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MITRE Report: Restoring Trust in Arlington Cemetery

Few landmarks tug at the nation's heartstrings more than Arlington National Cemetery. So when the Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC) invited area companies to join an effort to fix the cemetery's troubled operations, MITRE quickly asked to be counted in.

MITRE, NVTC, and Arlington National Cemetery representatives at the awards banquet: (left to right) Brad Antle, Ken Mullins, Col. John Schrader, Bobbie Kilberg, Sen. Mark Warner, Julie Bowen, and Gabe Galvan.

Over a year later, an NVTC report with key contributions from MITRE has spelled out a plan for restoring public confidence in Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) by upgrading its technology and business procedures. And according to Gabe Galvan, one of the MITRE representatives who contributed to the NVTC report, many of the changes the task force recommended are being implemented.

"They've done a lot, and according to Col. [John] Schrader [head of the cemetery's Accountability Task Force], they're following our recommendations," says Galvan. "The fact that people are executing a plan to make sure ANC operations gets it right every day helps to restore the nation's confidence." It's a long way from where matters stood a year and a half ago.

The Challenge and Approach

In June 2010, the Army Inspector General released a report revealing an array of problems at ANC, including unmarked graves, improper handling of cremated remains, and discrepancies in burial records. The report sparked widespread news coverage, congressional probes, and ultimately, a shakeup of the cemetery's leadership. It also prompted a phone call from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to Bobbie Kilberg, the NVTC's president and CEO, suggesting that the region's leading technology companies join in an effort to find out what had gone wrong and to recommend changes that would restore confidence in the cemetery. MITRE was one of the companies Kilberg contacted—and, at the direction of Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary Sol Glasner—Galvan told Kilberg MITRE would take part.

"[MITRE] responded immediately, and with an offer of really serious help," says Kilberg. "You all volunteered without even knowing what would be expected. This was something that was beyond any requirements for companies to do. You all did it because of your sense of belief in the armed services, the country, and what was right."

The real work was about to start. Out of the 17 companies that took part in the NVTC effort, three emerged as the leaders: Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), Booz Allen Hamilton, and MITRE. The three companies that made up the core team needed to be aligned and become NVTC's one voice. There had to be agreement on how to address the challenge as well as what approach to take in analyzing the situation and making recommendations that are actionable. SAIC advocated new technology to solve the problems at Arlington Cemetery. Booz Allen Hamilton saw it as a matter of processes, procedures, and better management. MITRE offered a view based on its systems engineering and enterprise modernization work for various federal agencies.

"MITRE took a look at it and thought it was all of the above," says Ken Mullins, one of the MITRE contributors to the report. "I think we got all three companies to agree that MITRE would be a good organization to serve as the honest broker, to try to integrate the technology and the business recommendations."

Over three months in late 2010, the NVTC team visited ANC and analyzed how its people, policies, and technology work. Among other things, they found duplicate records started for the same person, re-keying of data into separate systems, several inaccurate headstone orders, and handwritten changes to paper records.

Moreover, the cemetery lacked a basic mission statement—possibly because there is already so much else to do. ANC represents a large operation, including 624 developed acres with the graves of more than 300,000 veterans and family members. Cemetery officials continue to stay busy with as many as 30 funerals in a single day as well as accommodating the four million people who visit each year. After three months of work—including several visits to the cemetery to confer with its officials—the NVTC task force released its final report in January 2011. The NVTC task force broke down Arlington Cemetery's mission into three broad categories: burying fallen veterans, running the cemetery as a national park, and managing it as a business. The task force's suggestions (see "Key Recommendations") amount to a roadmap to restoring confidence using both new policies and new technology.

For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employs rigorous guidelines to operate about 130 cemeteries across the country. The NVTC task force recommended some of those be adopted at Arlington Cemetery. The task force also encouraged the cemetery to use technology like iPhones and iPads to share stories about the people buried there, which Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army National Cemeteries program, expressed interest in pursuing.

A Model for Others

Much work still remains at Arlington Cemetery. One of many reports sent to Congress estimated conservatively that 6,500 gravesites had discrepancies. Newspaper articles and other reports made the situation appear even worse. The NVTC report's contributors, together with their company's senior leaders, feel they have at least put forth a plan that will help restore the public's trust. "I think the fact that the report was done pro bono by individuals representing some of the best technology companies in Northern Virginia as an objective third party helped to restore the nation's confidence in Arlington National Cemetery," says Galvan.

All the companies involved in the Arlington Cemetery report were honored with the 2011 NVTC Chairman's Award. Kilberg recalls that when the award was announced at the NVTC TechCelebration dinner last November, "the place just erupted. ...People jumped to their feet and were applauding and applauding." Col. Schrader was on hand, as was Warner. During the ceremony, the senator alluded to growing problems surrounding the handling of soldiers' remains at Dover Air Force Base.

And then, Warner said he would contact the Air Force secretary to suggest a model for fixing the problems at Dover. That model: the NVTC's Arlington Cemetery report.

-- by Russell Woolard

Key Recommendations

  • Establish, extend, and reinforce the chain of custody for all remains -- The NVTC report urged Arlington Cemetery to maintain a documented audit trail, starting with the funeral home handling the remains; adopt in-transit tracking technology already used by organizations like the American Red Cross; and adopt the funeral industry practice of not accepting urns more than 24 hours before burial.
  • Institute a case management methodology - This would entail a holistic framework for managing the burial process, including assigning case files with unique numbers, which would link all relevant information regarding a veteran's remains. The NVTC report recommended Arlington Cemetery acquire Web-based case management technology used by insurance companies and social service providers; digitize all the cemetery's historical data and records; and use reliable geomapping data to verify that remains are correctly buried.
  • Create and maintain a culture of accountability - This would mean more formalized and documented methods for operating the cemetery. Steps the NVTC report recommended include developing and sharing a vision and mission for Arlington Cemetery and looking for gaps in training and crafting workforce development programs to fill them.
  • Implement an improved automated scheduling and event planning capability - Arlington Cemetery's current scheduling tool can't automate the business rules to coordinate logistics for those taking part in a funeral. The NVTC task force suggests simplifying the scheduling process by detaching the eligibility determination process from event scheduling and acquiring online scheduling tools that could send real-time alerts to those taking part in a service.
  • Assign an accountable and empowered project manager who is reinforced by a robust governance structure - The NVTC task force called for a full-time application of professional project management to make short-term changes to ANC's operations and to oversee a complex, long-term transformation initiative. Among the steps to carry that out: establishing a project management office; setting up and using a governance structure to implement a roadmap to improved operations at the cemetery; and integrating the report's recommendations across the enterprise.