their dining facilities at mealtime or simply want a change of pace, they can use their common access cards to dine at the base club, bowling alley or other food-service activity.
With rave reviews since the initiative kicked off in October 2010, the Air Force is moving forward with five additional pilot bases, Bensen said.
Bensen is quick to acknowledge that what works at one installation might not work at all. “Every installation has different dynamics, so in all these initiatives, we can’t take a cookie-cutter approach,” he said.
But all, Joyce said, share the common goal of mission readiness.
“Ultimately, the services transformation initiative is about building and sustaining resilient Airmen and families,” he said. “As we transform our programs, we always have in the back of our minds what we are here for: food services, fitness and family so we can build and sustain resilient Airmen and their Families across the Air Force who carry out their jobs in support of the mission, day-in and day-out.”