DoD suggests changing promotion boards to keep talent

The Defense Department wants Congress to change the law regarding one of the most controversial parts of the military’s “up or out” system.

A Sept. 11 DoD legislative proposal asks Congress to allow officers to opt-out of promotion board consideration upon request if it is deemed beneficial to the military.

The idea is something brought up in the past by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter as part of the Force of the Future initiative, which expanded maternity leave for service members and lengthened child care hours, among other things.

Some parts of that initiative were slammed by Republicans as solutions in search of a problem; however other pieces seem to have a more ubiquitous appeal as shown by current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ willingness to introduce the ideas to Congress.

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“In an effort to import talent development and management within the department, this proposal will ensure that officers, with the approval of the secretary concerned, are given the flexibility to explore educational and other career broadening opportunities, without being penalized for not meeting the promotion eligibility criteria in the usual time allotted,” the proposal stated.

Former Army Secretary and Force of the Future architect Brad Carson praised Mattis’ decision to rehash the promotion board issue.

“The proposed reforms are ones we did recommend as part of the Force of the Future and we thought were very common sense, but were somewhat controversial and it’s great to see DoD coming around to support them,” Carson said.

As part of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, officers are forced to promote to the next rank in a certain amount of time or they are discharged from the military.

Promotion boards make the decision of who makes it to the next level and who falls short of the requirements.

The intention is to promote the best and brightest to the higher levels and push the dead weight out of the system.

But, the “up or out” mentality hasn’t always worked to the benefit of talented officers. Officers who take unusual career paths or pursue experiences tend to be forced out of the military, despite being exactly the kind of innovative thinkers the 21st century military is trying to recruit.

Promotion boards, at times, will end up picking someone with operation experience in Iraq over a Rhodes Scholar. That ends up going counter to DoD’s policy decisions to prepare for future conflicts in new domains against more sophisticated adversaries.

“Mattis is forward thinking in every way and so I’m not surprised he’s interested in it. It’s heartening to see their interest because of how important it is,” Carson said.

Center for a New American Security Research Associate Lauren Fish said the proposal is a great way to keep talent in the ranks.

“By allowing officers to extend their time in grade without penalty, more officers would be interested in career-broadening assignments or educational opportunities without the concern that they will be foregoing valuable time to “check the boxes” that they need to for promotion. This reform would be a great first step toward increasing the flexibility in human capital management to both create more well-rounded officers with broad experience, as well as institute policies more consistent with civilian employment where getting new experiences or education increase your saliency for promotion, rather hurt your chances of promotion tied to stringent timelines,” Fish told Federal News Radio.

DoD’s legislative proposal also gives promotion boards the authority to place officers of particular merit at the top of promotion lists.

“By enabling a promotion selection board to place high performers at the top of a promotion list, the services will be better able to reward and encourage superior performance,” the proposal stated.

The Navy said as recently as this spring that it would like to see a prioritized promotion list.

“We’re still thinking through what we want the ‘to-be’ state to look like in a revised system. All of the services are working through this,” Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the chief of naval personnel said. “We’re going to continue to learn and explore and put together a more consolidated group of proposals for how we might reshape officer promotion, but in general, we want to have more flexibility from DOPMA to promote more people sooner, but in order to do that you also need flexibility to ask people to go home sooner. We need that tool as well, and we’re looking at how we do that fairly and in a measured manner.”

It’s not totally out of the blue that DoD is rethinking the Force of the Future.

In May, Federal News Radio reported the Force of the Future was being tossed around in the email chains of the Joint Staff.

“There’s value in the Force of the Future report. There is data, there are anecdotes, there are solution sets and framing constructs that people are finding useful. Now that some of the emotion has drained from the conversation, people are returning to it with a fresh eye and they’re recognizing the value added of that report,” Air Force Maj. Miriam Krieger, a special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It was a fairly fraught conversation when it first came out and the brilliance of the military is everyone moves on.”

The proposals are coming in late considering the Senate is taking up the 2018 defense authorization bill this week. That bill usually provides policy changes to DoD.

It’s possible a senator might slip the proposals into an amendment or the House and Senate might add them in conference.

“It’s perhaps Jim Mattis is getting his sea legs under him now that he’s been in office for nine months or so,” Carson said. “But once DoD lends its institutional support to something like this, Congress listens closely.”