2019 probably isn’t the year for personnel reform in the NDAA

While there was a lot of talk about reform, it may take longer than some expected to overhaul the military personnel system.

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Those hoping for big military personnel reform in the 2019 defense authorization bill might be disappointed when the next rolls out in the coming weeks.

Despite rumblings of forthcoming change and hearings addressing the constraints of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), which dictates military personnel policy, it seems like 2019 won’t be the year for reform.

“I don’t know that they personnel subcommittee is coming with a big overhaul of DOPMA this year, but I do know the service secretaries are talking about it among themselves. I just don’t know what it will mean for our bill,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in an April 17 meeting with reporters. “I am certainly interested in any suggestions the department has on personnel reform and I’m very interested in the topic.”

There was a lot of chatter about reform this past year as the military began expanding its ranks under the 2018 budget.

DOPMA is proving to be a more and more difficult constraint on the services as they try to retain and recruit top talent. The military is unable to provide work-life balance like many of its private sector competitors.

Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter tried to maneuver around DOPMA with the semi-controversial Force of the Future initiative. That program expanded maternity and paternity leave, lengthened child development center hours and allowed transgender troops to serve openly.

But the military is still having trouble finding and holding onto the people it needs. The Army announced last week it will not meet its goal to recruit 80,000 active duty soldiers this year and officially lowered its bar to 76,500.

The recruitment goal was a significant increase over last year’s goal of 69,000.

In November, Congress ordered a study on the military’s up or out system, which requires troops to promote to the next rank within a certain time period or leave the military.

Still, top military personnel chiefs are reluctant to stray too far from DOPMA.

“We’re challenged to sustain some low-density, highly-technical specialties or specific skill populations within the larger branches,” Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, deputy chief of staff for personnel, said. “The Army’s about people, and a review and adjustment to DOPMA would enable more efficient and effective management of human capital to help ensure inevitable cycles of reduction and expansion work more smoothly for the services. Our analysis tells us that while DOPMA is a solid framework, it would benefit from a review and adjustments to offer opportunities for managing key and critical skills with the officer grades to deal with today’s rapidly changing world.”

Likewise, the Navy thinks the current structure will continue to work fine for the majority of its officers, but would like to augment the traditional up-or-out system with other career paths that it calls “up and stay” — a mechanism for high-performing officers to remain in their current pay grade — and another called “up and bring back,” designed to ease transitions between active duty, reserve service, and the private sector.

Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the chief of naval personnel, said his service also believes it needs additional legal authority to pay officers based on their performance in order to incentivize and retain its brightest ones.

“All of these concepts of a merit based component to our pay are just completely lacking,” he said. “The current statutes, if you interpret them liberally, allow for a merit based component to some of the retention and enlistment bonus authorities, but not solely a merit based pay. I think we’re at the point where we need to change some statute.

The personnel chiefs are also pushing programs like the career intermission program, which gives troops time off to study to take care of a sick family member, as a means to increase retention.

But a study from the Bipartisan Policy Center written by former top Defense Department officials and influential policy experts, including former Marine Corps Commandant Jim Jones, former Sen. Jim Talent, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families, made it clear something needs to change in the personnel system if the military wants to stay afloat.

“If the military is going to recruit and retain a volunteer force with the necessary skills, it needs to do two things. It needs to recruit, assign and promote in a way that develops and retains value across a wide range of skills including the highly technical skills, and it needs to better accommodate the evolution of American society and the American family. And it needs to do those things without sacrificing the aspects of the system that are working well,” Talent said.

Read more of the DoD Personnel Notebook.

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