Best Defense

Ash Carter’s speech: A beginning, not a defeat, of the personnel revolution.

The reforms unveiled in the “Force of the Future” speech given by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on November 18th fell short of what many reformers hoped.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 18:  U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter addresses the faculty and students of George Washington University November 18, 2015 in Washington, DC. Carter discussed the "Force of the Future" initiative, which will consist of "multiple elements, each with creative and modern proposals designed to help recruit and retain the best men and women our nation has to offer."  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 18: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter addresses the faculty and students of George Washington University November 18, 2015 in Washington, DC. Carter discussed the "Force of the Future" initiative, which will consist of "multiple elements, each with creative and modern proposals designed to help recruit and retain the best men and women our nation has to offer." (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

 

By Tim Kane
Best Defense guest columnist

The reforms unveiled in the “Force of the Future” speech given by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on November 18th fell short of what many reformers hoped. Although I appreciated when the SecDef called out my book, “quote Bleeding Talent end quote,” with literal air quotes, his plan neglects many of the book’s recommendations: eliminating year groups, allowing lateral reentry, allowing greater specialization, and giving soldiers and families more career control. Indeed, compared to proposals laid out this summer by his Under Secretary Brad Carson, the Secretary’s formal plan seems awfully timid.

The reviews came in quickly, and many agreed that the speech was underwhelming. Andrew Tilghman says it “omitted many of the ambitious proposals” under consideration by Carson’s team. He cites well-respected Defense expert Todd Harrison: “They’ve watered it down to something that is almost unrecognizable. There’s just not much in this compared to the earlier draft of the document.” Tom Philpott writes in Stars and Stripes that the proposal tallies only modest changes and punts on “the costly or controversial ideas.” Even Best Defense’s own Tom Ricks thinks the SecDef should aim for more than this.

Indeed, there was lots missing. The speech included no call to reform the up-or-out promotion structure that fosters careerism and constant PCS moves. Indeed, there was nothing asking Congress for an overhaul of the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Manpower Act that I’ve called the “root of all evil” in the personnel bureaucracy. Nothing new about compensation aside from the pension change that’s already passed Congress. No call to change the pay chart or seniority bias over merit. No lateral entry.

Even so, I think it’s a mistake to see Carter’s speech as timid. This is a beginning, not an ending. Notice he stated–more than once–that the changes are “just the beginning. So stay tuned in the coming months.” Notice the title of the speech: “Building the First Link to the Force of the Future.” Maybe that sounds like boilerplate gloss, but notice the text of the fact sheet describing the reforms in more detail: “[The Secretary’s] Working Group has recommended an initial tranche of over 20 reform initiatives, focused on permeability, recruitment, and retention — 12 of which will be highlighted in the Secretary’s November 18, 2015 speech.” (emphasis added).

Yet even if future changes fall short, I am confident that when all twelve of the Force of the Future’s supposedly “timid” changes are put in place, the transition from coercion to volunteerism in personnel affairs will be inevitable. Here’s why:

  1. The reforms are deceptively mild. Oddly so. That may explain why so many critics have mistaken them as substantively mild. Good camo, Mr. Carson! Seriously, the first recommendation is “Improve and Enhance College Internship Programs.” At least four establish new offices that sound like harmless additions to the vast Pentagon mothership, including “Talent Management Centers,” a “Center for Talent Development”, an “Entrepreneur in Residence Program” and the “Office of People Analytics.” I can hear the crusty old Generals laughing now, “Look out LeMay, here comes the OPA!” Yet mark my words, these offices are a smart investment for significant and continuous innovation.
  2. Exit Surveys. The only reason the “bureaucratic concrete” has outlasted reformers dating back to the Gates Commission in 1970 is by denying a problem. What brain drain? No data means no problem. Even though Carter gave lip service to critics of Bleeding Talent as anecdotal, he is playing the long game. Collecting exit survey data from service members will clarify for everyone what the perceived strengths and weaknesses of status quo truly are. This is a huge deal.
  3. Command Authority. I have no idea what the bureaucratic knife fight inside the Pentagon’s five walls has been like these past six months. I’ve heard whispers that two, maybe three, of the service chiefs cut Carson’s ambitions to ribbons. But for all that was left out of this first tranche, they kept the most important reform in. They are going to restore command authority over assignments, which means decentralizing it from the service centers in Fort Knox, Millington, and San Antonio.

It is easy to be distracted by the many symptoms of an inefficient process. It is also easy to detail dozens of fixes that could improve how a system works. Many of the fixes are interlinked, but which one is the most fundamental? After thinking about this problem for years, I am convinced there is one fundamental process that must be changed for any other to have effect, and that is job-matching. Personnel management, often termed talent management, is fundamentally rooted in the process of matching people with jobs. The services call this detailing (Navy) or assignments (Air Force), or slating (Army).

In the private sector, job matching happens in an open labor market. Bizarrely, some military brass believe they don’t need a labor market, oblivious to the fact that they operate a centrally-planned market for job-matching just like the Soviets centrally planned the allocation of food and clothing. Somebody, somewhere has the authority to match people to jobs. In the real world, that’s a negotiation between job applicants and bosses. In the military, that somebody is the faceless officer at HRC, AFPC, or NPC.

But once Carter’s plan is implemented, military commanders will have their authority restored to do their own hiring. In his words: “Think of a soldier logging on, setting up a profile, seeing what they’re qualified for, and selecting what they want to do, while the unit looking to bring someone on sees the profiles that fit their criteria, and chooses who they’re interested in.”

This authority is not new, rather it is a restoration of the kind of authority military commanders had during World War II. Nor would hiring authority be absolute: many roles can and will still be filled through central assignments, to include priority individuals and guaranteed follow-on assignments.

Decentralized job-matching will gain more than efficiency and morale, it will open the door for all the other reforms. It will change the way the services think about promotions and specializations. Once soldiers can move sideways under protection of their commanders, up-or-out becomes an anachronism.

I would caution that during implementation, this reform must not be dependent on developing a new centralized IT system. It does not require new technology, only renewed authority for commanders to choose, as well as the authority to interview, to recruit, and to seek out information about candidates. This is why Carter mentioned Linkedin, and more than once. Restoring command authority will be enhanced by new IT, and I applaud efforts to expand the Army’s Green Pages model. The odds of failure will be very high if this effort hinges on a multi-branch database acquisition project, especially when all that is needed is a DOD directive that directs each service to develop a plan to restore command authority within twelve months. Some will drag their feet. Other services will race ahead.

Likewise, implementation is key for the other promised reforms. Most critically, the exit surveys should be not be centrally managed by the DOD. Rather, the DOD should require that each service develop and test a variety of exit surveys immediately using a minimal set of common questions, to be supplemented as each service sees fit. Implement, learn, iterate. Expose the results broadly and improve the process. And, vitally, let each service (team) exercise some command authority.

That’s how innovation really happens.

Tim Kane is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and has twice served as a senior economist on the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress. He is the author of Bleeding Talent and a veteran and graduate of the United States Air Force Academy.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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