No ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to military personnel reform

Decades-old legislation, like the Goldwater-Nichols Act and Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), emphasize a “one-size-fits-all” mentality that no longer suits the Defense Department’s needs — and the military and civilian employees who support its mission.

In the second of several hearings on the military’s current personnel system, a panel of defense experts urged the Senate Armed Services Committee to consider reforms that encourage more flexible career paths for the department’s employees.

“Our military has always had an entrepreneurial culture that encourages individuals to innovate,” said committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), during a Dec. 2 hearing. “But the military personnel system undermines that spirit, when it mistakes upholding professionalism with enforcing conformity. When high standards give way to a zero-defect mentality in performance evaluations, this discourages risk-taking, truth-telling and cultivation of entrepreneurial leaders.”

The committee took on some of the meatier issues the first round of reforms under Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative has largely avoided.

DOPMA, which Congress passed in 1980, places too many limits on some career paths for the military and special operations corps, witnesses said.

“It’s not about a particular constraint,” said David Chu, president and CEO of the Institute for Defense Analysis. “It’s about the paradigm the department follows that everybody should look … more or less the same. We’re grooming all officers to be chiefs of staff. That’s not true.”

Rather, some officers want to move to the role of a middle manager and could stay in that position for many years, Chu said. He encouraged DoD to look at the kinds of skills it’s looking for and acknowledge that not everyone will — or should — stay in the military for more than 20 years.

But at the same time, enlisted members and officers with specific expertise shouldn’t prematurely end their careers.

“The secretary is out talking about new initiatives for time with industry,” said Bernard Rostker, a RAND Corporation fellow. “And yet we’re going to send people home when they’re 52-years-old in the acquisition corps and planning and [other things that don’t require youth and vigor]? Can you imagine being a corporation and telling the majority of their acquisition executives, you’ve reached 52, go home? That’s when they’ve learned their craft.”

Retired Navy Adm. Gary Roughead, an Annenberg distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, also encouraged that the committee consider DOPMA reform.

“It has to be tuned in such a way that gives the services and even specialties within each service the latitude to be able to make the decisions to best incentivize the people that we want to keep,” he said. “And clearly, we have to change the up-or-out policy, particularly in some of the technical areas, that are going to only increase in competitiveness in future years.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) took issue with what she called the “deputy-deputy dog syndrome,” or the notion that the department has too many layers of personnel — too many deputies who report up the food chain.

Rostker acknowledged that the Defense Department has a layer of personnel that didn’t even exist when he started in Washington.

“We had assistant secretaries reporting to the Secretary of Defense,” he said. “Today we have assistant secretaries reporting to deputy secretaries, to undersecretaries, who report to the Secretary. … We’ve just mushroomed the whole department up one layer. It just grew out of hand.”

In August, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work directed additional cuts to headquarters positions for fiscal years 2017 to 2020. Bob Hale, former DoD comptroller and now a fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton,  said those reductions are a start. But he also suggested the Department and Congress limit the number of reports they ask of civilian personnel.

“We have to reduce the demand on them,” he told the committee. “Some of that is Congress, but some of it is internal as well. In the end, you have to let the department figure out how to organize itself within those more limited numbers.”

“Isn’t it true that every time there’s a crisis or problem, we create another bureaucracy and in some cases another command as a solution?” McCain said.

The committee only scratched the surface of these issues, McCain said, and encouraged it to approach military personnel reform with the same bipartisanship and rigor that it applied to its recent compensation and retirement overhaul.

“[There is] a need for us to act, but we want to remember the adage about first do no harm,” he said. “I appreciate the witnesses here today … and unfortunately we will be interrogating you again in the future.”

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