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Changing Rules to Help Commissaries, Patrons

By Master Sgt. Stephen Barrett, USA
American Forces Press Service

FORT LEE, Va., May 23, 1996 – Picture commissaries where more cashiers can tackle long lines. Imagine store shelves as full at 6 p.m. as they are when the store opens. Envision a "help wanted" sign where store managers needing employees can hire them in days -- not weeks.

At the same time, imagine the 5 percent customer surcharge being invested to return better programs to patrons, improve commissary facilities and allow store managers to hire replacements on a timely basis.


These are no dreams to members of the Defense Commissary Agency. The agency, under a federal government experiment, is one of eight organizations Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review office tagged to become a progressive market excellence organization. Agencies in the program can modify guidelines to become more efficient.


Army Maj. Gen. Richard E. Beale Jr., Defense Commissary Agency director, said the program does this by obtaining waivers to regulations and laws to eliminate bureaucratic problems. He said these waivers include revising hiring regulations, revamping financial management rules and changing how the commissary handles contracts with local vendors. Money saved by changing these guidelines can then go into improving commissary facilities and services.


"A lot of this depends on how many waivers to laws and departmental regulations are granted," said Beale. "Fortunately, we don't have to fight this battle ourselves." He said the National Performance Review office is working with civilian personnel agencies to change the rules. Beale added successful test results could lead to expanding the program.


For agency leaders and commissary managers worldwide, it's a new means of reducing costs to taxpayers while enhancing customer service for patrons. Steve Rossetti, DoD's executive director for morale, welfare, recreation and retail activities, refers to the plan as "SAVER-2000." He said commissaries will soon provide "service, access, value, efficiency and response" to customers and the taxpayer.


"We have to recognize the changing demographics of the military," said Rossetti. "There are more working spouses and single parents, so we need to adapt to a changing military and provide more convenience to more people."


One thing Beale said he would like to change is how DoD manages commissary surcharges -- the 5 percent added to customers' bills. "The trust fund is soldiers', sailors', airmen's and Marines' money," said Beale. "If we had the flexibility to invest that [money] in low-risk government securities, we could allow the service members' money to work for them."


Under current guidelines, the commissary operates three financial accounts -- regular operating funds, the resale stock fund and money earned from commissary surcharges. Beale said he would like to consolidate all three into a single fund. "If I could put them into a single fund, fence part of the surcharge fund and invest it, we could do some great things for the taxpayer and the service member," he said.


Over the past four years, the commissary agency built 51 stores, with 31 more under construction. Beale said those numbers could be higher if the commissary could invest earnings rather than just have them sit in the general account at the U.S. Treasury.


The progressive market excellence plan also covers hiring practices. Beale said the commissary agency loses over 60 percent of the cashiers annually. "It takes us, working through our civilian personnel management system, about 60 days to hire a replacement cashier," he said.


Beale wants to give store managers immediate hiring authority. Some changes would allow managers to post "help wanted" signs in store windows to fill slots as fast as possible. "We could take all of that time and money going into the hiring of people, and put it into extending operating hours, adding cashiers and adding stockers to keep the shelves full and the lines short," he said.


To Beale, there is no downside to converting -- a change he expects to be complete by the middle of fiscal 1997. "The reason we have the commissary benefit today after all the scrutiny is because of our willingness to accept change," he said. "The fact that we've received this designation -- the only DoD activity to receive this designation -- is a vote of confidence in what we've been doing over the last several years. It will enhance our ability to even go farther in saving tax dollars and securing the benefit for the military families."

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