CSAF and CMSAF recently conducted an All-Call during a visit to Wright-Patterson, where Gen. Welsh presided over a change in leadership at Air Force Materiel Command.
During the obligatory canine-equine festivities, CSAF made remarks reinforcing his attitude about the role and veracity of social media outlets in keeping airmen informed. Excerpting from the Air Force’s official publicity of the event:
He expressed a concern regarding how information is communicated and how incorrect information can spread easily and quickly through blogs and other social media — and subsequently through a poorly informed public.
“We have to educate and train our Airmen on how to communicate properly, and how to get facts,” he said.
Nothing subtle here. Welsh is encouraging airmen to assume blogs are inaccurate, and he’s blaming social media for poorly-informed public. He’s also framing the Air Force’s manifest communication problem as a function of improperly trained, novice airmen, proposing that they don’t know how to identify and distinguish fact-based sources.
It’s nice to hear CSAF admit the service has a communication problem. But that’s where the good news ends on this one. Acknowledging there is a problem is only worthwhile to the extent there’s a will to correct it. No evidence of that here. This is about poor-mouthing blogs and trying in vain to dissuade airmen from reading them rather than addressing any underlying issues.
There’s also a fair bit of shirking evident in CSAF’s comments. Among the service’s myriad responsibilities is a duty to inform and educate the public on airpower, and to cultivate a positive relationship between airmen and the citizens they serve to defend. If Welsh believes the general public is poorly informed, it’s his job to fix it. His pot shot at the public is something of an admission that he and the service are falling short in an important way. To the extent that’s true, deriding blogs will do nothing to close the gap.
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It is said that when a leader senses an organizational problem, he should look for the cause by working outward in concentric circles starting with his own desk. In this case, Welsh should consider a trip down the hall to the desk of his public affairs chief. If the public is ill-informed despite the millions dedicated annually to the Air Force Public Affairs enterprise, castigating airmen for reading blogs is not going to fix the problem.
What will fix the problem? How should Welsh approach the communications issues he now admits are plaguing the Air Force?
Well, General, I know you don’t read blogs. But on the off chance this page randomly dances across your screen (between money shots of non-charbroiled F-35s), here’s some unsolicited advice:
If you want airmen to communicate properly and operate on facts, start by giving them straight answers to their questions.
Then, focus on fixing the chain of command.
Then, restore squadron-level support so squadron leaders can focus on people and mission rather than administrative workload. While you’re at it, consider a department-level initiative to reduce administrative workload.
Then, get PA to stop propagandizing and start using its considerable taxpayer-funded largesse to communicate factual information. Airmen don’t trust PA, which is another way of saying they’ve lost trust in your official messaging system.
Then, give AFPC the resources and direction to foster an accountable relationship between the center and supported commanders. Get accurate, actionable information to airmen when and how they need it, rather than when AFPC gets around to it or gets release approval from the Ivory Tower.
Finally, stop courting an adversarial relationship with social media outlets who share your objectives, and instead recognize that they have access to your airmen whether you like it or not. This would probably compel you to share information with them rather than stonewalling. You can assume safely that airmen will never return to the communication routines of yesteryear, so the service must either adapt or perish in this regard.
I could go on, but you get the point.
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It was just yesterday that I reported on the administration of a survey that asked airmen how they get their information. That survey, in its basic construction, misguidedly marginalized the role of social media outlets. CSAF continues to do the same.
It’s a bad approach that will only deepen the problem. Unfortunately for CSAF and the seemingly antiquated worldview he appears to be harboring, the information domain has changed radically. Airmen now have access to channels where they can send, receive, share, analyze, develop, and act upon truth data faster than cumbersome bureaucratic vetting processes could ever hope to accommodate.
But this is good news. It makes airmen better informed, more aware, and less forgiving of a leadership culture that tries to keep them under-informed as a means of harnessing power or exerting control. It democratizes the flow of information, and that forces leaders to adapt by working harder to earn the attention of their people. The eventual outcome is a stronger leadership corps and a fortified Air Force. But this unavoidable journey of organizational adaptation becomes more disruptive and volatile with every day that Big Blue resists taking it.
To borrow from the Boydian lexicon: the organizational OODA loop is cycling much faster these days. The Air Force’s intra-service communications culture is a Cold War relic. It has been further corroded by institutional missteps that have also rusted out the chain of command. The only way to fix any of this is to recognize that a revolution in how airmen think and communicate has already occurred, and that the old school of thought is no longer relevant.