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Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer has collected thousands of suggestions from airmen about how to cut costs Air Force-wide and at the unit level — some were so good that the Air Force has already adopted them.

Now he's on a mission to make the process easier and more transparent by introducing a new feature that will allow airmen to see ideas submitted by other airmen on the Airmen Powered by Innovation website, Spencer said in a Sept. 16 interview.

"We just turned on the updated version of the site this week, and ... they can read a little synopsis of ideas already out, so they don't need to continually resubmit an idea, or frankly, they may read through and get some ideas on some things they can submit," Spencer said.

Airmen Powered by Innovation launched in April to complement the Every Dollar Counts campaign. Spencer said the innovation program aims to "say yes" to more ideas, with its more user friendly platform, and most recently, with the ability to discuss their ideas with airmen who evaluate submissions at the Air Force Personnel Center.

Spencer said the update will improve communication between those submitting and reviewing ideas.

"We're setting up feedback with the folks that evaluate the ideas and the airman that suggested it, so they can work through and walk through, and say, 'Let's talk about this,' ... so it can be approved," Spencer said. "And if we can't implement an idea, we need to tell the airman why."

Hearing you out

When Every Dollar Counts initially launched as a 30-day submission program, hundreds of ideas came through on the very first day. Spencer said that some ideas still being submitted are reminiscent of that first day, one being to eliminate "perks for generals."

Air Force generals have come under scrutiny for what airmen say is wasted pay — there are now 305 general officers in the Air Force, the same number as last year, and one more than in fiscal 2012.

"I got some ideas directly to my email account saying I need to set the example: get rid of your staff car, your driver and your security," Spencer said "I answered back by saying, 'Approved' because I don't have a staff car, I don't have security ... I mean, I drive a Honda Civic to work every day."

Airmen have expressed angst over frivolous end-of-the-year spending: Units spend rather than save because they know their budgets will likely be cut if they have money left at the end of the fiscal year.

"There's not a full appreciation for how close-out works," Spencer said. "On one hand, this looks like a mad scramble at the end of the year ... the other is, if I turn in money, then somebody is going to cut my budget the next year. Again, to clarify, it doesn't work this way."

During the course of a year, Spencer said, you have until Sept. 30 to spend the funds allocated to your unit. However, local funds managers and comptrollers at the wing level follow through along a checklist of what's been set aside and what's been spent. Commanders will build a list of valid requirements they'll need to invest in, and will flesh out that list so they don't overspend before the year's end.

"For example, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, [North Carolina,] where I was a comptroller, we always held back money because of hurricanes," Spencer said. "If I have a hurricane that comes through in September, I have to have money to clean up after that, so I'm always holding a little bit, waiting, because I can't go over."

Many airmen have asked if turning in their funds, especially if they don't need it, before the end of the year is acceptable.

"Absolutely," Spencer said. "We encourage that. You can turn it in, and it can be used for unit flying hours or to buy spare parts, absolutely, 100 percent."

The vice chief stressed there is nothing in the guidance or in any Air Force Instruction that mandates a smaller budget the following year. But it can happen, thanks to leaders on the Hill.

Under what Congress dubbed "historical underexecution," the sequester environment has given leaders the ability to cut unobligated money for the following year. But Spencer said wings should be prioritizing — and giving back — regardless of what may happen next year.

Encouraging partnerships

Within the last year, bases have stepped up partnerships with community leaders on how to best share resources and cut down on costs for both parties, Spencer said.

These programs are: Public-Public; Public-Private partnerships, or P4 — one program that has base wings working with local municipalities to share services; and Enhanced Use Lease, or EUL, that allows the service to obtain value from available underdeveloped, "non-excess" real property at installations.

Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, as an example of EUL, had unused beachfront property that was leased to a local developer who built a 154-room hotel. In exchange, the Air Force receives funds for the lease, and a discount for airmen staying in the hotel.

"As a bonus, we had a piece of test equipment that was on the ground but needed to be elevated, so they let us put it up on their hotel," Spencer said, referring to Eglin Air Force Range Test Site A5 on top of a Holiday Inn Resort in Fort Walton Beach.

Under P4, bases have been working with community leaders to share library services, vehicle maintenance services, shooting ranges, recreational facilities, and much more. Spencer said that Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma last year shut down an underused jail and is using the local town jail's resources as needed.

There are 40 bases utilizing 225 ongoing partnerships, Spencer said, which amounts to $90 million in potential savings.

"In addition to this, we're working bigger initiatives where we're consolidating maintenance," Spencer said. For example, F108 engine parts extracted from KC-135s that have been sent to the boneyard are used for engine training with Air Force mechanics.

This maintenance consolidation also includes aircraft hydraulics systems initial repair, and fuel and energy-saving projects, he said.

Where the tides won't turn

Spencer said the Airman Battle Uniform vs. MultiCam discussion is one he's heard time and time again. But while some airmen suggest making MultiCam standard issue, Spencer said it would cost the service more money in the long run.

"It sounds like a good idea, and it is frankly, but when you go into the details, like ... the shelf life of the MultiCam is only six months, compared to 18 months for the ABU," Spencer said. "The MultiCam uniform is also $187 apiece, [but] the ABU is about $87."

Having a uniform more than twice the cost and at less than half a year's worth of shelf life would not be cost effective, Spencer said.

"I just want to make sure that airmen know we really are listening. Hopefully [this feature] on the website will help them see those ideas that have gone in hundreds of times, what happened to them, and why some haven't been approved."

Similarly, dual basic allowance for housing rates for married members of the military could only be reviewed at the Defense Department level, Spencer said.

"I can tell you that has been discussed at the DoD level, and it is in the hopper of things being discussed, but [the Air Force] can't turn around and approve that unilaterally," he said.

What's ahead

The Air Force, as of a month ago, is implementing a "contract court," which will begin to trickle down from the headquarters down to the commands, to shine a light on all the contracts the service has to correctly execute the Air Force mission.

"It's almost like a 'Judge Judy' environment, where every two-digit on the Air Staff has to come in to myself and the undersecretary and walk us through every contract they have to make sure we're getting the best buy for the Air Force dollar," Spencer said.

Working with the innovation program, airmen might be compensated for their ideas, but financial incentives are not guaranteed, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson told Air Force Times in July. Monetary incentives range from $25 to $10,000.

Airmen with the best ideas may also receive a newly created Every Dollar Counts award for the individual or team that saves the most money for the Air Force, Spencer said. The Air Force Deputy Chief Management Officer will be in charge of tracking the programs that save the most on an annual basis.

But the main goal is to get dialogue started. Much of the dialogue — through the API website and off — will be initiated at the squadron commander and senior enlisted leader-levels at the base, Spencer said, because airmen should know how their ideas are being implemented.

Spencer wants to begin senior leader Web chats, for more one-on-one discussion with airmen about cost-cutting ideas, similar to the monthly chats he does for the Every Airman Counts campaign to combat sexual assault.

"We want to make a big deal out of this," Spencer said. "We need to kick-start regardless if sequestration comes back or not because this is about a culture, that every airman ought to come in every day, look around ... and say, 'Can I do it cheaper?'"

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