Debriefing CMSAF’s Reddit AMA: Fair Performance, Recommend Another Sortie

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Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) James Cody participated in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session earlier this week, interacting with members of a subsection of the site focusing on Air Force issues.

For the uninitiated, an AMA is something akin to an online press conference, but with regular people rather than media types asking the questions, and generally showing more expertise about subject material. AMAs are known for generating candid responses and moving discussions forward.

For Cody to have done this engagement is unprecedented for anyone in his position. Attempting outreach through this medium and in this manner is, without caveat, a positive thing. I write often about the Air Force’s need to be more open and transparent. Things like this are strides in that direction.

His agreement to the session prompted excitement within the Reddit Air Force community and beyond. Expectations were high that without the usually present layers of formal and informal management between street level and the Pentagon, the session might generate unguarded answers to unscripted questions, giving both Cody and his airmen a better appreciation of the issues facing the force.

A few of those sought-after moments definitely happened, but the question of whether CMSAF’s AMA met the expectations harbored is more complicated.

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Cody stayed online for about two hours. In that time, he answered just 14 questions out of the more than 400 asked (a number that climbed past 500 after the session closed).

By any standard, achieving less than 3% audience coverage in an outreach event is anemic. Managing only seven responses per hour is paltry, especially for a senior official whose job is almost completely about communicating with the masses. That’s a rate of one answer every 8.5 minutes. This is much slower than an in-person press conference, and arguably defeats the idea of using the online medium to facilitate a larger audience.

By contrast, Bill Gates punched out 35 responses in his first AMA, and has since done two more. Business magnate Mark Cuban managed well more than 100 answers, as did rock legend Dave Grohl. Activist and law professor Lawrence Lessig answered more than 350 questions in his initial AMA, and has maintained a similar pace in several additional sessions since.

Each of these people has a schedule just as unforgiving as Cody’s. Each is a public figure with an image sensitive to public missteps and countless stakeholders hanging on every word. But each of these people, and many others, took the time and effort to genuinely reach out and connect. That’s what you do when you want to influence people, engender their respect, and perhaps even cultivate a little loyalty.

Cody answered too few questions, and the session likely confounded expectations on both sides. The AMA audience obviously assumed he’d have more to say, given the flood of questions and the huge number of users lodging them. At the same time, CMSAF seems to have underestimated the response, budgeting himself too little time to immerse and truly interact. While he could never have answered every input, he could have addressed far more than 14.

Interestingly, the closest analogue for Cody’s performance is an AMA undertaken by Barack Obama during his 2012 re-election campaign. The President allocated just 30 minutes and answered only 10 questions. When the idea is to avoid candid answers and instead provide the impression of outreach, limiting exposure is a favored tactic. It extracts gain while avoiding risk.

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Also troubling is that Chief Cody mostly skipped tough questions, including many that were up-voted by the community as particularly worthy of a response.

CMSAF left untouched potentially contentious queries on additional duties, the persistence of a “more with less” culture, deployment tempo, late payment of travel vouchers, civilian certifications for transitioning airmen, the erosion of core values, mandatory Special Duty vectoring, and the Airman’s Creed.

He refused to touch several inquiries related to the traveling show choir “Tops in Blue,” the fetishizing of which by senior officials is seen by many airmen as both a monument of waste and symbolic of unhealthy detachment. One questioner contended that his unit couldn’t afford proper safety gear, and asked the Chief why the choir continues to receive funding given such tight budgets. The question was up-voted more than 200 times. Cody did not respond. But he did manage to rattle off a comment about this picture.

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This is not to suggest that the session was a total loss. Cody did reply on several key subjects, offering solid and seemingly unscripted answers in a few cases.

Responding about whether policy will change to let airmen sew unit patches onto their utility uniforms:

“I’m not entirely sure the patch on the uniform is the one thing that will instill pride in our units. The pride comes from our service and the people who serve next to us, and how well we do our mission.”

Tough to argue with that, though it doesn’t explain why some patches are permitted and others are not. This is healthy push-back in the vein of “explain to me why this is important.”

On a question about the disruption of DV vists:

“When we plan our base visits, our team stresses that we want it to be as low impact on the base as possible, but how much preparation that goes into the visit has to be up to the commander and leadership on the ground. We also work hard to ensure the majority of the time is spent talking with our Airmen. To be honest, I would much rather show up unannounced and just speak with our Airmen.”

It does help airmen to know that senior officials are not actively pushing for disruptive preparation for VIP tours, and for Cody to say this publicly will hopefully help make the message even clearer. Still, many would like to have seen him go a little further and actively discourage the disruptive and dishonest “visit culture” plaguing airmen. Moreover, Cody’s last point pretends helplessness to change something fully within his control. If senior officials believe unannounced, unscripted visits are more valuable, what are they waiting for? 

His response to a question on the trajectory of compensation and benefits included this interesting statement:

“If you’re serving for the benefits only, then maybe the service is not for you…and that’s OK.”

While it was softened by the context of his full answer, this is still a little bit alienating. It risks shutting down questions about pay and benefits that are part of the calculus of retention and deserve to be discussed. For virtually everyone, the decision to stay or leave is complicated, and not a simple matter of whether they get paid enough. But airmen do need to feel their interests are being safeguarded in the corridors of power, and Cody missed an opportunity to re-affirm that here by instead spouting the talking point that benefits aren’t being cut, only slowed. That’s rhetorical garbage — a throwaway line that no one believes. When housing allowance is reduced, that’s a cut. When pay falls behind inflation, that’s a cut.

But all that said, this was a mostly candid answer and a launch point for more discussion. That makes it constructive.

Less constructive was this response to a question about the service’s predominating one-mistake culture:

“If we were a one-mistake Air Force we wouldn’t have anybody on our team. But we are likely a one-crime Air Force.”

This is just a brush-off. It’s a way of saying he doesn’t believe a one-mistake culture exists. There’s no commitment to fixing it in his answer, or even acknowledging it. Cody’s answer sidesteps how a reprimand given for a mistake instantly makes an airman an easy target for rollback or denied reenlistment. Never mind that in the current culture, a single failed PT test or subpar score on a professional exam can slam doors shut on huge swaths of opportunity that will consequently be inhabited by the most perfect careerists, not necessarily the best candidates. His answer doesn’t touch on how this culture creates risk aversion and smothers innovation.

Still, you can argue that it sounds like an honest reply, though it would be a much better one had the Chief shown the willingness to defend it rather than launching and leaving.

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CMSAF gave excellent responses to questions about PT uniforms, tattoo policy, and reconsideration of some airmen for the Medal of Honor. He even invited an airman to contact him directly to discuss the issue of overwork and burnout. That question was deleted by the originator after others warned him his chain of command would single him out for reprisal if he went directly to CMSAF. What a vivid statement about the current climate within the enlisted corps, and hopefully it wasn’t lost on Cody.

Discussing the new Enlisted Evaluation System, the Chief stressed job performance and downplayed worries that it would lead to backstabbing or unhealthy competition. In fact, Cody believes the new system will reduce careerist behavior. Denouncing a stratification scoring matrix recently featured on these pages, he said:

“For example, the score sheet that spread across the internet recently is exactly what we don’t want, and that sheet is no longer in use. I’m confident when you see the new [Enlisted Performance Reports] that you’ll see performance is overwhelmingly the primary factor. There is very little space attributed to the Whole Person Concept and the words education and volunteering are not included at all.”

This strong answer should allay genuine concerns about the new system. Standard resistance will continue, especially from pragmatists who will no longer be able to amass top ratings by compensating for mediocre performance with extracurricular eyewash.

Last but not least, CMSAF entertained a question about his own wear of the so-called Airman Battle Uniform (ABU), which was fielded as a low-cost, no-maintenance solution for to save airmen time and money, but is being turned into a reprise of its predecessor, the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) – complete with pressed sleeves and blocked patrol caps. Cody, whose sleeves carry a crease that would make a seasoned Samurai nervous, denied using starch but stipulated that his old habits are dying hard.

Here’s his full response:

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This doesn’t really square the circle for airmen. He is essentially saying “I’m within standards.” He’s missing the point that what he does defines the standard, whether it’s written or not. It’s unavoidable that airmen will conclude that to be most professional, one should emulate CMSAF’s appearance in uniform, and an expectation to try and out-sharp the next guy or gal in line will be formed.

This was the trap of the BDU.  Unwritten expectations for starch and polish became an uncounted tax on the time and resources of airmen, lest they be labeled duffel bags by supervisors. Cody is setting an example that will lead inevitably nullify the wash-and-wear promise. On this issue, he doesn’t seem to understand the power he wields through his own example, or the fact that airmen would rather just have the rule made explicit instead of countenancing another unfunded mandate.

One poster’s angry response:

“BS answer, side steps INTENT, which was WASH and WEAR. Instead of setting the standard, you choose to do what’s best and preferable to you, instead of the Air Force. The idea was to return TIME and MONEY to Airmen. Basically you’re saying, I’ll keep doing my thing to look professional but you don’t have to. Then raters who look to your lead knock their ratee’s down.”

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It’s hard not to see this AMA as a missed opportunity. There were many good questions and not many trolls in attendance. There were tons of genuine inputs from people who obviously care and put a lot of thought into the interaction. Cody’s responses weren’t robust or unfiltered enough to seize on a valuable chance for outreach.

Unsurprisingly, the Air Force public relations assessment was a little more upbeat:

“CMSAF Cody held his first ever Reddit AMA yesterday, and the response was overwhelming! If you missed it, Chief Cody covered a LOT of ground, answering questions from Airmen about everything from proposed changes to BAH, to proper wear of the uniform and updates to the WAPS and EPRs.”

Propaganda like this ironically underscores what went wrong here. The point of a Reddit AMA is to ditch “home field advantage” and get away from scripted Q & A to stoke a relatively unguarded conversation. The hope is to generate the sorts of authentic responses that can only happen without the normal trappings of an orchestrated interaction. If the opportunity had been properly exploited, it would stand firmly on its own without embellishment.

Given Cody’s introductory squib …

“There is no doubt we’ve experienced a lot of churn lately. We’ve faced force shaping and budget cuts, our Airmen are extremely busy at home and around the globe, and now we’re fully implementing new EPRs and a new promotion system. It’s a lot all at once, and I know this is a group of motivated, talented and sometimes frustrated Airmen who have legitimate questions and concerns.”

…we would have expected to see a much more spirited and robust exchange. But instead of “Ask Me Anything,” this felt like just another spoonful of “Everything is Fine.”

So, how do we ultimately assess CMSAF’s foray into the social media wilderness? The Reddit consensus seems to be that it was a relatively weak showing. 

My own view isn’t much different, though I’d like to think the story isn’t over yet.

A useful analogy can be drawn from pilot training. When a student pilot doesn’t do anything unsafe or below standard on a given sortie, but the instructor judges that the student didn’t get what s/he needed out of it, a grade of “Fair” can be given. This avoids mislabeling the student a failure, which can injure confidence and trigger undeserved scrutiny, but it allows the student to repeat the event to extract learning value and build confidence.

I think Cody should do this again, next time leaving the talking points totally behind and simply talking to airmen in plain terms, watching the patterns and particulars of their responses closely to learn all he can about the health of the force.

AMAs can be a great way for public figures to build respect, credibility, and loyalty among stakeholders. The Air Force could use more of all three, in both directions.

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