BS Meter Pegged: Volunteering Won’t Help You Get Promoted Anymore

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In a June 12th interview with Air Force Times, Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of force management policies impacting the service’s uniformed airmen, said that volunteering in the community:

“shouldn’t play in how we evaluate and select for promotion. It doesn’t mean we don’t still value that and want our airmen to participate and do those things as part of their overall development and as part of our responsibilities as airmen and part of the country and the nation. We still value our folks doing that. But it’s not going to be how we determine who gets promoted.”

This statement, it turns out, is total nonsense.

In the weeks since Kelly made the comment, the Air Force has been rolling out, through a tightly scripted influence campaign and a series of roadshow briefs from senior bureaucrats, the policies that will govern its new Enlisted Evaluation and Promotion systems. The policies reflect, and the new Enlisted Performance Report (EPR) forms clearly show, that community service and other forms of “self-improvement” will be directly considered in determining an airman’s overall performance assessment. Those with the highest assessments gain a significant and sometimes decisive advantage over peers in promotion competition.

In other words, community service will still show up on your EPR, and your EPR will, more than ever before, govern your promotion chances. When it comes to pushing airmen to volunteer in the community, nothing is changing with the new system, except that the imposition of quotas limiting how many airmen can receive top ratings is likely to dial up the coercive pressure behind these activities.

Volunteerism, community service, and self-improvement during off-duty time remain obligatory in the instructions covering enlisted force structure and airman development. Here’s a recent Facebook post that does a nice job of capturing the rhetoric-reality mismatch on this issue.

An August 7th article from the Air Force’s official propaganda service unwittingly crystallizes the danger lurking in this arrangement. It is an open door to ambition, giving airmen who play a good perceptual game the upper hand over quiet professionals who dominate in primary duties.

The article chronicles the selection of Senior Airman Mason Meherg, a finance technician from Whiteman Air Force Base, as one of the service’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year. This is among the highest honors the service can bestow, and it tends to propel recipients forward to glittering careers that are both richly deserved and undeniably augmented by the raft of positive presumptions accompanying service-level recognition.

The piece describes how Meherg arrived at Whiteman beset with the yearning to be promoted ahead of peers. (And before we demonize him for that, let’s bear in mind how the Air Force encourages this mindset).

I was checking boxes and trying to make sure I got below-the-zone or anything else that was coming up.”

He made that promotion happen by finding ways to differentiate his performance record through non-mission-related community service.

“I take my job very seriously and every job matters, but I realized I’m not going to have statements like ‘maintains a billion dollar B-2 Spirit’ on my package, so I started thinking about what I could do to help impact my community or the base.”

And make an impact he did, by becoming President of the Airman’s Council, organizer of several community events, leader of an Adopt-A-Highway initiative, Treasurer of the Wing Booster Club, Wing Staff contact for an annual fund drive, sexual assault Victim Advocate, and a prolific designated driver. When his pattern of conduct bore fruit in the form of an early promotion, Meherg recognized the clear tie between performance and reward, and he doubled down on his volunteer impulse. It paid off again with a huge award that all but cements his next promotion, throttling him toward the next several.

What the article doesn’t mention is whether Meherg made a similar impact in his workcenter as a finance specialist. As readers, we can only assume the answer is yes, because it strains reason to believe he’d be nominated for such a prestigious honor without being the unquestioned best performer in his section. But then again, the mind boggles to think how such a junior airman, with so much to learn and such a deep well of mission-related development yet to plumb, could possibly find time for such a panoply of off-duty pursuits.

The article ignited a firestorm of mostly critical comments on Facebook. This reflects the deep-set frustration of airmen tired of having their professional fates made contingent on their willingness to play along with business rules that eat into off-duty time, creating additional burdens that fall unevenly on those already most saturated in their workcenters. 

One commenter quipped:

“Is this why it’s so hard to get an appointment with finance?”

Another remarked:

“Why don’t they just rename ‘Airman of the Year’ to ‘Volunteer of the Year.’ I mean, that’s what it is, right? Sorry, but I’m not going to pat this guy on the back for being a booster club head or organizing a BBQ or whatever nonsense they’re trying to pass off.”

Many others echoed these sentiments, wondering how much Meherg’s pursuit of community excellence may have actually competed with his focus on primary duties.

But such questions misapprehend the core issue, which is one of system design and system consequences rather than individual motives.

One comment captured this rather lucidly:

“If he had spent half the energy trying to work on ways to actually improve Finance processes and effectiveness, then I might care. Instead, Airmen like him jump right on the hampster wheel of volunteer BS to make it look like they’re doing something productive in order to win a pointless award. Not blaming the individual, I’m blaming the system. He did what he thought he had to do to succeed.”

While most people can appreciate that an individual seeking to value-maximize within the established system is behaving rationally and reasonably, they question a system that provides excessively strong incentives for non-mission-related things.

Now, to be fair, some of the reaction to careerism in general is unfair to well-meaning and superbly performing individuals who are simply doing the best they can in a warped system. Meherg is clearly one of these. At times, quasi-populist garbage heaved at these individuals is more injurious to the Air Force than any careerist actions on their part ever could be. But the frustration shouldn’t be trivialized.  It’s a legitimate gripe, and directly traceable to the service’s policies.

Many, myself, have been warning of an approaching backlash against award winners and fast burners. It’s arriving now because as the new evaluation and promotion systems are fielded, it’s evident they were deliberately obscured from the field to hide their most controversial elements until an influence operation could manufacture consent without debate. The inclusion of community service on the EPR is one of those controversial elements. There is reasonable concern that pairing volunteerism with the new quota system could create a formidable new engine for careerism.

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“Why do airmen volunteer?” is the core question the service should be wrestling with as it decides how to capture and value that volunteerism.

The answer is situational, individualized, and variable. But at least part of the reason is that there is a strong professional incentive associated with it. This is the first-instance answer, however, and is therefore incomplete.

After some airmen have volunteered, and the professional incentive has been harvested to the advantage of some and disadvantage of others, the reasoning shifts from incentive to obligation. If some are getting a career benefit, failing to compete for that benefit is the same as falling behind. In an up-or-out system and a drawdown era where every edge is needed to maintain livelihood, it’s not rational to refrain from competing in any dimension where competition is possible.

This is the logical progression by which volunteerism has gone from a encouraged aspect of the “whole person concept” to a de facto obligation for professional survival. Airmen now often do it for exactly the wrong reasons, calling into question whether its supposed by-products — perspective, unselfishness, character development, team leadership — can possibly emerge from a gambit founded on pragmatic rather than altruistic motives.

The absurdity of it all frustrates airmen, who rightly assert that “it’s not volunteering if its obligatory.” Increasingly subject to question is the basic premise that volunteering in the community makes airmen “better” or “more well rounded.” That premise depends on their reasons for doing so, which are suspect when career incentives are attached.

But even if we accept the premise that volunteering in the community is an absolute good for all airmen, there are at least four risks to be considered before allowing it to make its way into formal assessment processes. Air Force leaders should carefully consider these risks before fielding the new system.

1. Ethics. If it’s foreseeable that airmen will do some of the “right things” but be doing them out of obligation, leaders have a duty to remove that sense of obligation. It’s one thing to encourage constructive use of off-duty time, and another to invade and control that time.

2. Focus. The current system forces every airman to do the same things to stay competitive. This includes airmen who work longer or less regular hours, deploy more, and have more saturating or difficult specialties. When those airmen pull themselves off-target to fulfill obligatory square-checking mandates, the mission suffers and risk elevates. I saw this first-hand as a squadron commander. Aircrew knowledge levels degraded continually over time as more ancillary, additional duty, and off-duty obligations materialized. 

3. Muddled Roles and Relationships. The current system winks at the unspoken lie that everyone in the Air Force is doing something equally central to the mission. Finance specialists, crew chiefs, and pararescuemen each have different roles to play, and each is situated closer to or further from the service’s core functions. But through the magic of off-duty stuff that looks great on a record, the service finds a way to see everyone as equally important (even as it cuts some career fields while preserving and paying bonuses to others). When we forget that some execute while others support, resource, or assist, we confuse relationships between organizations and the system breaks down. This creates warped workloads and adverse mission consequences. Some jobs are closer to mission than others, and we shouldn’t be constructing elaborate ways to lie to ourselves about that.

4. Misprioritization. “Voluntoldism” advances the fiction that anyone can ever be a finished product at what he or she does. An Air Force profession should be treated as a bottomless well of exploration and learning to be plumbed until time or mental capacity run out — not a 40-hour formality to be satisfied on the way to sexier EPR bullets. Those airmen who treat their professions as crafts to be endlessly plied suffer in a system that has a de facto requirement for off-duty activities that end up competing with self-study of job-related materials. A properly tuned system would celebrate the airman who is zealously obsessed with his or her contribution to airpower.

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The trick the Air Force needs to pull here is to reward the developmental results of community involvement rather than the involvement itself. If volunteering truly improves an airman, that improvement will show up in duty performance.

Such improvement in duty performance should be captured in performance appraisals and should enhance promotion chances. This keeps the incentive alive without making it so powerful that it distorts the system. It also raises the likelihood that when someone volunteers in the community, it’s because s/he wanted to be there, not because there was an obligation.

None of this takes anything away from Airman Meherg or those like him. As is often the case when it comes to the Air Force’s contemporary problems, it’s most righteous to cherish airmen while condemning the distorted system within which they somehow find ways to excel.

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