Carter starts overhaul of Defense personnel system with low-hanging fruit

Defense Secretary Ash Carter rolled out the first tranche of what he said would be a series of reforms to the Pentagon’s personnel systems Wednesday, saying the military needs to adapt to a competitive recruiting landscape if it intends to keep attracting the level of talent it enjoys today.

The first round of changes are not exactly revolutionary, despite the nine months the Pentagon has devoted to studying its personnel systems, and almost none of the reforms would require further action by Congress. Heated topics like reforming the military’s up-or-out approach to promotion and retention and creating a new civilian personnel system are being put off until later.

The department characterized the personnel directives Carter ordered Wednesday as the “first link” in what he has branded a “Force of the Future” since the day he took office in February, and said the secretary has approved 20 out of the 80 proposals on his desk for immediate action.

Most of the newly-announced initiatives have to do with letting employees — both in and out of uniform — transition more readily between DoD and the private sector throughout their careers.

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“We’re going to create on-ramps to make it easier for people to contribute to our mission,” Carter told an audience at George Washington University. “This is important, because in my generation, three out of four people had a family member in the military. In this generation, it’s only one in three, so we need to provide more opportunities for people outside of DoD to get to know us and to contribute, even if it’s only for a short time.”

To make it easier for talent and knowledge to move back and forth between DoD and industry, the Pentagon will create an entrepreneur-in-residence pilot program in which three private-sector experts will be paired with a senior DoD official to tackle a particularly-tough bureaucratic problem. DoD will also expand the Corporate Fellows Program, which sends military leaders to work in private industry for a year, and rebrand it as the Executive Fellows Program.

Carter said DoD also will ask Congress to turn a pilot project called the Career Intermission Program into a permanent feature of the personnel system. That program lets military officers take a temporary sabbatical from military service to start a family or work outside the military — theoretically without impact to  their future promotion prospects.

“We want to double the size of that program and also open it up to senior enlisted leaders,” he said. “And we want to offer not just tours in industry, but also in government, including state and local government, where they work on important problems too.”

DoD also will create the new position of chief recruiting officer, an in-house corporate headhunter charged with filling senior civilian leadership jobs throughout the department.

And Carter gave the formal go-ahead to create a Defense Digital Service — an offshoot of the U.S. Digital Service — that will bring top technology experts on board for short periods of time to solve big Defense IT problems. Chris Lynch, a successful venture capitalist, will serve as its first director. He began work on Thursday.

The department also plans to centralize and expand its internship programs for college students, and Carter said DoD will do a better job of publicizing those opportunities both on the military and civilian side, including through increased presences on college campuses and on online platforms such as LinkedIn.

“It’s imperative that we attract civilian talent,” Carter said. “That’s why we’re going to make our internship programs better managed and more effective so that if you intern with us and you do great work, we can make sure you’re connected with a job opening that can turn you into a permanent DoD employee.”

And internally, DoD will do a better job of ensuring its existing employees are matched with current job openings, Carter said. He said a pilot project — also modeled on LinkedIn and an earlier Army project — will attempt to make better use of available data to match military members who hold certain skills with military commands in which those competencies are in high demand.

But many of the initiatives Carter ordered on Wednesday were calls for further study rather than for immediate action.

He ordered the creation of an Office of People Analytics within the department’s personnel and readiness office: its job will be to use big data analytics to examine which levers DoD can pull to increase the talent of its overall workforce. And he ordered a formal program of exit interviews to determine why military members and civilians decide to depart DoD for what they perceive as greener pastures.

“It’s going to fill some gaping holes in our data so that we can make changes and keep our best people. For some reason, we’ve never done that before,” he said. “Entire books have been written about the notion that the military is bleeding talent, but most of that is anectotal, and since we haven’t been gathering the data, we couldn’t prove or disprove that, let alone fix it.”

Carter also said DoD will immediately implement the changes the House and Senate already have passed with regard to military retirement as part of this year’s Defense authorization bill, turning the military’s cliff-vested pension plan into a blended system in which all service members would be automatically enrolled in the government’s Thrift Savings Plan with an employer contribution.

But most of the other politically-difficult personnel questions the department has been examining as part of the Force of the Future initiative have been deferred until later, including whether DoD should create its own personnel system for civil servants or pursue overhauls to military promotion and retention.

An “implementation group” led by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Deputy Secretary of Defense will report back on the remainder of the proposals in mid-December.