Best Defense

If I could change one thing in military personnel policy (10): Give promotion boards a lot less data and get more depth

By LTC Bob McKenna, USA (Ret.) Best Defense personnel contest entry I recently had the opportunity to review a Secretary of the Army response to a congressional inquiry from a member of the House Armed Services Committee, where the SECARMY stated that promotion boards “take the entire record into account when evaluating a Soldier for ...


By LTC Bob McKenna, USA (Ret.)
Best Defense personnel contest entry

I recently had the opportunity to review a Secretary of the Army response to a congressional inquiry from a member of the House Armed Services Committee, where the SECARMY stated that promotion boards “take the entire record into account when evaluating a Soldier for promotion.”

This made me wonder, “Is this the best method for determining who is performing to the highest standards now, or best suited to leading the organization tomorrow?” given the board process’s greatest limitation, time. By most accounts, Board members have approximately 90 seconds to review an officer’s file (photo, officer record brief, multiple evaluations, and occasionally other documentation) and render a promotion vote. This prompts two questions: How does a board member weight the totality of service, as opposed to the most recent performances at an officer’s current rank? And by presenting individuals’ entire record, are we increasing the risk of personal or professional bias (i.e.: good/bad photos, senior rater’s reputation, recognizable name, or unit of assignment) negating objective measures of performance?

I suggest we reduce what is viewable to board members, permitting them, in the minute and a half that they have to vote, to take a deeper look into fewer documents. Further, I recommend some minor administrative changes to evaluation reports, to reduce opportunities for bias.

First, eliminate the promotion board photo and replace it with a computer generated image showing an individual’s awards/decorations. The software to accomplish this already exists, is used extensively in private industry, and can be integrated at minimal cost. (I’m not totally abandoning the idea of having an official photo in the personnel file, as it serves a purpose for branch managers who generally don’t personally know the officers they manage, and it has some utility in the nominative assignment process.)

Second, strip down the Board ORB, eliminating any mentions of a service member’s name, gender, and race/ethnicity, as well as any information identifying specific units of assignment. The Board ORB can continue to specify country of service or installation, but these would de-link from duty titles or specific time periods.

Lastly, permit the board to only review evaluation reports that were earned since the officer’s last promotion. As with the ORB, these evaluation reports should omit the name of the service member and the rater/senior rater, and any references to the service member in the narrative should be in gender-neutral language (i.e. “this officer”).

Reducing the number of OERs being reviewed to only the most recent will permit a more in-depth analysis of an officer’s duty performance and eliminate the current practice of simply reading the first and last sentence of rater/senior raters’ comments. Further, eliminating raters’ identities should reduce the potential for bias, as reports will not be valued differently based on the evaluators’ cachet or reputation rising or falling over time. For instance, an Above Center Mass Report signed by the now convicted former Brigadier General Jeffery Sinclair probably carries less value today than it would have a few years ago.

In addition to selecting individuals performing at the top of their game today, reducing the amount of records offered in support of promotion will potentially keep more officers in realistic promotion competition for a longer period of time.

Currently, an officer can be promoted to O-4 or O-5 today but knows that he or she has no realistic opportunity for further advancement, regardless of how hard he or she works or how well he or she performs. Our existing system is much like the college football playoff selection, where the value of a win or loss can change between September/October and Selection Sunday in December. The change I’m proposing would make selection much more akin to March Madness: You play, and advance, whether you won by 20 points or two, and the next weekend the scoreboard reads 0-0 at the start of the game. Once the institution has selected you for advancement it has passed judgment on your service to that point in time; it should not attempt to re-evaluate that decision at each and every subsequent board.

One question for consideration, “Should board members be allowed to review documentation supporting individuals’ awards?” Reviewing that information may inflate the awards’ value (I’m of the school of thought that the action or achievement has already been captured and considered during the OER process) and may foil attempts to blind the file for race, gender, and identity. However, promotion boards all too frequently discover that soldiers are wearing unauthorized awards or have awards posted to their files with fraudulent paperwork. My solution would be to permit a board member to flag a certain number of records for awards review on a daily basis, after voting. If awards aren’t properly substantiated, then that individual’s votes are held in abeyance or cancelled until the administrative issue is resolved.

Given the size of the force, and the logistic and personnel costs of holding promotions boards, the Army cannot afford to devote more time to reviewing individuals’ files. Within that limitation, the institution should focus on the evidence that gives the best indication of how a soldier performs today and most likely will tomorrow.

LTC (ret.) Bob McKenna served 25 years in the Army as an Infantry and Sub-Saharan Africa foreign area officer. He had the privilege of working with the armed forces of 35 different countries. Upon retirement, he escaped the Beltway for the other Washington and now works in the for-profit sector within the most heavily regulated industry in America — health.

Tom here: I’m gonna assume the rest of youse are perfectly content with the U.S. military personnel system, or think it is unfixable. Which is it? Let me know at the blog e-mail address, with PERSONNEL in the subject line.

Image credit: U.S. Army

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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