Selective Service System trending up in annual Best Places to Work sweepstakes

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Not many feds even know there’s a selective service, an actual federal agency that ensures the Defense Department would be able to tap the population it would need in an all out war. For two years, the Selective Service System has raised its rankings in the annual Best Places to Work sweepstakes. Acting Director Craig Brown joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss how they were able to do that.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Brown, good to have you in.

Craig Brown: Tom. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much.

Tom Temin: Give us a sense of, first of all, how large the Selective Service System — the SSS.gov — actually is. How many employees do you have and how does it all operate?

Craig Brown: Sure. So it’s a small agency — we were in that ranking within the fed view survey — there are about 120 full time employees. But then we have this variety of other employees. We have more than 50, what we call intermittent employees, spread out to every state and territory that we have. We have a number of reservists. And then we have more than 10,000 volunteers spread throughout the country, helping us do our job.

Tom Temin: And what do the volunteers do?

Craig Brown: So they would stand up local boards if there ever were to be returned to a draft. If a young man were to say, I can’t be drafted, for whatever reason — I’m a conscientious objector, I have a deferral that I’d like to ask for — local boards spread throughout the country would decide that case. They’re not paid, not compensated in any way. They’re just volunteers who do this.

Tom Temin: And we should remind people, this was a surprise to me a few years ago, I think, when I spoke with your predecessor, and that is that everyone to this day is still required to register for, every male in the United States is required to register at the age of 18?

Craig Brown: That’s correct. Within three months of their 18th birthday, with few exceptions, every male, and that’s whether you’re a citizen or not a citizen, is required to register with Selective Service. And just a statement of, hey, I’m aware that I have an obligation, should my country ever need me, I’m here. And you can do that, just go to SSS.gov and click on a button. It takes you 30 seconds.

Tom Temin: There you go. And in the Best Places to Work sweepstakes here, tell us what the history of the rankings for the Selective Service have been.

Craig Brown: Yeah, they hadn’t been great for a number of years. There are great things and not so great things about small agencies. This agency performs its mission — it registers young men, and it’s ready to have a draft. But we haven’t obviously had a draft for 50 years. So you get into a status — a steady state. And we were that way for many, many years. And there’s been this great awakening over the last couple of years. We have wonderful employees that are just dedicated to the mission. And we’re also freeing up opportunity to do different things, do things in new ways. And I think that’s been a big part of why we’ve jumped quite a bit in the survey the past two years.

Tom Temin: And what do people generally do day-to-day?

Craig Brown: So we register every young man in the United States — it’s about 2 million of them every year. So we have a call center. We have a mail center. And then we have just the normal things that every agency has. We have policy arms, we have analysts, we have public affairs, we have an IT backbone — it does a great job for us.

Tom Temin: And people registered, they can do it online nowadays? So there’s a systems component to this.

Craig Brown: There’s a major systems component. And that’s been a wonderful reason why we’re able to jump so high in the survey, we’re able to do that remotely. By mail, obviously, we have the entire population of the United States — not everybody uses IT. And then there are other ways to register. For many parts of the country, in different states, if you get a driver’s license, there’s an opportunity to register there. Up until recently, we’re also linked to the FAFSA, the Free Application For Federal Student Aid. Unfortunately, this past year, there’s some legislation that delinked us from FAFSA, and we’re working through that. But that’s just an example of the many ways you can register.

Tom Temin: And do people still get draft cards?

Craig Brown: You do. My son is 20. When he was 18, he registered when he got his permit at the time. And he got in the mail, a letter that said, here, you are confirmed, you’re registered, and here’s your card. And if you happen to lose that and you want it, you can go and click on our website and confirm that you’ve been registered and download your draft card. And it’s not a draft card. It’s an acknowledgement of registration.

Tom Temin: Got it. You don’t get a little cardboard card…

Craig Brown: No, not anymore. Nothing you can tear up, because we don’t have a draft.

Tom Temin: Right. Yes, you can’t burn your draft card anymore. Well, that’s a good thing, I suppose. But then I get the general sense in some ways over the years, working at the Selective Service’s kind of like working deep in the nuclear enterprise. You have to keep everything up and running and going. But it’s something that has not actually been exercised, well never has in the case of the nuclear enterprise, and has not been, as you point out, since the Nixon administration for Selective Service. And so that can, you think, maybe produce a kind of sense of, I’m just on a treadmill here?

Craig Brown: That’s a wonderful metaphor, and I may steal that from you.

Tom Temin: No charge.

Craig Brown: That’s an interesting way to think about it. We have not had a draft, as you mentioned, since 1972. And think of the way we’ve evolved just as a society since then. If we were to have had a draft in 1973, you would’ve received letters in the mail, people would have reported to a place and gotten a bus ticket. And now it would be digital. So, a lot of our job is staying current and up-to-date, and then testing the enterprise to make sure that if we were called upon, and there’s no indication that we will be, that we could do our job. We do exercises just like the nuclear enterprise does. That’s exactly right.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Craig Brown, he’s acting director of the Selective Service System. And so what are some of the steps you’ve taken in the last couple of years to get those Best Places to Work rankings up by quite a few percentage points?

Craig Brown: A large part of that started with fixing up our IT enterprise — affording the team the tools they needed to do their job better. And a great stimulant was the set of exercises that we were running, maybe two years ago, that highlighted some gaps that we had to address. And so, that set us up well, unfortunately, had a pandemic that triggered new things that we had to do. But, we are able to do the majority of our mission remotely. Now we have folks — we have a male center — so those folks have to report. But most folks within the agency can do their job not in the office. That took a long time for us to realize. There’s a reason that change management is a thing, right? Because it’s hard, and nobody likes to do it.

Tom Temin: Sure.

Craig Brown: We had this forcing function that made us go remote. And, we have a wonderful team — great supervisors, great employees — and they sort of all came together. And with that realization, and the realization that we don’t really have to go back to the way we were where everyone was reporting to an office in person, and that everyone has a say in how we want to go forward. A wonderful thing about being a small agency is you’re able to collaborate. I know virtually everyone in the agency, right?

Tom Temin: Sure.

Craig Brown: And so they all have a voice, they’ll have a say, we collaborated on a bunch of policies. And because people are empowered and have skin in the game, they’re more apt to think highly of the agency, because they’re part of that.

Tom Temin: You mentioned exercises that showed up gaps in the IT process and the whole operation that you have, tell us what are the components of the exercises, and what are the gaps that showed up that you needed to plug?

Craig Brown: Sure. So for instance, we would have a lottery. And we have lottery machines. And we would exercise these machines, we’d run them and pull the balls and everything..

Tom Temin: Still have the ping pong balls in there?

Craig Brown: We still have the ping pong balls..

Tom Temin: Because in my day, we used to watch that very carefully — see when your birthday came up.

Craig Brown: And you said we would watch it. So it’s really a public affairs show. But we hadn’t thought about that public affairs component in a number of years. So think of how we’ve evolved, in 1972, you might watch it on TV — the three networks that we had at the time would carry that. Well now we need to be on social media, right? We need to be tweeting out results as we go, we need to make sure that people couldn’t penetrate what we were trying to do in an IT sense. And so we’d been going through motions, we’d been exercising the machines, but we hadn’t thought about the greater strategic issues that might be involved in a lottery. And so that’s just an example of something that we ran through in an exercise. We thought about it. And we identified areas that we could mature.

Tom Temin: And you were able to secure funds to maybe invest in IT and some of the systems that would fix those gaps?

Craig Brown: As a small agency, we have a small budget. And so, with small budget comes limited ability to flex. But, we have a great CFO, and she’s been able to identify ways to get funds. And you’ve covered here, the Technology Modernization Fund. So we’re trying to take advantage of that. And we have great partners within Congress who are aware of our issues. This IT modernization program is now three years old. And so they’ve been trying to get us additional funds as they can.

Tom Temin: And I imagine there’s a big cloud component to all of this to get some of the IT day-to-day burden out of the small agency.

Craig Brown: Just like every part of the government, we’re in progress and shifting to the cloud. And I think we’re a little bit ahead of the game because our exercises identified these gaps. And so our IT team is well engaged in getting us into the cloud.

Tom Temin: And now Congress is thinking about, at least there’s language in one of the versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for next year, to get women registered for the draft. This would be a first in American history, really. Not certain that would happen. But you must be modeling how that would work should it become law.

Craig Brown: Absolutely. This is something we’ve been aware of. This actually dates back to 2016. The Congress at that time introduced legislation, perhaps to register women. Out of that came a commission that was to study the idea, among other things. Public service, in general, is the big mandate that they had — specifically they were to look at Selective Service. They did, they reported out in the midst of a pandemic last year. The message that they reported out was we should register women. Now, as a federal agency, we’re here to execute. I have no particular position on that matter. But, my job is, if I’m asked to do it, to do it. And so yes, we’ve modeled it, we’ve studied it, and can do it if asked. Now that’s a question that Congress needs to answer, honestly. And, yes, the Senate Armed Services Committee has inserted language within their version of the National Defense Authorization Act, and the House is going to consider that I guess, in the full committee early next month.

Tom Temin: But should they decide that, you would be ready?

Craig Brown: We would be, yes. Fundamentally, we’re expanding registration to another half of the population, but the mission doesn’t change — registering men, registering women. There are some form changes, things like that. We would expand the IT enterprise a little bit more. Our messaging would change. But yes, we can do it.

Tom Temin: Craig Brown is acting director of the Selective Service System. Thanks so much for joining me.

Craig Brown: I’m delighted to be here Tom.

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