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Military Personnel Bureaucracy Drives Out Talent: BPC

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Army photo

Cadets march at West Point.

WASHINGTON: Pouring hundreds of billions into pay and benefits has not and cannot solve the military’s personnel problems. Despite spending 50 percent more per servicemember since 9/11, the services are short everything from cyber specialists to pilots, medics, nuclear engineers, and Arabic speakers. Spending more and more isn’t just unsustainable: It’s ineffective.

Instead, argues a new study from the Bipartisan Policy Center, the armed forces can enjoy both higher morale and greater skills, without spending more money — if they stop the profoundly counterproductive personnel bureaucracy from actively turning away talent, kicking it out, or making its life sufficiently miserable that it quits.

Leon Panetta

Leon Panetta

“You can’t buy your way out of this problem, and we’ve been trying to buy our way out of the problem with bonuses and all the other things,” said Leon Panetta, co-chair of the BPC study team, in an interview with Breaking Defense. “Frankly that’s why personnel costs have gone up 50 percent in the last 15 years.”

“We didn’t start from the proposition of, how do we save money,” added retired Sen. Jim Talent, one of Panetta’s co-chairs, “(but) all of us believe that (reform) is going to make personnel much more affordable in the longer run. Why? Because at the same time it spends heavily to attract and retain talent, the military invests a great deal of effort in squandering it.

“You take the person who speaks Farsi, you make them your Russian expert,” said the third co-chair, Blue Star Families’ CEO Kathy Roth-Douquet. “This happened to a friend of mine.”

The system forces pilots and surgeons to take desk jobs, it relocates troops without regard for either their families or their commanders, and it kicks out all but a handful of high-ranking personnel by age 40. If the personnel system were a car, we’ve been pumping the budgetary gas and spinning our wheels for years — but this whole time, we’ve had the parking brake on.

Panetta, Roth-Douquet, Talent, and their study team propose some 39 reforms, including:

  • turning Selective Service registration, a relic of the draft era, into a nationwide testing program to assess talent for military recruiters;
  • easing movement of skilled personnel back and forth between the private sector, higher education, the active duty military, and the reserves;
  • revamping promotion and pay to reward merit over length of time in service, while letting talented personnel stay in service longer;
  • replacing the Soviet-style central planning of the current assignment system with web-enabled free(ish) market that lets troops apply for jobs and commanders pick their people.
Army photo

A soldier from the Army’s offensive cyber brigade during an exercise at Fort Lewis, Washington.

Recruitment: Lateral Thinking

The BPC study proposes overhauling the military personnel system from recruitment to retirement.

“It’s almost hard to join the military,” Talent told an audience at BPC yesterday. With each service operating its own scattered storefront recruiting stations, “we make it hard on people,” he said. “We’re approaching this generation that does everything, of course, through technology, and each service has this lousy e-application form. So one of our suggestions is have one, common, up to date e-application form for all the services. I think that’s achievable.”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

Retired Senator Jim Talent at the Reagan Defense Forum in California.

The first step in BPC’s improved recruiting process would be to make Selective Service registration meaningful. Instead of having only males fill out pro forma information, creating a list of names and ages that’s maybe useful for brute-force mass conscription, BPC would have every young man and woman take the military’s ASBAB test (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). Their scores would help them in career planning and also go into a massive database for military purposes. First, it would help recruiters target likely candidates; second, in a national crisis, to target scarce talent for a “smart draft.”

Potentially drafting girls and building a military database on every young citizen will alarm many Americans. But it’s hardly the first controversial proposal in this package, which also includes raising healthcare enrollment fees for future retirees and limiting veterans’ preference in civilian hiring.

BPC would also streamline the existing recruiting system and create new pathways into the service. It would close many service-specific brick-and-mortar recruiting stations to free up resources for an all-service online recruiting system. It would expand ROTC, which currently prepares four-year college students to enter the military as junior lieutenants (Paygrade O-1), by creating a 2-year community college track for future warrant officers and a postgraduate track that would let students earn advanced degrees before entering the military as captains (O-3). That’s already possible for doctors, lawyers, and chaplains, but BPC would expand it to, say, engineers, computer scientists, and Arabic experts.

BPC would also expand such “lateral entry” into even higher ranks, allowing highly skilled specialists from industry and academia to come in as mid-grade officers, serve for a few years, and return to industry — a practice that was actually almost common during World War II. Lateral entry would also make it easier for National Guard and Reserve troops to join the active duty force and vice versa.

Army photo

Guard troops put on the patch of their associated active-duty unit.

Down With “Up Or Out”

Expanded lateral entry will only work, however, if the military changes how it calculates pay and promotion. Today’s pay tables reward longevity — the total number of years in uniform — more highly than rank: A captain with four years in service, following a conventional career track, would earn more pay than a lateral-entry major with two. Promotion boards also judge candidates against their “year group” and rarely advance high performers faster than average or low performers slower. BPC would loosen these time-based restrictions and tie promotion and pay more closely to merit.

BPC would also remove the current “up or out” rules which kick troops out of the service if they aren’t promoted fast enough. In fact, the military expels everybody but a handful of generals and admirals after about 20 years of service. This system is an overreaction to the first days of World War II, when George Marshall fired superannuated officers en masse, many of them physically unfit for command. But an ever-increasing share of military jobs require more experience and technical expertise than youthful vigor — and for intensely physical jobs like infantry, a profession-specific fitness test is a much better tool to shape the force than a universal up-or-out. To replace one-size-fits-all up-or-out, BPC proposes an annual review of every servicemember to separate poor performers, something historically done only during budget cuts.

Up-or-out doesn’t just impose arbitrary timelines and cut careers short: It also imposes narrow career path. Officers must meet certain “gates” by certain timelines — command a battalion as a lieutenant colonel, as an Army example — or risk not being promoted and, ultimately, kicked out. These stereotyped paths try to prepare every officer to be a general or admiral. If you’re a pilot who just wants to fly planes, not a desk, then you might want to try the airlines. If you’re a surgeon who doesn’t want to be a hospital administrator, or a cyber specialist who’d rather code than command, likewise, you’d have more freedom to excel in the private sector. BPC would create alternative career paths.

The current, rigid system also compels troops to change jobs and units repeatedly throughout their careers. While some of this is necessary for the needs of the service, some is driven by the idea that future generals need a wide variety of different experiences, rather than deep proficiency in a single subject. While we’ve come a long way from Vietnam, when the Army changed frontline commanders every six months to give as many officers combat experience as possible — which meant every unit bloodily reinvented the wheel at least twice a year — there’s still a lot of unnecessary churn.

Kathy Roth-Douquet

The constant moves are also hard on families, especially if they scuttle a civilian spouse’s career, which has does emotional and financial damage the military can’t easily compensate for. “We can never pay our military enough to make them equal to civilian households because civilian households have two incomes,” said Roth-Douquet. “We have to make it possible for military spouses to work.”

Consider Roth-Douquet herself, a lawyer married to a Marine. They moved nine times in 15 years — sometimes back to the same place they’d just moved away from — putting their kid through 10 schools by 10th grade, and giving up her job. At one point, they were living in San Diego when her husband got orders to go to North Carolina. They did some digging and discovered (1) there was also an opening for the exact same job on the West Coast and (2) the Marine being assigned that West Coast job would much rather go to North Carolina, where he had relatives. The two families talked, agreed they’d like to switch, and proposed it to the personnel bureaucracy.

No dice. The family that wanted to go to the East Coast had to go to the West Coast, the family that wanted to go to the West Coast went to the East. The military paid for two moves, Roth-Douquet’s family lost her income (and the IRS lost the taxes), and everyone was a little more miserable than they had to be. Of course, service to country requires sacrifice — but that’s not the same as submitting to pointless bureaucratic hassle.

This system would be excusable if shuffling people from post to post gave each commander the best possible team. It doesn’t. One of the shocking things about the military assignments system is how little say a commander has in who comes to work for him — much less than a civilian boss. Contrary to every movie montage in which a cigar-chomping commander handpicks his team of heroes, in real life, a distant bureaucracy picks people based on the limited information on file. “They just show up at the unit,” said Panetta.

Instead of this “inflexible, centrally planned system” with its curious resemblance to the Soviet GOSPLAN, the BPC report proposes an online marketplace in which commanders would post jobs, candidates would apply for them, commanders would rank their favorite candidates, and applicants would rank their favorite jobs. It wouldn’t be totally a free market: An algorithm would match jobs and candidates, with a final review by personnel officers, rather than commanders getting to pick. But this reformed system might do much better at meeting both the needs of the servicemember and the needs of the service.

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