WASHINGTON, June 10, 2015 – The model for the Defense Department’s personnel system is outdated and a multi-pronged effort led by Defense Secretary Ash Carter is underway to reform it, the Pentagon’s top personnel official said today.
Brad R. Carson, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, discussed the shortcomings of the personnel system and ideas to modernize it during a moderated discussion with Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron.
“The time is long past due [for personnel system reform],” Carson said.
The department has a personnel system that is antiquated and hasn’t fundamentally changed in 70 years, he said, especially at a time when other organizations have shown great dynamism.
Most human resources offices have evolved from a “checking the box” personnel system, said Carson, noting DoD never made this transition.
Carter Backs Modernization
Change is not mandated, Carson said, so it’s about senior leaders coming in, and saying “we have to change to be better.”
He added, “Both on the civilian side and on the military side there’s a desperate need [for DoD personnel system change] … recognized by think tanks, by academics, by many people in this room, by junior officers.”
The need to make such a change “is well recognized,” Carson said. “It’s taken a while to have a catalyst at the top of the Department of Defense in Secretary Ash Carter. He wants to make it a priority.”
During their conversation, Baron asked Carson if DoD can accomplish the necessary reforms on its own or if congressional action would be required.
“It’s a little bit of both,” Carson said. “I think the first thing we have to do is enable the Department of Defense, and the people who care about the department, to have this conversation in a better way.”
Carson said he often asks questions because there are people around him who have “spent careers working on personnel issues.”
“If they’re active duty or from the reserves,” he said, “they have lived under this regime, so they know it well. They know its intricacies; they know where it succeeds, they know where it fails. So my role is to ask the naive questions.”
Carson demonstrated the inefficiency of the current system by using examples of specific queries, such as trying to identify the top 10 percent of service members or the best commissioning source over time.
“How do we go about doing that? Can we do that today?” he asked. “The answer is we really can’t do that.”
Another example Carson used was identifying the retention rate for “crucial” technical disciplines necessary for a 21st century fighting force, such as signal, cyber and engineers.
“Can we easily say we know what’s going on in those communities?” he asked. “The answer is no.”
The data is there, Carson said.
“We collect vast hordes of data about our personnel, but it’s never assimilated into a dashboard, which senior leaders can look at and say, ‘I understand where we’re trying to go, and I see the problems in it,’” he said.
Another approach, Carson said, is looking at what internal flexibilities are available and discussing the necessary legislative or regulatory changes needed.
“So there’re a number of efforts going on here,” he said, “but it starts with trying to be able to have a coherent conversation. And it’s often difficult when discussing personnel.”
Short Timeline for Reforms
With an administration change imminent, Carson acknowledged there is a very short period to carry out any system modifications.
“We’re at the very beginning, but it’s a short fuse,” he said. “I promised the secretary of defense I would report out to him by August 19, so [we’re] in the sixth week of a three-month process. The secretary and I only have 18 months remaining in office.”
Carson noted there will be people within the department that say “‘That’s too short of a time to actually come up with great ideas, much less implement them,’” but, he said, in the private sector an 18-month development period is common.
“The clock speed of business is much more rapid than that,” Carson said.
Developing a new personnel system in three months and spending a year or 18 months implementing it isn’t rapid by the standards of anything other than a government bureaucracy, he said.
The envisioned change in the system, Carson explained, involves transitioning from a time-based management system to one of competency.
“This is the ambition,” he said. “It’s to move from this kind of rigid, time-based management system we have today that puts people on a treadmill that you get off at your own detriment, to one that’s competency based or more talent based.”
People have short careers or tenures in jobs, Carson explained, and the current system is based on following a set path where key milestones must be hit to advance.
“If you get off that treadmill, your promotion chances are dimmed considerably,” he said, advocating for the services to be “beds for experimentation” for ideas such as mid-career recruitment opportunities.
“Let them experiment with different approaches of how to handle these kinds of issues,” Carson said. “That’s kind of my aspiration on this too.”
Private Sector Sets Example
Carson lauded the private sector’s swift response to “colossal changes” in the environment which have come “much more rapidly” than the department’s own.
“We were aligned with the private sector in 1947 when the current personnel system was put in place,” he said. “[General Motors] ran their personnel system much like the U.S. Army does.”
During that period, Carson said the Army was a “pioneer” in developing methods to manage vast forces. But, he noted, the world has changed in the last 20 years.
“They are responding to changes in the world in ways that we are not,” he said. “So I think that DoD also has to take in the fact that the world is different.”
Information technology systems exist today that have allowed the world to change and the private sector has responded to those “tectonic” changes in the world, Carson said.
“We have to recognize that too,” he said, “and do something about it. That’s what Secretary Carter wants to do.”
Companies like Google and Uber use personnel systems in service of their products, Carson said — not independent systems that exist on some kind of separate line that will hopefully and occasionally meet.
“In DoD,” he said, “we have a personnel system that accepts waste as the cost of doing business. We are satisfied with the gross inefficiency of not measuring our top talent, not putting them in the top jobs.”
Dissatisfaction With System
Carson said every survey that has examined this issue has shown a “great dissatisfaction with the personnel system, and the kind of oppressive bureaucracy that exists.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “We accept it because, ‘Hey, it’s good enough.’ I don’t think ‘good enough’ is going to be adequate for us, and [Secretary] Carter doesn’t think so either.