In the “things you don’t see often” category … a 2-star general sitting as vice commander of an Air Force Major Command has sent a letter to the field asking airmen what they feel they should stop doing. It’s not everything … and indeed it’s not enough … but it’s not nothing. In fact, there are reasons for cautious optimism about this.
First, the letter:
The biggest reason to be optimistic is that this appears to be an authentic effort. Generals seem to understand and acknowledge that nonsense has crept into the basic business model of the Air Force over the years … to the point that it is now contributing to issues of morale and sustainability. The intuition to go after it is emanating from the highest levels … indeed from the man nominated to be the next Chief of Staff.
But they’ll have to do more than send memos. If they really want this to go anywhere, they’ll have to go about it differently. Today’s airmen don’t communicate via memo. They don’t send emails directly to generals or wing commanders because they don’t trust that they can remain free from reprisal if they say the wrong thing or get misinterpreted. Many of the critiques they want to offer actually implicate wing commanders and general officers.
So if Maj. Gen. Mike Fortney (and Gen. Dave Goldfein) want this to work — and I believe they genuinely do — they’ll need to adapt their tactics to find out what is truly under the skin of their airmen. Two steps should do.
First, use social media to collect inputs. Let anyone send anything they want and do so as anonymously as they want. Make the system visible to the entire chain of command, which serves twin purposes of keeping everyone informed and giving everyone a chance to solve the identified issues at the most appropriate level.
Second, start sending surreptitious auditors to the field to look around. Yes, I’m suggesting you essentially spy on your own organizations. This will (a) help you independently identify organizational waste (and excellence), (b) provide an independent reference point to assess the truthfulness of what you’re hearing from the chain of command, and (c) encourage the chain of command to self-police organizational waste without command intervention. A little paranoia can go a long way.
Who should you send? Field Grade Officers. The Air Force has more than 25,000 of them, and a couple thousands are serving as grossly overpaid O-6 staff paperweights with no chance of getting promoted or commanding again. They have nothing to lose by giving honest assessments, but they do have the experience and knowledge to make sense of what they see in the field. Let generals at major commands hand-pick a stable of “Range Riders” and send them to the field to find and report back on “queep.”
Of course, the most powerful incentive, as always, is promotion. When wing commanders start getting highly stratified for telling the truth about the problems they have, what they’re doing to solve them, and what help they need … you’ll have no trouble getting them to raise the bullshit flag. And when they start doing that, you’ll have less trouble getting airmen to do the same. We’re a long way from this state of affairs at the moment. We can’t even admit to blatant waste when it’s plain as day. But if the Fortneys of the world persist in asking the question, maybe we’ll get there at some point — hopefully before the whole of the Air Force augurs in.
Meantime, we can be guardedly hopeful that this represents the first glimmer of recognition that work life is badly in need of re-structuring at squadron level. While the big-ticket issues — manning, lack of organic support, excessive deployments, assignment churn, and HAF-mandated harassments — don’t (or shouldn’t) require investigation, working to open communication channels is an important first move in defining the problem, which is the first step toward eventually solving anything.
If General Fortney is curious what’s pissing airmen off these days and wants to starting building his understanding in advance of hearing back from the field, he can simply peruse the pages of JQP. There’s plenty here to work with.
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