Defense Secretary Ash Carter on June 9 announced the next steps in his Force of the Future initiative to modernize the rules and regulations that govern how the Defense Department recruits, develops and retains service members and civilian employees.
These are the third and fourth steps he’s announced since a snowy week in February 2015, his first week in office, when he spoke urgently during an all-hands meeting here about one of his top priorities: building the force of the future.
“Generations change, technologies change, labor markets change. That’s why one of my responsibilities now — and a job for all of us in the years ahead — is to make sure that amid all this change DOD continues to recruit, develop and retain the most talented men and women America has to offer,” Carter said during remarks in the Pentagon courtyard.
“It’s critical we do so to meet and overcome the five challenges we face today — from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and terrorism — especially (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant),” he added, “and to be flexible and agile in preparing for … unknown dangers we can’t anticipate today.”
The proposed changes — which the secretary called “the capstone of how the department is building the Force of the Future” — for the uniformed military services focus on giving them room to make common-sense improvements to the officer promotion system, and for DOD civilians, on continuing to attract and retain the best talent, Carter said.
The department is proposing four landmark changes to the 36-year-old Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, all of which Congress must approve.
Today, DOPMA governs the 100-year-old military “up or out” promotion system involving promotion boards, minimum time-in-grade requirements and maximum age limits that still mean officers have to be good enough to advance or they have to retire, the defense secretary said.
“Together, these stand to be the most consequential changes to our officer promotion system in over 30 years, if not more,” Carter said, “and they’ll improve that hundred-year-old system and help bring it into the 21st century.”
The proposed DOPMA changes include:
• Adjusting Lineal Numbers: DOPMA limits how many personnel are allowed in each grade, so officers chosen for promotion must wait for an opening in the grade above them. When there is an opening, the order in which they advance is determined by line numbers based on seniority. This might mean an assignment goes to the senior person on the list, even if someone lower down would be better in the job, or that high-performing officers chosen for promotion ahead of their peers have to wait in line behind everyone who is more senior.
“That’s why we’re seeking to change DOPMA to let the services adjust lineal numbers based on superior performance,” Carter said. “It’s a key part of good talent management, and it’ll help us recognize and incentivize the very best performers.”
• Deferring Promotion Boards: DOPMA has specific timelines for officers coming up for promotion. Everyone in a year group is considered when the system says they’ve stayed long enough at their current grade, and they’re considered in competition with their chronological peers. To advance, officers must meet experience and knowledge requirements within a specific amount of time, and the system can penalize deviations from the typical career path.
“The second change we’re seeking — to ensure our force doesn’t lose or penalize talented officers who wish to broaden their careers — is the authority for the services to be able to temporarily defer when those officers are considered for promotion,” Carter said.
• Expanding Lateral Entry: Civilian doctors can become commissioned military officers at grades commensurate with their skill and experience, Carter said, but in most other specialized fields, there’s no way for the services to recruit a properly skilled and experienced civilian who wants to serve in uniform without having to start at the lowest ranks.
In situations where, for example, a network defense or encryption expert from a tech company feels a call to serve and is willing to contribute to the DOD mission as a reservist or on active duty, the department needs a way to harness their expertise and put it to use, the secretary said.
“Allowing the military services to commission a wider segment of specialized outside talent … who can meet our standards, who provide unique skills we need and who are willing to serve in uniform will help fill critical gaps in our force and will make us more effective,” he added.
• Enduring Flexibility: Under certain conditions the services must be able to waive select DOPMA constraints to quickly build up expertise in a critical career field, the secretary said. This will enable them to respond to an uncertain future in ways that can be tailored to their specific capability requirements and personnel needs without casting off a system that still largely meets department needs for most officers across the force.
“Here we’re seeking enduring flexibility for future defense secretaries to let the services make needed tweaks to DOPMA-related policies down the line, for purposes of improving the force,” Carter said. “While the other three changes are about providing specific solutions to specific problems, this change will help us be prepared for what we can’t anticipate.”
The department also is proposing other measures to improve military recruiting efforts, Carter said.
These include moving to an all-digital system for recruiting and processing new personnel into the military, and expanding work being done by DOD’s Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies program to leverage advances in data science and microtargeting to build a precision recruiting database and making sure the department has access to the nation’s entire population.
“Rather than identifying geographic and demographic groups that already have a higher propensity to serve and sending recruiters to find people like them — which is what we do now — we’re going to build and use this precision recruiting database to identify those who’d be a great service member but might not know it,” the secretary added.
Changes for DOD civilians
For DOD civilians, the department is proposing three changes to current policies. These include:
• On-Campus Direct Hire Authority: Today, if a DOD recruiter meets an undergraduate student, a graduate student or a recent graduate who is a perfect candidate for a particular job, the candidate must go to the USAJOBS website and start a 90-day or longer process of applying for the job, not counting the time it takes to get a security clearance.
In this change, Carter said, “we’re seeking authority from Congress to directly hire civilian employees from college campuses. … This has potential to be a real game-changer for us. Our civilian recruiters will be able to go to a campus job fair, do some interviews, and if they find someone who’s the right fit, they can make a tentative offer on the spot, pending security clearance.”
• Two-Way Talent Exchange with the Private Sector: In this change, the department proposes to create a new two-way talent exchange program for DOD civilians with the private sector.
“Right now, we only have one such program, and it’s limited to information technology-related fields,” Carter said. “If we want to send a civilian from the Defense Logistics Agency or the U.S. Transportation Command to spend six months at a place like Amazon or Federal Express to see what we might be able to learn, there’s no formal mechanism for that.”
• Paid Parental Leave: For this change the department is calling on Congress to authorize paid maternity and paternity leave for DOD civilians.
“Parental leave is fully paid for military personnel, and the same should be true for their civilian colleagues. … We can’t afford to risk losing civilian talent just because private-sector companies will pay them during their maternity and paternity leave and we won’t,” Carter said.
The department has other proposals that will help build its civilian force of the future, the secretary said, including to better leverage existing authorities to directly hire more highly qualified experts across the department.
A highly qualified expert is an individual, usually from outside of the federal government, who possesses cutting-edge skills or world-class knowledge in a particular technical discipline or interdisciplinary field beyond the usual range of expertise. The expertise and skills of such personnel are generally not available within the department and are needed to satisfy emerging and nonpermanent requirements.
“Today,” Carter said, “we only have about 90 such experts … across DOD, including some really talented and innovative people like the director of the Defense Digital Service, the head of DOD’s Strategic Capabilities Office and the Air Force’s chief scientist, … so we’re going to use this authority more often and increase our number of highly qualified experts by 10 percent a year over the next five years.”
The department also will increase participation by 10 percent a year over five years in the dozens of career-broadening programs now offered to civilians, and expand by 10 percent over five years DOD’s decade-old scholarship-for-service program, which brings in graduates in mission-critical science, technology, engineering and math fields to build the next generation of DOD science and technology leaders, Carter said.