Data, Data Everywhere. . . There’s More to the Story Than You Think


I’m back.

It’s been awhile.  Ok, it has been a very long time, but I have been really, really busy.  Now, I am back and writing with force.  There is quite a bit to say and the first topic on the list is the Department of Defense’s Exceptional Family Member Program (aka EFMP).  My dog recently got out of the fight, but over the course of the last year, a number of issues and pieces of information have come to light and maybe it is just time to share them with other EFMP families.

Last fall, I had the good fortune to work with a good deal of really rich qualitative data focused on DoD families and their exceptional family members.

The Research

A little info about research and data analysis. . . .bear with me as my professor self emerges for a few seconds. . . .

Data can be qualitative or quantitative.  Responses can be elicited, evoked, provoked, prompted.  People who give their responses can be respondents or subjects, depending on the type of study being conducted.  Subjects are participants in controlled experiments, any other types of studies, such as ones that would measure attitudes, beliefs, feelings or attempt to describe behaviors, would involve respondents.  Respondents are those who are asked to answer questionnaires where the options are limited, possibly scaled (as in “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) and no opportunity is offered for additional comments.  Their answers are “prompted” and the data being collected are “quantitative” data.  The researcher is absent, often in a double-blind scenario, which means that neither the researcher sees the person filling out the questionnaire nor does the respondent ever see the researcher.  Traits, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, all measured appropriately and collected as quantitative data can then be analyzed using statistical methods, allowing the researcher to draw conclusions, make recommendations leading to desired changes being implemented.

Qualitative data, while collected with vastly different methods, is equally exciting and can allow the researcher to gain deep insights into complex issues, even if the analytical methods lead to more tentative conclusions.  Instead of questionnaires, respondents can be observed, interviewed, engaged in discussion.  The researcher can be a part of the process or removed from it.  In the case of the EFMP data, the data collected was qualitative, using open-ended questions, a common method designed to gain access to respondents’ feelings, experiences, concerns,  or beliefs.  When a research analyst calls such data “rich,” she is suggesting that the data is filled with patterns of thought, new insights, words and phrases that bring to life the stories the respondents have to tell.  The job of the researcher is to apply an analytical technique called content analysis.  For the layperson, content analysis is an intensive process of reading each word of every response from each respondent multiple times, by multiple readers, identifying recurring themes, and determining the weight of those themes (how often they appear).  Ultimately, the goal is to take thousands of what appear to be unrelated responses to a finite set of questions, find some pattern in them that links them to each other.  Place these themes and patterns within a much larger context where their meaning can then be used to clarify the complexity and offer recommendations for improvement.

Further questions on both method and analysis can be sent to me at

The Data

For weeks, I culled through the data, reading through it over and over and, when the time came, commencing the gritty task of actually analyzing the data.

The task consumed me.  Sleep eluded me.  I forgot to eat.  All I could think about was the data.  The words of the families came to life, I could hear their voices, see their images and, all too often, felt their pain and struggles.

At one time in my life, we were an EFMP family.  It was difficult.  Five posts in eight years, all east of Interstate 81, allowed me plenty of time to get to know EFMP rules, regulations, policies and failures.  Jack was diagnosed at Fort Bragg in 2003 with autism, we left the Army recently out of Fort Myer EFMP.  Fort Bragg to Fort Drum to Carlisle Barracks to Fort Bragg to Fort Myer. . . .I look back at them now and remember each and every EFMP person.  Fort Bragg was the best the second time around (they still get my award for BEST EVER EVER EVER!). . . .Fort Drum. . .worst ever. . . Fort Myer. . . .first joint base. . . .Carlisle Barracks. . . .so small, made life so easy.  But, if I look at each one of them, we were at different points in our lives, too, and now, that is part of the story.  And, as I examined the data and began the process of placing it into context, I could see why those labels were so easy to assign.

In other words, as I performed the analysis, I could clearly see the multidimensionality of both sides of the EFMP problem is what makes it a nearly insurmountable challenge for DoD, for EFMP families and providers.

Services and the Exceptional Family Member Program

EFMP, believe it or not, is a service offered to all service members by the Department of Defense.  Being enrolled in EFMP is a bit like buying insurance. . . .turns out you might need it, but if you have to use it, the news is probably not good for you.  And that last part is what makes it an “undesirable” service for so many service members.  For a very long time, service members lived with the perception that enrolling a family member into the Exceptional Family Member Program meant that their military career was in jeopardy.  Given that an EFMP designation could possibly impact future assignments, PCS moves or promotions, service members viewed enrollment warily.  Unfortunately, if you or your child needed to be enrolled in order to receive necessary behavioral, educational or medical services, EFMP was a “mandated” option.

As a service, though, wanted or not, there are some principles in play that cannot be ignored.  First, services are intangible, inseparable, heterogeneous, and perishable.  In the world of EFMP, here is what those principles mean.

When you engage with anyone from EFMP, what do you get? And, when I ask you, “what do you get?” I mean, physically, what do you get?

1.  Paperwork:  lots and lots of paperwork.  Do you understand it?  Is it easy to read?  Do you know what to do with it?  Were directions provided?  Pictures?

2.  When you go to their office, is there a place to sit down?  If my experience with EFMP (or any agency on a military post or base, for that matter) is any indication, the chairs are uncomfortable, unmovable (as if I would even consider taking them with me), the coffee is cold, old and tasteless (if there at all), brochures offer little to no meaning, and the television is tuned to some channel with a sign indicating that the channel is not to be touched without assistance.  Am I close?

Intangibility is inevitable with services:  it exists along a continuum from absolutely no physicality present to physical goods accompanied by some level of service (simplest example is dinner at a restaurant: food with service attached).  But without a physical product, or some indication of it, how can you evaluate how well it is working?  What does this have to do with comfortable chairs, paperwork and ambience?  More than you would think.  People need physical contact with even the most intangible services.  Why do you think so many businesses give out pens, calendars, crazy stress balls with the names of their businesses stamped on them?  Tangibility.  I’m not suggesting that pens and calendars are the path to connecting with EFMP (although, stress relief balls may work), but there are many ways in which the first contact with the program can be more comfortable, welcoming, warm.  Because, chances are, if you are there, your life is already tough enough.  Tangibility becomes especially important because it is impossible to know if an intangible service is working.  But when it fails to work, you know it and you are mad.

Inseparability is the source of much that can go wrong with any service and EFMP is no different.  Unlike the IPhone I purchased this past weekend, with a service I am actually present in the production of the service.  Watching Jack and Ellie getting their hair cut this past weekend, I had to participate (as did they) by suggesting to the stylist how much should be cut.  In the case of Jack, I had to quickly train the stylist how to deal with an autistic boy who hates to have his hair cut.  I also had to teach my children how to engage with the stylist:  sit still, don’t argue over hair length (that would be Ellie), let her know if the water it too hot or too cold.

With EFMP, you are also part of the service production while simultaneously consuming the service.  How many times have you moved to a new post, arrived at EFMP to reset your respite care and found that you didn’t have the correct information, had somehow lost a referral or were told that you had zero chance of receiving ABA services in the next thirty days?  Retracing your steps, you remember that you did everything the same way you had at your previous post.  You knew the routine and had followed the blue print.  Still, you had come up empty-handed.

If this has happened to you, you can partially blame the service failure on the inseparability principle.  In order to arrive at a satisfactory solution encounter, both parties must participate equally in the production and the consumption of the service.  Lack of knowledge about how to participate sets the family up for failure.  One of the key themes from the data dealt with this problem.  Not only was there no consistency in the application of the EFMP policies across the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, active duty, guard and reserve units, but there was a clear lack of consistency between posts and bases, making things like PCSing a nightmare that seemed to have no end.

Heterogeneity is the third principle that comes into play when we look at the challenges we face with EFMP.  Anyone who has been touched by the military has argued against the “cookie cutter” approach so often taken by any type of programming available for families.  Even within the same offices, families enrolled in the problem often find it is difficult to get the same answer from more than two people twice.  Consistently, the heterogeneity of the EFMP employees, across services, posts/bases, and even within offices, showed through the data enough to suggest that most encounters were not only difficult, but acted in such a way as to create negative expectations for any future encounters.  Creating negative expectations had a profound effect on the interactions between families and service providers, often leading to a downward spiral where any possibility of service salvage went out the door.

Finally, all services are perishable.  They have zero shelf life.  Can’t use them today?  They can’t be saved until tomorrow.

At first look, the perishability of services seems less impactful on the entire EFMP program than the other principles.  Yet, the size of the enrollment at the larger posts (Bragg, Hood, Lewis, Schofield Barracks, Military District of Washington, all Army, but it’s my perspective. . . .happy to take insight about other services, see email address above) all mean that you have volumes of people needing access to a very finite number of EFMP employees.  Many types of service industries have ways to manage the perishability factor.  Airlines use yield management pricing:  fly off-peak hours, typically, fly cheaper.  Plan your flights far in advance, airfares are lower.  In other words, airlines can motivate you to commit to filling their seats by altering price, something they have determined to be important in your decision-making process.

But what about EFMP?  What control do they have over managing your demand for the finite number of hours they can provide?  Think about it this way:  when is EFMP busiest?  During PCS season.  When, typically, do most families PCS?  Spring, summer. . . .maybe early fall. . .sometimes over the holidays.  Is there anything EFMP can do to increase the hours of the day that they work?  No, but they could increase their man hours per day by having more of their employees focused on PCS types of activities or asking for their higher headquarters to staff them more heavily during those seasons.

What happens when you go to the EFMP office?  Your first signal is to “sign in.”  From my experience, I would rather have my eyes ripped out of my head than try to sit with my son waiting for ANY length of time for a meeting.  Could I possibly avoid this situation?  Sure, as part of the service production, I could leave him home. . .but, wait. . .I am new to the post, I know no one to watch my special needs child, my husband has already signed in to his unit and is already working and, oh yea, the whole reason I am AT the EFMP office is to set up respite care.  Is there any solution to this problem?  There is, but it takes an out of the box approach and the first step is acknowledging that perishability is the elephant in the room and how are you going to work around that.

In the end, the longer I wait, the more frustrated I become, the more likely my child will act out, the shorter my fuse.  Equate that with my counterpart with whom I am going to be meeting once I finally reach the hallowed halls of the EFMP office.  I am probably the fifth or sixth person to show up in the office today.  Chances are that I am missing at least one piece of my paperwork, not because I intended to do so, but I didn’t need it at my last post, so it never occurred to me that I would need it at this post.  The closer to lunch, give or take an hour, the EFMP rep is going to either be starving and I am the person standing between her and lunch or she has just come back and the phone call she received over lunch from the school where her OWN child attends has told her that her evening is going to be spent doing something other than taking care of herself.  She is in no mood to be berated, you are in no mood to be told “no” and, before you know it, what could have been a fairly good start to a working relationship has become a throw down with names and ranks being dropped everywhere in sight.  She has heard it before.  You have said it before.  You threaten to go to the chain of command.  She is already thinking about the phone call she is going to get from someone tomorrow.

After reading thousands of responses, I can readily tell you, this is how it starts.

I can also tell you that it doesn’t have to end that way.

The data I analyzed exposed many themes about the EFMP equation:  families, providers, leadership, challenges, outcomes.  Thanks to this data, I have a story to tell.  Thanks to twenty plus years of studying, researching and  teaching Marketing and Services at top universities across the United States, I have context in which to place this data that offers perspective and recommendations for a way to approach some of these challenges.  With my partners, a five-stage study program has been developed. . . . if the leadership is willing to listen.  They’ve been told.  This information and these recommendations were presented in December 2012 to military leadership in Washington, DC, so they have been told.  Whether they choose to listen is the question.

In the end, though, here is what came out. . . .after reading thousands of responses from over 500 respondents who came from all ranks (full disclosure:  no respondents in the study indicated that they held a rank of O7 or above), all services, posts and bases across the country, with different reasons for being enrolled in EFMP. . . who were Active Duty, Reservists, National Guard, retirees, caregivers, spouses, Service Members, or enrollees themselves, here is one general theme that emerged over and over and OVER again:

EFMP demonstrates no consistency across services, across posts/bases, across states, communities and ranks.  The vocabulary used to describe exceptional family members changes across the different services, the accessibility to programs are a function of the environment outside the control of the Department of Defense.  Reworking EFMP is going to need more than a change of resourcing, it is going to need a significant paradigm shift.  Until then, nothing can really change at all.

©LeslieKDrinkwine,Ph.D., 2013. All material by Leslie K. Drinkwine, Ph.D., and subsequent studies published under Education Research Consultants, LLC is the copyrighted property of the author.  Ideas presented in this material are the intellectual property of the author and are protected under federal laws of the United States of America.  Any use of this material must have the expressed written consent of the author.  The author can be contacted at


No More I Love You’s

Michael is dying.

The smell of his body, sitting next to me, in my new, shiny, very big truck, tells me that he is dying.  We’ve just come from the VA in New Orleans. . . a large, ugly building in a city where architectural beauty is a calling card.  I hate going to the VA with Michael, but I have come to love Michael and part of my joy in this journey is watching the discomfort among the faces of the veterans as Michael flagrantly prances through the hallway on his way to the pharmacy.  As usual, he is dressed in tight, far too short, thin silky shorts and a sleevless t-shirt that leave little to the imagination.  Looking at him, I see the toll the disease has taken on his body, the lesions, the scars.  He knows that he is the anomaly in this place and it gives him a sick sort of pleasure to cough, knowing that just the spray of his sputum is enough to send the old men scattering.

But Michael has as much of a right to be here as they do, having served as a cook on a naval ship.  At this point in my life, I know absolutely nothing about the military, Navy or otherwise, but I suspect that the environment in which Michael worked had to be incredibly uncomfortable.  Not only do I not know a thing about the military, the military holds zero appeal for me.  My life is a complicated scenario of career, heart, family, and pain.  Some of my pain is referred from Michael.  I have been down this path before and I know the way this story ends.  Recently, I have been to too many of these endings and they don’t vary much.  But Michael still has a ways to go before he succumbs to the scourge that is AIDS.

It is a rainy Friday night and we are on one of the cross streets on our side of the neutral ground.  In other words, we are headed toward St. Charles and moving away from the river.  We live at the crossroads of the upper Garden District and Uptown, across the street from one another, and it is my turn to take him to the hospital to pick up his daily cocktail of drugs.  It’s late 1995, one of the last years when AIDS was a death sentence.  But for Michael, it is too late, and so we have decided to drive.  In a city where the hint of rain causes the streets to flood, Michael and I feel invincible, as we sit above the high ground that is the Garden District.  But our fearless view is an illusion.  Michael is going to die, New Orleans is going to drown, and I am going to be vulnerable again.

Michael was homeless when Ronnie, my neighbor, rescued him.  Like a feral cat taken in by a kind woman, Michael cannot be tamed, but he is grateful for the food and shelter that his old friend, Ronnie, has offered him.  Were they old lovers?  No, Michael tells me. . . .just old friends.  At one time, in their collective past, Michael was the leader, helping Ronnie navigate the rocky path that one faces when he or she realizes that the person they want to love has the same parts that they do.  Now, it is Ronnie who leads.  He will help Michael navigate the last part of the road through his life.

Our little bit of real estate at the intersection of Toledano and Chestnut is filled with all kinds of characters.  We aren’t particularly politically correct. . . .as we assign nicknames to the various people who inhabit the five hundred or so meters of land:  the lawyers, the blonde chick, Julio the closeted banker, the crazy family, the gay guy, mystery guy, Robert the drug dealer, Barbara the cougar (the best description of her, but a term yet to be discovered and applied in pop culture), the bisexual pianist, the vampiress, the zookeeper. . . . Michael is the AIDS guy and I am officially, but lovingly, known as the crazy professor chick.  We are each other’s family, woven together by intent, land and alcohol.  Also included are the alcoholic schoolteacher, whose claim to fame was that she was once the mascot for the TCU Horned Frogs, who was arrested at my wedding and hates her ex-husband and the occupant of the other side of her house. . .an ER doctor whose name really is Dr. Coffin.

And, so it is that we are driving through the rain.  Tourists come to New Orleans for vacation, but those of us who call it home live in a part of the space and time continuum that is closed to all but the residents.  Our days are undefined by time.  Some days last far longer than the conventional 24 hours and some are gone in minutes.  The souls of those who came before us continue to live with us, making for crowded sidewalks, coffee houses and cemetaries.  Living there, you feel them in a way that outsiders cannot imagine.  But for those of us whose souls are entrenched in the muggy, humid world that exists between Magazine Street and St. Charles Avenue, crossed by 1st Street and Louisiana Avenue, we feel them, see them, and, without regard to the insanity of it all, we talk to them.

Michael has gotten his paycheck.  It is so meager that there is no reason for a bank account.  Ronnie lets him live with him for free and, like so many who live in poverty, Michael cashes the check in exchange for a small amount of change.  New Orleans is filled with the haves and have nots, but in our ‘hood, the two groups live together in relative harmony.  Instead of thinking of responsible ways to use the cash, Michael insists that we go to the record store.  In 1995, there are still record stores and we find a small one near the river.   What shall we buy?  I ask him.  Something diva-like, he tells me, let’s go and sing.

My heart has been broken.  I keep the pieces in a jar in my kitchen as both a keepsake and a reminder of what I will leave in NOLA, for I will have to leave.  This is my year to be an irresponsible heathen and I intend to make the most of it.  I’m a newly minted Ph.D., meaning that the past four years have been an exercise in masochistic behavior at the hands of men whose approval was more important to me than anything that I ever sought from my own parents.  After my year of dangerous living, I will return to the land of responsible adults and pursue my career at the University of Virginia.  It has already been decided and the countdown has begun.

We decide on Annie Lennox and Leslie Gore.  Arguing whether our soundtrack this evening should be “It’s My Party” or “No More I Love You’s,” my broken heart wants to hear about the demons and monsters about which nobody speaks.  Annie Lennox it is.  The opening bars of the music begin with a swelling of the sound of the strings and Annie’s voice is clear and strong.  We bounce through the rain-filled cross streets of Uptown, singing at the top of our lungs. . . .no more I love you’s.

For me, I know that my veneer of invincibility will crumble, but I can still cry at this time in my life, so I allow my eyes to fill with tears.  If Michael notices, he says nothing. . . . singing, off-key, at the top of his broken lungs.  It will still be a few months, but he knows that there will be no more I love you’s for him.

LIke a bolt of lightning, though, the dreary night is suddenly bright.  Even though I continue to drive, I’m not seeing the road on which I am traveling, but rather I see the road ahead.  Instead of the pouring rain, my eyes see a brightly lit kitchen. . .lots of yellow. . . . and complete chaos.  Instead of my favorite entre from Emeril’s, I’m nibbling on chicken nuggets and there are children and televisions.  Gone is sadness for a brief moment.  And, then, in true New Orleans style, I see myself.  I’m a mom.  With children.  With a husband.  With a home.  And, in that moment, I see myself thinking back to this night with Michael when all we cared about was whether we would cry about lost parties or lost lovers.  The woman I see in the future is happy, if not invincible.  As the skinny, wild, hedonic me looks at the present day me, moving across time in only the way it can be done in New Orleans, I relax a bit.

Last night, it was that kitchen and those children and that husband, an Army officer, who occupied my time.  Jack and Elle arguing over IPads, dinner, toys and space.  B working in his office.  And, for a moment, I was back in that truck, back on that stoop, back at the cigar bar we frequented or inhaling the smell of cooked crawfish from down the street at Little Fishy during the season.  I interrupt my own thoughts and announce that it is time for bed.  It is time for the I love you’s.

For Michael, there are no more I love you’s. . . . but for me, they are still out there.

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