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Army Will Stop Treating Troops As ‘Interchangeable Parts’: Gen. McConville

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


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Gen. James McConville

AUSA: “I know it’s almost blasphemous to think the Army would actually consider someone’s preferences,” the new Army chief of staff said this afternoon. “But if we know where they want to go and what they want to do, we believe we’ll get the right person, in the right job at the right time, and we will have a better Army and more committed soldiers and families.”

People have been trying to reform Army’s notoriously bureaucratic personnel system for years. If Gen. James McConville can actually put it off, that’s a potential revolution affecting more than a million regular and Reserve Component soldiers in the largest of the armed services.

“People don’t want to be treated like interchangeable parts in an industrial age process,” Gen. McConville told the Association of the US Army annual conference this afternoon, in his first address to AUSA as Army Chief of Staff. “They want to be recognized for their unique talents.”

But the current system doesn’t do that — and it arguably gets worse the higher you go in the ranks, since it has no way of accounting for decades of unique experiences. “Right now, we spend more time and more money on selecting a private to be in the Ranger Regiment than we do on something I would argue is one of the most consequential leadership positions in the Army, our battalion commanders,” McConville said. One of his first concrete reforms, he said, will be to change this year’s assessments for new battalion commanders, with candidates getting assessed in person instead of only as paper files.

For the big picture fix, “we’re moving towards a talent management system where we will manage people by 25 variables instead of two,” he said. It will be “a system that recognizes and capitalizes on our people’s knowledge, their skills, their behaviors and even their preferences.”

Treating troops like cogs is exactly how the current Army personnel bureaucracy does it — by design. It’s a system that was codified in its current form by the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980, but its foundations were really laid in 1947, the first year Congress passed unified personnel legislation covering all the armed services, and its key principles date back to the Elihu Root reforms of 1903.

The principle behind the current system is to create a large corps of generalists who can take on whatever leadership roles were needed in a massive wartime force of hastily trained conscripts. That’s a very different kind of army than the specialized technical professionals required for complex modern conflicts, from counterinsurgency to long-range missile strikes to cyber warfare.

When matching available personnel to positions that need filling, the current system generally tracks individuals by only two variables, their rank and their branch. For example, he said, “You’re a Captain of Infantry or you’re a Sergeant of Engineers. That’s really it.”

The result is a system that routinely does such things as send Arabic-speaking soldiers to Korea or veteran paratroopers to a tank brigade

A key building block of McConville’s new system will be a new Integrated Personnel and Pay System (IPPS-A) that covers regular active-duty soldiers, reservists, and National Guard troops in a single database rather than in separate and incompatible systems. IPPS-A will also be able track the almost two dozen variables now required.

“We’re also putting in place a comprehensive assessment program that will measure our people’s knowledge, skills, and attributes at key points in their careers to help us manage their talents,” McConville said. “I’m talking about a program where we measure cognitive and non-cognitive abilities through a variety of means to get a better picture of the skills in our force.”

Now, these assessments could create a new kind of personnel nightmare. If implemented badly, you could imagine expert soldiers being denied promotions because they checked the wrong box on a Myers-Briggs personal test.

So there are a lot of details here for the devil to fiddle with. While McConville left many questions unanswered, he promised the service would roll out its first-ever “Army People Strategy” soon, followed by prototyping and testing in the officer corps to get the reforms right before committing to them Army-wide.

Personnel reform was Mark Esper’s top priority for 2019 when he was Army Secretary. But we haven’t heard much about it since he was elevated to Defense Secretary this summer. It looks like McConville has seized that ball and is running with it.

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