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Russell Wangersky: Is your military band providing bang for the buck?

Marching bands, especially those featuring bagpipes, are parade favourites. But are they inspiring the maximum amount of patriotism possible? In the United States, that's what the government wants to know.
Marching bands, especially those featuring bagpipes, are parade favourites. But are they inspiring the maximum amount of patriotism possible? In the United States, that's what the government wants to know.

Ah, that sublime point in the universe where art and accountants collide … I get a thousand or so emails in the run of a week, but one of my favourites comes every day, a mailout on a robotic list from the U.S. Government Accounting Office.

Russell Wangersky

The GAO, as it calls itself, is the American version of the auditor general. It files reports every day on U.S. government spending — recent studies have ranged from, “Pipeline Safety: Additional Actions Could Improve Federal Use of Data on Pipeline Materials and Corrosion” to “Low-Income Housing Tax Credit: Actions Needed to Strengthen Oversight and Accountability.”

Last Thursday, though, it was the intriguing GAO-17-657, the 657th offering so far this year, titled, “Military Bands: Military Services Should Enhance Efforts to Measure Performance.”

And it’s no small investment: in 2016, the U.S. Department of Defence (DOD) spent a minimum of US$265.8 million on salaries for 6,656 military band members, and another US$38 million on operating costs for 136 bands of varying sizes.

The problem for the GAO? Proving it was money well spent. We love to measure things to look for value, but not everything is easily counted.

“(DOD) uses military bands to, among other things, inspire patriotism, enhance the morale of the troops, promote public awareness, provide music for ceremonies, and support recruiting and retention,” the report says. “To do so, bands across the military services — Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force — support a range of activities, including funerals for military service members, events where high-level officials such as the President are in attendance, and community-relations activities such as parades in local communities.”

The problem for the GAO, is how the military knows its bands are delivering the goods, based on an empirical measure. And the GAO’s goals are high: “GAO’s Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government states that management should define objectives in specific and measurable terms so they are understood at all levels of the entity and that performance towards achieving those objectives can be assessed. … At a minimum, these measures should include the important attributes for successful performance measures of demonstrating linkage to the program’s mission, establishing a baseline, and having measurable targets to demonstrate program performance.”

Just about the only metric the military does track is attendance. “We found that the number of audience members varies widely depending on the type of event. For example, according to Air Force data, one of the U.S. Air Force Band’s musical groups performed at the Super Bowl in 2016 in front of an estimated 71,000 ticketholders, while another musical group performed at a service member’s promotion ceremony that had an estimated 75 people in attendance,” the GAO study said.

And that, apparently, is just not good enough.

“However, 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,” they write. “The military services have tracked and used information on band events; however, the services have not developed objectives and measures to assess how their bands are addressing the bands’ missions, such as inspiring patriotism, enhancing the morale of troops, and promoting U.S. interests abroad.”

Measuring patriotism? What kind of thermometer do you need for that?

I’m reasonably sure that this is apples and oranges: that a military band and a government accountant have completely different views about even basic terms, like what constitutes  “performance.”

Heck, the greatest of philosophers have battled over what constitutes the true value of art.

Then again, the idea of trying to set universal performance metrics would be an untenable metaphysical structure for most philosophers, too.


Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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