Pentagon’s new HR chief says personnel system is in urgent need of reform

The Defense Department’s new personnel chief says the entire military personnel system is in “desperate” need of reform. And since only 18 months are left before a new administration comes into office, he says he intends to move quickly to overhaul talent management practices that have barely budged since the 1940s.

Brad Carson, who is serving simultaneously as the undersecretary of the Army and the acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness criticized the current personnel management system as “almost Soviet” in its rigidity Tuesday, saying it’s failed to come to grips with the realities and expectations of a 21st century workforce.

While various think tanks have made similar observations for years, Carson said he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to make some headway during his remaining time as DoD’s personnel chief: Ashton Carter, the new Defense secretary declared the creation of what he called a “force of the future” a top priority when he came into office in February and has directed Carson to deliver a reform plan by Aug. 19.

“The time is long past due,” Carson told a breakfast forum hosted by Defense One on Tuesday. “We have a personnel system that hasn’t fundamentally changed in 70 years, and the rest of the world has evolved. We’re still following a mindless check-the-box process while everyone else is treating human resources as a strategic partnership with their top leaders. The Department of Defense has never made this transition, and we need to. We’re in the sixth week of a three month process, and a lot of people say that 18 months isn’t enough time to make these changes. But that’s an indictment of our system. Three months ought to be enough time to at least prototype a new personnel system. That’s not rapid by the standards of anything other than a government bureaucracy.”

DoD has not made any decisions about how to restructure its system thus far nor what new authorities it will seek from Congress, and Carson emphasized that the leaders of the three military departments will need to make their own decisions about how to recruit and organize their forces since each service has its own unique requirements.

But he said he views the current “up-or-out” system, which requires military personnel to either be promoted to the next rank according to a predetermined schedule or be summarily removed from the service as one element in serious need of reexamination.

“It’s inflexible, inefficient and inequitable today, because people have short tenures in the particular jobs given to them.” he said. “If someone wants to be a Major doing cyber for 20 or 40 years, that’s not permitted by statute or regulation. We should envision a world in which that’s possible. Some services will avail themselves of that authority and others won’t. But one of the pervasive problems we have now is that people are rapidly moving from assignment to assignment every year to a year-and-a-half. It’s barely time to get the depth you’d want in that job because we put such a premium on breadth.”

Carson said that approach was based on historical one-size-fits-all practices which assumed that all military officers should aspire to eventual promotion as a general or admiral.

“We rotate people through different jobs very rapidly because we assume that they need to hold a command, they need to go to school, they need to have a developmental assignment. And if you get off of that treadmill your promotion chances are dimmed considerably,” he said. “But we can be more flexible. People can specialize, and not everyone has to be on track to be a flag officer. Careers can be longer. You don’t have to be promoted to Major just because you’ve served for eleven years; maybe you should be promoted to Major when you hit key milestones instead of a time-based system. That’s the ambition we have right now. We want to move away from a rigid system that puts people on a treadmill that they can only get off of at their own peril.”

Carson said he’s optimistic about the chances for near-term reforms that would make the military personnel system more flexible: while opinions differ on precisely what to change, few people, even within the leadership of the military services, believe that the current system is working as it needs to.

Amongst the services, the Navy has been the most outspoken about the need for change. In May, that department’s secretary, Ray Mabus announced a series of internal reforms and legislative requests that would, among other things, allow more officers to take temporary detours from military service to start a family, work in industry for a time or earn a graduate degree without fear of penalty in their military careers.

The service has also expressed a strong desire to move away from what officials have called an “industrial age” model for recruiting and retaining its workforce.

“Fundamentally, we have a system that’s been managing our raw material — people — in the same way we have since the end of World War II,” Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the Chief of Naval Personnel said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “Our structure has been to bring in thousands of people every year, only to retain 13 to 15 percent of them for a career. It’s a pyramid structure where we put people on a conveyer belt: You neck it down over time and you hope you get what you need at the end. We have not done a very good job, for years, of tracking the quality of the talent that comes through that model. It’s a very expensive model, and no corporate business would do it that way.”

The Navy and its sister services would like Congress to grant them flexibility to promote officers when they are competent for the next rank instead of when they’re next in line, but they also acknowledge that in many ways, they’re ill- equipped to assess those competencies, or even to answer basic questions about the makeup of their workforces, which personnel policies are working, and which ones should be replaced.

The military services aggregate and store much more data about their employees than any private company could ever hope to, but the information is stored in a variety of purpose-built databases that were never designed to communicate with one another. The Army estimates it has 53 such functional databases; the Navy counts 79.

“To fix our personnel system, you need data. You have to be able to see yourself, and right now my pay system is 30 years old, it has seven million lines of undocumented COBOL code. You have to dig people out of the graveyard to reprogram it,” said Roy Wallace, the Army’s assistant deputy chief of staff for personnel. “Right now I’m driving a Yugo, and I need a Maserati. The trouble is getting everybody on board. We have congressional marks right now that fund our system at $50 million and an order to reorganize our program. That will set me back two years. As we bring ourselves down from a high of 565,000 soldiers, I have got to be able to get in there and see where I am. I have to be able to understand who my top ten-percenters are.”

Moran said his service has an obverse problem: while the Army is trying to shed more than 100,000 personnel due to budget constraints in the most intelligent way possible, the Navy is concerned about retention. But both departments, he said, face a common challenge as they reshape their personnel systems.

“The services would like to have our own flexibility as we go about designing systems that accommodate our workforce needs, ” he said. “The question is how wide we need the pyramid to be. How many people do we need to bring in to continue the flow? There are no models out there. There are none, even after 50 years of collecting this information. That’s what we have to go mine, we have go understand it and then make smart decisions about how to go forward.”

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