A team of peer reviewers visited the Badger State April 12-16 as part of a national accreditation process for the Wisconsin National Guard's family programs.
Volunteers from the Council on Accreditation visited National Guard sites around the state to assess various programs housed under the National Guard's Service Member Support Division. The peer reviewers' findings will go into a final accreditation report issued by the Council on Accreditation, which will determine if the organization meets national accreditation standards. That report will likely be available in early May.
The peer review team, made up of volunteers from around the country, visited facilities like the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee, Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, armories in Chippewa Falls and Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Army and Air National Guard facilities in Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, among others, where they evaluated 10 key areas.
The Council on Accreditation evaluates organizations on six key areas that are consistent across organizations - administration and management, human resources management, risk prevention and management, administrative and service environment, customer rights, and training and supervision. The Wisconsin National Guard sought evaluation in four additional specific areas including community capacity building initiatives, emergency family assistance, military lifestyle support and education, and volunteer coordination.
While the final report will not be published until May, the initial feedback from the peer reviewers seemed promising.
"I've really been impressed by so many things that I saw and heard this week," Helene Cohen, the lead peer reviewer said.
"The other thing that I found here was the command is so supportive of the accreditation process, and I think that has really made all the difference," she said. "I saw that with the Army National Guard, the Air National Guard, and I found that the greatest strength was in the dedication and commitment of the personnel. I was impressed with how many people cited that they had mentors in senior leadership, and I believe that will help you serve with excellence."
Fellow peer reviewer Phil Rofrano saw the military leadership's buy-in as well.
"Leadership is very invested in positive outcomes, so a lot of data is being collected and is being reported to the command," he said during the final briefing to senior National Guard leaders. "So that helps with the quality improvement, and where you see needs, those needs are being met and programs are being improved. So that's very impressive."
The peer reviewers assessed the Guard's military funeral honors program, the Badger Yellow Ribbon Program, military family assistance centers and the Wisconsin Employment Resource Connection, among others.
The Wisconsin Employment Resource Connection drew several positive comments from the team for its efforts to help service members and transitioning veterans from all branches find meaningful employment.
"What I heard, the overriding things from my team were energy, enthusiasm, commitment of the personnel, and that, of course, is top-down, and we were very impressed with that," Cohen said.
The accreditation process began almost a year ago, and Wisconsin is one of 17 other National Guard organizations around the country seeking the designation. In May 2014, the organization, led by Capt. Joe Ledger, the project officer for Wisconsin's accreditation, began a comprehensive self-study, in which the organization reviewed the Council on Accreditation's standards and how the organization's family programs compared. In that time, Wisconsin learned best practices and identified its strengths and weaknesses in relation to the published national standards the council maintains.
The process culminated with the external peer review and site visits after the peer reviewers received information on Wisconsin's programs more than a month before.
While the site visit is now complete, the process is just beginning in the eyes of Col. Michael George, the director of the Wisconsin National Guard's Service Member Support Division.
"Throughout the last year we've learned quite a bit," he said. "It's been eye-opening in a number of areas, so it's been a very beneficial process. We're not done yet."
He noted that going through the accreditation process helped identify opportunities for improvement. Putting some of the programs' processes and practices in writing were among the items the organization identified.
George also noted that all new staff will be trained using accreditation standards.
Both George and Ledger said that achieving accreditation would serve as validation both internally and to external stakeholders that the Wisconsin National Guard's family programs are recognized nationally for their excellence. More important, they said, was demonstrating that excellence to their customers - military families.
"This is all really about supporting our customers," George said. "For our customers it reflects a commitment to delivering the highest quality levels of services and support and guarantees involvement in the decision-making process."
"I think for the customers - the families and members who receive services - it's knowing that the services they're receiving have been accredited and are nationally recognized for their quality," he said. "So I think it's important for them to know that they can have confidence in asking for assistance."
The Wisconsin National Guard's family programs, which provide assistance to military families, with services and benefits ranging from youth programs, financial consulting, and job search resources to marriage counseling and legal support, were evaluated using standards mutually agreed upon by the Council on Accreditation and the Department of Defense.
Brig. Gen. Gary Ebben, the assistant adjutant general for Air, noted that having external reviewers evaluate Wisconsin's programs was valuable.
"Because otherwise you start just seeing yourself, and you look pretty good to yourself, until you have somebody come in that can share best practices, share other ideas," he said. "Hopefully some things will come out of this that will get shared with other states and other organizations. It's just value added."