The Pentagon’s Civilians Are Unhappy. That’s Dangerous for Us All.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Pop quiz: Which of the Department of Defense’s many divisions is the largest? Is it the Army, despite the slashing of troop strength since the winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Or the Navy, which Congress is gifting with new batches of aircraft carriers, submarines, frigates and more? How about the Air Force, in line to get more than 1,700 state-of-the-art F-35 fighters? Perhaps the Marine Corps, which transformed itself admirably into a ground force in the current wars?
The answer is: none of the above. The Pentagon’s biggest workforce wears not uniforms but white collars: its 776,000 civilian personnel, topped only by Walmart on the list of largest U.S.-based workforces.
These civil servants play a crucial role in the nation’s defense — from planning policy at the highest levels to overseeing hundreds of billions a year in acquisitions to making sure the troops have housing, health care and other necessities.
They are also, according to Foreign Policy, “an increasingly hollow and demoralized workforce, with staffers feeling they no longer have a seat at the table.” Things have gone far downhill since the days when it was more or less taken for granted that a Pentagon job was a job for life. And while job turnover hasn’t reached crisis levels, it’s hitting some of the most vital areas — more than 4,000 civilian cyber workers fled last year. A study by the Center for a New American Security found that within the office of the secretary of defense between September 2016 and September 2018, the number of “those with five to nine years federal service has decreased by 24 percent.”
A major part of the problem is the failure of the department to create for its civilians the same sorts of opportunities for advancement, education and outside experience that are available to those in uniform.
Here is a partial list of the benefits of being in uniform:
- Leave for those being groomed for high rank to get graduate degrees at top universities. (My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Admiral James Stavridis got both a Ph.D. in international relations and a masters in law and diplomacy at Tufts.)
- The GI bill and other college tuition assistance, with many military training programs counting toward course credit.
- Classes at the National Defense University and the service branches’ war colleges. (Small numbers of civilians are eligible.)
- Guaranteed home loans and life insurance at favorable rates.
- Tricare, arguably the best health-care plan on the planet, and the VA hospital system.
- Low-cost meals and goods even after leaving the military through the commissary and exchange system.
- Half-pay in retirement after serving at least 20 years.
- Thousands of assignments — from motor-pool mechanics to nuclear technicians to fighter pilots — that provide background for high-paying jobs in the private sector.
For civilian employees the perks are, to put it kindly, less enticing: transit subsidies, 13 days of sick leave per year, overtime pay for working on Sundays, and other similar benefits that most full-time workers in the private sector get.
Some might feel this is only fair, given that life in the services is so grueling and involves risk of losing life and limb. But the Defense Department employs so many civilians — a third of its workforce — precisely because they are vital to supporting every aspect of those troops’ lives and, by extension, protecting all Americans. And not all civilians work at desks; thousands have served on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In recent years, the overall number of civilian positions has held steady or even increased as the service branches have shrunk. But turnover and new hiring requires expensive training for new hires. Things have gotten worse since the 2012 budget agreement created spending caps across the department, leading to widespread hiring freezes and occasional furloughs.
How can the Pentagon boost morale and lessen turnover? It of course can’t lock civilians up for six years like new Army recruits, and giving them benefits such as early retirement, Tricare and the GI Bill would be prohibitively expensive. But it can do far more to reform its personnel system on the cheap.
First, it must recognize that some of the biggest complaints of civilian employees involve bureaucratic inefficiencies and performance reviews. As a former research and development engineer described in great detail for War on the Rocks, many if not most people take these jobs out of a sense of service, willing to take modest pay compared what they could make in the private sector.
“However, federal personnel policies — especially within DOD — are so hidebound that it is nearly impossible to get things done quickly even in response to urgent mission requirements,” wrote the engineer, Rob Albritton. “I left along with a fairly steady flow of other hard-chargers who had grown increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with the current personnel system for civilians.”
Second, while other long-time civil servants who have left the department told me things were not that bad, they said the Pentagon failed to recognize or develop those who show management potential. The result is many workers being promoted to higher levels with no experience in managing, coaching and mentoring their subordinates — skills in which officers on the uniformed side have been exhaustively trained before they take charge of their first platoon.
As the private sector has shown, there is more bang for the buck recognizing those with management potential at the early stages of their careers and putting them on a fast track. The department could also emulate many new-economy companies by experimenting with a so-called flat organizational structure, removing most of the levels of middle management between staff and executives. The Pentagon’s elite policy-planning shop made some progress along these lines in the early 2010s under former Under Secretary Michele Flournoy, but that largely fizzled out because of changeover at the top and budget cuts.
Third, it’s nearly impossible to fire unproductive workers — and hiring freezes paradoxically force the department to hold onto poor performers just so they have bodies to fill desks and push paperwork. The Pentagon enacted a pay-for-performance system in 2006, but it failed — largely because DOD managers, who came up through the status quo, were unqualified to distinguish the bumps on a log from the phoenixes. It needs to learn from its mistakes and try again.
Fourth, the Defense Department has to broaden the horizon of civil-service career paths. The uniformed side is moving that direction. Last year’s congressional budget bill made many changes to the promotional process to give junior officers a clear path to promotion based on performance rather than tenure. Many vital assignments that were formerly career dead ends, such as the drone programs and language specialists, are now to be recognized for their worth. While the department’s civil service does have a specified promotion ladder through the GS system, it’s far more arbitrary than the military’s and does little to encourage unconventional career paths.
Finally, all government agencies are hampered by red tape, but the mega-billion Pentagon acquisitions process takes dysfunction to a new scale. Congress just makes things worse, adding 250 new measures complicating the purchasing system between 2016 and 2018 alone. The Pentagon needs to take a page from Silicon Valley and learn how to bring products from conception to rollout before technology becomes outdated.
It used to be that joining the Pentagon felt akin to entering the priesthood. Now, if the military can’t provide career opportunities competitive with the private sector, don’t be surprised when civilians feel called to work for Walmart instead.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.
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