One change in the military personnel system? (V): Flexible time for promotions
By Francis Park Best Defense personnel contest entry One tacit assumption for the personnel system is that it has to be readily expansible in the event of a national mobilization. The need for such a system is long in the past. The kinds of skills and the likely durations of a war make such a ...
By Francis Park
By Francis Park
Best Defense personnel contest entry
One tacit assumption for the personnel system is that it has to be readily expansible in the event of a national mobilization. The need for such a system is long in the past. The kinds of skills and the likely durations of a war make such a mass mobilization system unlikely; the relative capability (especially for "fight tonight" requirements) and the required size of the force would be prohibitively expensive and strategically risky, given the unforgiving nature of the information environment today. It also belies the diversity of skills in the force, which often goes untapped.
If I could make one change in the U.S. military personnel system, rather than having set year groups, officers should be considered within a sliding window for eligibility for promotion. Eligibility for promotion should start at the same interval as the current promotion system, but officers should be allowed to a three-year period to opt in for promotion eligibility. This sliding window allows officers who have not matured in their grades enough time for more developmental assignments. At the same time, allowing officers to compete immediately for promotion would allow those who wanted to advance faster to do so. Finally, it places an incentive on the officer to continue to compete for advancement.
Once an officer elects to compete for promotion or after the three-year period is up, the officer should be subject to the same up-or-out provisions that currently exist. Doing so provides a mechanism to clear the ranks of those who have reached the end of their potential active service so that junior officers are not waiting for someone to depart the service for those junior officers to advance.
The outcomes of such a system would serve as a talent management system. The timings to allow officers to advance at the current pace would still exist for those who were seeking higher responsibility earlier, while giving an opportunity for the military to develop skills in the force through broadening opportunities or civilian education that the current promotion system, by the iron hand of the career clock, does not usually permit. In general, ensuring that officers opt in for a longer period of time to voluntarily compete for promotion will reward those who are capable of advancement, while not penalizing those who have further potential but are not yet ready for that advancement. Such a system, by keeping the up-or-out over a long period, would also provide a vehicle for ensuring that the force does not become stale.
There are certain cultural changes that would have to be made in order for this sliding window to work. First, the services treat accredited civilian education as equal by institution, without regard to resident or nonresident education. That must change. Having the time available for an officer to pursue education for its return on investment, rather than just as a credential, would tremendously improve the intellectual capacity and capability of the force. It would also help in de-commoditizing accredited masters’ degrees that may not be relevant to career fields but "check the block." Secondly, promotion boards under such a system would have to walk a fine line between allowing for necessary developmental assignments and allowing officers to "camp out" only in their comfort zones. Finally, promotion boards must consider officers for future service not just on their tactical performance, but also on their professional and intellectual potential for service above the tactical level. This broader view towards development may be the hardest fight of all.
A sliding window for promotions will go a long way to addressing some of the talent management problems that the military faces. However, it will require a change to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, and will require an even greater cultural change in how the force sees personnel and talent management.
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Park is an Army strategist currently assigned to Headquarters, International Security Assistance Force, in Afghanistan. The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of the International Security Assistance Force, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. government.
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