DoD’s new personnel chief seeks less ‘churn’ in military leadership ranks

The White House announced Tuesday that Brad Carson is the president’s nominee to be the Pentagon’s top personnel official.

The news was far from surprising: Carson has served as the acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness since April, but the official nomination could add heft to a series of ambitious reform proposals he has already begun to publicly outline on behalf of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

As part of what Carter has dubbed the “force of the future,” the Pentagon is looking to overhaul its personnel policies for the first time in decades and align itself more closely with private sector practices, including by allowing servicemembers to take intermissions from military service, letting members easily transition between active duty and reserve service and replacing the “up-or-out approach” to promotion and retirement with one that reflects DoD’s need to recruit and retain a knowledge-based workforce.

Carter ordered Carson to draw up a series of recommendations by Aug. 19.
In a recent speech to the Association of the U.S. Army, Carson emphasized that his final recommendations to Carter will be the work product of several task groups, but he made clear that reducing the “churn” in the jobs held by military officers is among his own top priorities. Currently, officers are routinely shuffled from position to position every one to two years.

“That’s a real problem for a couple of reasons. One of them is that you don’t have time to develop expertise in the job you’re doing,” he said.” In the Army, we pride ourselves in being generalists, so we put people into jobs that they have no real background for. But because they are great leaders we expect them to pick up the skills on the job. They can do that and they do it rather remarkably, but as soon as they’re close to competence in that field, we move them to a new job or retire them altogether. That makes no sense. Ensuring that your leaders have a breadth of experience is important, but we need to focus on depth as well. We need to allow people in important jobs to stay longer than we now permit them to do.”

Carson, who also served as the undersecretary of the Army until Monday, said the implications of excessive “churn” are especially apparent in positions like those on the Army Staff. He compared the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO (seven years) to the position of Army chief of staff, which is limited by law to a four-year term. Many service chiefs have served even shorter stints.

“It gets worse as you go into other C-suite offices,” Carson said. “The chief human resources officer at a Fortune 500 company has an average tenure of four years, but the average tenure of the Army equivalent over the past 25 years, the G-1, has been two years. So too with the comparisons between the CIO and the CFO: both the Army staff principals have half the tenure of their corporate analogues. The churn is even greater at our lower staff levels. At most of the Army staff offices, more than half of the staff turns over every single year. Every three years, the entire organization is a new one.”

Carson argues that decades-old personnel policies which place a premium on breadth of experience rather than depth of experience are not only unhelpful to the military as an organization, but harmful to its individual members.
Those policies may, for example, have something to do with the fact that fully 50 percent of the Army’s female officers leave the service at their first opportunity.

And in his AUSA address, Carson suggested that military’s impulse to frequently rotate officers from job to job is a relic of a system that has failed to bring itself into line with the realities of a modern workforce.

“Our workforce has changed a lot over the last 75 years,” he said. “The military is no longer a male-only profession in which a wife is expected to follow you around to every post, camp and station. Today, smart people marry civilian doctors and lawyers. Those doctors and lawyers have careers too, and moving every two years is a hardship on them. If we want to keep the people we want the most, we have to let them stay at duty stations for longer than we do today. When I go to business schools across the country, I meet veteran after veteran who say things like, ‘My wife is a doctor and I wanted to stay in the National Capital Region so she could finish her schooling, but I was told I had to go to Korea immediately. So we separated.’ That story is one that’s told too often, and that churn is part of the problem.”

Carson said the recommendations he will deliver in August will have relatively little influence on how DoD manages its civilian personnel since civil servants fall primarily within the jurisdiction of the Office of Personnel Management and because there is relatively little DoD can do on its own to reform the government’s civilian personnel policies on its own.

Nonetheless, he said the department has some room for civilian workforce improvements that could be pulled off within its existing authorities.

For instance, Congress has already given DoD special permission to bypass the government’s slow and byzantine application process to immediately to hire up to 2,500 highly-qualified outside experts in areas such as cyber. But so far, DoD has only hired 91 people under those streamlined authorities, largely because of bureaucratic burdens the department has imposed upon itself.

And Carson said his critiques regarding “churn” in the military’s assignment process apply equally to DoD’s political appointees, even though the reform process he is leading won’t dictate any future president’s decisions.

Army Secretary John McHugh and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus are among a relative handful of DoD officials who have stuck with their jobs since the beginning of the Obama administration. Carson said he’d advise any future White House recruit political nominees who are willing to stay in their positions over similarly long periods.

“Tenure allows you to get things done,” he said. “It allows you to push initiatives and it also makes sure that you’re around to see the consequences of bad ideas so that you can pick them up. Keeping people in these political jobs longer is a very important thing. The same churn that hurts the Army staff on the uniformed side hurts the civilian side as well. Just the Army itself is an enormously complicated institution. It befuddles people who have been working in it for 30 years. To think you can come in for a year or two and think you understand anything about it is an illusion.”

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