When Richard Spencer took over as secretary of the Navy in 2017, he had his work cut out for him. Years of continuing resolutions and late budgets had done significant damage to the readiness of the service. But he wasn’t prepared for just how big a job the recovery would be.
“I knew we had a readiness issue. I didn’t realize how deep and how wide,” Spencer said on Agency in Focus: Navy.
Congress set the recovery in motion by approving the 2017 request for additional appropriations. That helped stabilize the situation. An increased budget in 2018 also helped, though only having half the year to spend the money wasn’t ideal. But Spencer said the 2019 budget, passed on time and with another increase, has him optimistic about the future of the Navy.
“On behalf of the Navy, I want to thank Congress for the efforts that they undertook, because I know it took some people to the extremes of their comfort zone,” Spencer said in an interview with Federal New’s Radio’s Scott Maucione. “But I will tell you that the Navy is spending those moneys wisely and treating them dearly to support the national defense strategy.”
But Spencer isn’t counting on this to continue. He said the Navy is preparing for a budget that will flatten, or even shrink. So he’s focusing on changing the Navy’s culture to become more agile and efficient, to maximize the resources that it has at any given time.
And no resource is more valuable to the Navy than its personnel. Spencer said people are the service’s greatest asset; they’re very motivated, as long as they have some direction. But it’s also the Navy’s biggest issue.
Though the service has exceeded its recruiting goals until now, there is a growing realization among the armed forces that all of them – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard – are “fishing from the same pool,” Spencer said. Only 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform, and 40 percent of those come from military families. Recruitment is becoming a challenge.
“We have to widen the aperture,” Spencer said. “But not only widen the aperture, the question is how? We have to make a compelling argument for people to come into the service and serve their country. We believe we have those programs laid out for both the Navy and the Marine Corps.”
The Navy also has to figure out how to handle its retention issues, but again, Congress lent a hand there. Lawmakers provided the Navy with latitudes and authorities to improve its retention. For example, the Navy can now bring people in laterally. For example, a cybersecurity expert could join the Navy at a non-entry level. And the Navy has more leeway to be competitive on salaries now.
In addition, Congress also provided a pathway for service members who have separated from the Navy to return to duty.
But personnel isn’t the only challenge facing the service . A series of collisions over the past couple years brought the Navy’s readiness issues into the spotlight, and sparked multiple reviews to determine just how bad the situation is, including a strategic readiness review set up by the secretary of the Navy himself.
“The biggest conclusion that came out of that, an observation, was this deviation from the norm,” Spencer said. “We were accepting more risk continually, without really understanding what the impact of that risk may be. We have brought that needle back to true north. There is not a deviation from the norm. We’ve gotten back on a path of providing the resources necessary to make sure everyone is trained in their job.”
Those reports led to 110 recommendations. As of September, 76 of them have been implemented, Spencer said. Some are binary; in other words, the Navy just has to start doing something. Others are more long-term, with metrics in place to see how they perform over time.
Spencer said this is a big change for the Navy. It’s not just going to implement a program and evaluate how it went 14 months later. Instead, it’s using data analytics to track performance over time, and adjustments will be made on the fly. The feedback loop has input into the process, which will evolve and adapt.
“This is why I say the biggest challenge I have as Secretary of the Navy is this cultural change of how we can, as professionals, constantly question what we do in order to improve it. It is a little different,” Spencer said. “There’s always been pockets of brilliant success. … I think this is an incremental step just to get the thinking process moving so we can become even that much better.”
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.