A prescription for personnel reform: The Bipartisan Policy Center Report

| March 24, 2017

The non-profit Bipartisan Policy Center released a report this week titled “Building a F.A.S.T. Force: A Flexible Personnel System for a Modern Military.” The report recommendations were created by the Center’s Task Force on Defense Personnel. The “F.A.S.T.” in “F.A.S.T. Force” stands for:

  • Fully engaged by American society.
  • Adaptable to new threats as they arise.
  • Sustainable, both financially and culturally, for long-term success.
  • Technically proficient.

The task force offers 39 proposals (listed on pages 15-17 of the report) to improve effectiveness in these four categories. Following are brief explanations for the reasons they created the proposals.

Fully Engaged by American Society

The task force emphasizes that the Department of Defense (DoD) should break free from the constraints of its traditional personnel policies that have not changed much since the end of World War II. Without a significant change in policy, the military may be losing out on qualified people who separate early or never enlist because 1) the rigid up-or-out system does not present appropriate opportunities and 2) the perceived burden on personal and family life. I found the following to be the most striking section in the 102-page report:

“… the United States remains engaged in the longest war in its history without the use of conscription, war bonds, or any significant government-sponsored support from citizens on the home front…The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan represent the first great test of the all-volunteer force in a sustained conflict, and unfortunately, civilians have the inaccurate notion that being a stakeholder in America’s wars is purely voluntary. This has allowed millions of Americans to separate themselves from anything related to the military or national security policy.”

Adaptable to New Threats as They Arise

In line with being “fully engaged by American society,” DoD must be able to respond to national security threats with the right people at the right time. This means having the flexibility to identify people, in or out of the service, with the needed skill sets at the time, rather than having to follow the rigid decades-old system. Skills can range from technological to foreign languages to understanding of other cultures.

“Allies and partners in crucial regions will continue to look to America’s military presence, cooperation, support, and training to assure security and prosperity. Should that presence not be forthcoming or should it be perceived as lacking the capability and capacity to deter would be adversaries, U.S. partners may calculate that they would be safer appeasing regional powers than counting on U.S. support.”

Sustainable, Both Financially and Culturally, for Long-term Success

“…military compensation, as currently distributed, is inefficient—neither optimizing service-member satisfaction nor maximizing the value of taxpayer dollars.”

The task force is steadfast in its belief that the DoD’s antiquated, inflexible compensation system is not sufficient to recruit and retain the right people. They describe a “vicious cycle” of limited funding that results in reduced end strength, which leads to heavier individual workloads, which results in cash incentives to entice members to remain in the service, which results in more bonuses being paid out, which results in less money to spend on anyone or anywhere else. The outcome of this cycle is unsafe troop levels. The task force is concerned that if these ongoing issues remain, service members will choose to focus on their families and opt for another career outside of the military. Part of their solution is to consider that other forms of compensation now provided to service members (health care, housing, gyms, tax-free shopping, commissaries) and delayed compensation (pension, health care) may not be as important to them as cash compensation. Their point being that all of these forms of compensation must be reviewed in order to create a more modern, efficient compensation package. Finally, they also insist that Budget Control Act (sequester-related) caps must be changed in order to address the deficient defense budget.

Technically Proficient

The increasingly complex nature of handling national security issues means increasingly technical requirements are needed for the military. The task force identifies some of these capabilities, which are vast and diverse: space, cyberspace, individual decision-making skills, languages, cultural knowledge and trauma care.

“A personnel system that cannot consistently build and retain these types of capabilities has failed, with profound implications for military readiness and national security.”

Even the job application process is questioned. While most civilians turn to the internet to conduct job searches, the military still relies heavily on in-person strip mall recruiting stations. While more and more civilians expect to change jobs and companies multiple times throughout their careers, the military focuses on the 20-year career (the typical point at which an active duty service member will be eligible for a lifetime pension). The private sector traditionally bases increased compensation on performance rather than the military’s seniority-based approach. The task force is concerned that people who might actually be a good fit for the military won’t consider the option.

The DoD, which in past years was known for its technological advances, has been “…surpassed by the private sector in terms of technical creativity and innovative outlook.” The task force states that this outlook will only further isolate the military from those talented people it needs most.

Finally, the task force warns that “The biggest mistake—indeed, the worst outcome for the Defense Department—would be to do nothing.

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