Business As Usual: Air Force Personnel Center Mangles Drawdown


General Mark Welsh is charged with drawing his Air Force down to its smallest size in history. To accomplish this task, Welsh turned to the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC), the service’s centralized human resource bureaucracy.  He gave the center a difficult but straightforward task: rid the service of 20,000-25,000 airmen within a year using voluntary separations and early retirements to the maximum extent possible before resorting to involuntary discharges.  Confident AFPC would not let him down, Welsh transparently discussed these objectives with airmen and committed the service to being honest with them through an inherently turbulent process. Not only has AFPC thus far let Welsh down, but the agency seems to be working at cross purposes with his stated intent, bungling the drawdown and alienating scores of airmen in the process.

The center has made two huge errors thus far.  First, it failed to provide clear, transparent guidance to commanders in the field.  AFPC officials acknowledge the existence of internal quotas, rules for eligibility, and timing considerations for the processing of applications for voluntary separation.  By not making these internal rules transparent to commanders, the center has prevented commanders from appropriately calibrating the expectations of applicants.  Commanders have mostly referred those with questions to AFPC, while some have engaged in guesswork and speculation made more difficult by past AFPC missteps and obfuscation.

This part of the problem is compounded by the reluctance of airmen — especially officers — to step forward and ask questions about the process of leaving the service, knowing this will leave them in career jeopardy with commanders who favor those with serious career ambitions.  Officers who take the chance on trying to get out but are then prevented from doing so will have trapped themselves in a career where they’re almost certain to be openly or subtly disfavored.  The lack of transparency has also worried field commanders concerned about the sudden release of too much talent, something that could hamper mission readiness.  This has reportedly led some wing commanders to deny applications, in turn triggering official complaints from applicants encouraged to apply by the service’s senior general only to be arbitrarily denied.

The second AFPC misstep is much more sinister and damaging than the first.  After flushing out applications from an unknown but seemingly large number of airmen, the center removed selected specialty codes from the eligibility list at the eleventh hour and, without explanation, halted processing of all applications.  To many, this felt dishonest.  It was as if AFPC’s real objective was to determine which airmen were predisposed to voluntary separation in order to use that information in other personnel actions, to include involuntary force reduction measures to be undertaken on the near horizon.

This “bait-and-switch” episode had real consequences.  Some airmen were disenrolled from training or education programs, others lost competitive stratifications in performance reports, and others were removed from consideration for awards — all as a result of publishing their desire to leave the Air Force voluntarily under a program sponsored by the Chief of Staff . . . only to have their applications negated by AFPC.  This debacle has destroyed any trust Welsh had established with his admirably transparent approach to the drawdown.  It has also raised legitimate questions about deceptive conduct within AFPC.

But is this about integrity . . . or simply a manifestation of bureaucratic ineptitude? It sure looks and feels dishonest, and I’ve written elsewhere that it can’t be fully explained in a way consistent with integrity.  But is that really so?  Is the problem more systemic?

Air Force officials insist the service is behaving straightforwardly, but officers burned by AFPC implementation insist what matters is how policy impacts them, and whether they’re acting under false reliance on the assumption that AFPC will act in good faith.  Drawing on their training and socialization as airmen, they insist on an expansive version of integrity concerned with how the value is translated into action. They expect it to permeate everything, not just be an oft-cited but scarcely noticeable ideal. If folks are feeling deceived when it matters most to them, integrity isn’t really an operative value, it’s just a talking point. Commanders in the field are also dismayed.  Faithfully relaying Welsh’s guidance is their duty, but in this case doing so has hurt their credibility.  All of this collecting disharmony reached a crescendo last week, as Welsh visited with officers in the field and learned for the first time the extent to which his guidance has been divergent from reality on the ground.

During a sit-down with airmen at Altus Air Force Base, Welsh was given first-hand accounts of unseemly shenanigans, unanswered phone calls and emails, issues with the Byzantine AFPC website emplaced to supposedly handle requests for clarification, and of course, the bait-and-switch maneuver by which the center removed hundreds of mobility pilots from voluntary separation eligibility after they’d already applied.  Welsh was reportedly taken aback, having not been previously aware of the circumstances faced by his airmen in responding to his appeal that they embrace the drawdown with an expectation of fair dealing.  Alarmed by the dysrhythmia, Welsh called his chief personnel officer for a lengthy chat after the Altus meeting.

Those involved now wonder what to make of this.  It seems implausible to think the Chief of Staff could have been aloof to these problems, yet everyone agrees Mark Welsh is not a liar, and nor is his director of personnel.  Both are held in high esteem by airmen across the Air Force.  The same cannot be said for AFPC, an organization that enjoys very little trust or credibility with airmen.  Yet, it’s unlikely that those comprising the center’s workforce would actively mislead or deceive airmen, even if the evidence seems to support such a conclusion.  

A more likely and more concerning conclusion is that AFPC’s seeming malfeasance is actually the manifestation of something else: organizational pathology.  This is a large subject with a bunch of complex analytical alleys not worth traveling in this space, but it can be summarized as follows:  sometimes, organizations are given direction to do one thing, but are structured to do another. In such cases, structure will generally prevail, producing results that are at odds with organizational objectives. Welsh may have given AFPC direction to treat airmen honestly and to exhaust voluntary measures before resorting to involuntary ones, but AFPC is structured to do very much the opposite . . . to obscure its purposes behind a facade of abstract and malleable policies, and to do what it thinks is in the most efficient interest of the personnel bureaucracy, which usually translates into something involuntary at the individual level.   AFPC is not a unit concerned with “people.”  It’s a commodity exchange concerned with aggregating and exerting bargaining power.  This brings us to the core of the problem facing the Air Force as it attempts to conduct a transparent and humane drawdown employing an opaque and inhumane organization: AFPC is the wrong tool for this particular job.

The mangling of the Air Force drawdown by AFPC evinces two major maladies: flawed structure and poor communication.  For reasons of efficiency, the Air Force has increasingly centralized all human resource (HR) authority at AFPC.  This is a deeply flawed approach.  AFPC is not in anyone’s operational chain of command.  It is not accountable to field commanders and is only loosely accountable to a headquarters 1,600 miles away and scarcely capable of providing meaningful oversight.  AFPC has no direct equities at stake in the missions wing commanders are charged to execute.  AFPC runs a faceless, nameless, almost exclusively electronic business that decides the lives of people as if they are units of production, and rarely provide rationale to individuals or commanders for such decisions.  

Despite all this, AFPC is the single agent empowered by the USAF to implement personnel policies core to the morale, welfare, and mission readiness of commanders.  There is something fundamentally wrong with this arrangement.  It produces results such as the present debacle, just the latest in a series of department-wide clown acts over the past several years.  Commanders almost universally agree that the center does a poor job or resourcing their missions, and tends to get things most wrong when the consequences are most acute.  At the heart of the disconnect between what AFPC provides and what commanders and airmen expect is the reality that AFPC reports not to a commander with units performing operational responsibilities, but to the Air Staff.  Being outside the chain of command has made the center numb to the demands of inspiring and motivating people to perform a dynamic mission.

Chains of command exist for one reason: to ensure unified action.  This happens through clear communication via established channels.  Established communication channels and chains of command are critical.  They provide vertical accountability, up and down the chain, for the direction given and how it is carried out.  They leave no question as to who is responsible for doing something or who should be called for a remedy when it doesn’t work – the answer is always the chain of command.  Because AFPC isn’t in the chain of command, no one knows where it fits in this communication model. AFPC bureaucrats exploit this arrangement by staying free of any commitment to individuals or commanders.  In other words, left to its own devices, the agency acts in its own narrowly construed interests rather than fulfilling the more expansive intent of the corporate Air Force.

EssenceIn their seminal work The Essence of Decision, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow distill a series of models that explain the responses of large organizations to the onset of crisis.  Among these is the Organizational Process Model (Model II), which holds that when faced with a crisis, leaders assign resolution actions according to pre-established organizational lines, adhering to set repertoires and pre-existing plans.  Model II is a more nuanced and complicated way of expressing that when organizations get too large, too laden with regulations, and too entrenched in their collective thinking, adaptability becomes impossible, even under crisis conditions. AFPC fits the classic definition of Model II behavior. Faced with a drawdown crisis, the center is continuing to perform like a commodity exchange rather than adapting to accommodate the transparency and fair-dealing embraced by Welsh.

Understanding this is all well and good, but what remains to be seen is whether this arrangement – which might work just fine in a capital-driven bureaucracy — can coexist with other, more fundamental organizational features in a value-driven warfighting service. How does a service founded on integrity operationalize this value so that every subsidiary agency implements policy in a way that respects it?  This is a tough question.  But the first part of the answer probably involves moving HR management back into the chain of command, where important decisions about manpower, retention, and the cultivation of a capable fighting force belong.

As to the current morass in which the Air Force finds itself, the solution is simpler.  Whether AFPC is being deceitful or merely inept, the answer is the same: take the drawdown out of the center’s hands and run it through major command or headquarters personnel offices.  Force them to work together and hold them accountable for the results. They just might get to know the issues more intimately and help commanders find the mission/drawdown balance key to preventing a hollowing of the force.  No matter what, they’ll be accountable to and communicating within a unified chain of command, and nothing military should ever be done any other way.

To characterize the issue crudely but accurately, centralized HR is a dumb idea for the Air Force. No corporation of the size, diversity, and tempo of the Air Force can ever hope to succeed with a centrally run commodity exchange tending to the decisions and actions most important to its people and their families.  The service’s personnel system has not been responsive to its operational commanders for years.  “Closed for business” signs and banker’s hours in personnel shops have become a running joke service-wide.  AFPC and its subsidiaries are clearly not cut out for the turbulent times that lie ahead.  In order to restore trust and have a fighting chance at an orderly reduction in force, General Welsh should select the best option in front of him: close AFPC for business, and make real commanders solely responsible for the key decisions involving airmen.

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