Love it, hate it, or choose to ignore it, the “Ask a Chief Virtual Panel” manages to generate a fair number of useful questions about Air Force life, even if it trips over its own self-important protocol in failing to provide useful answers most of the time. Here at JQP, we’re generally critical of the page because of its penchant for censorship and the pack mentality by which well-meaning questioners are often verbally mauled. Ever thus in certain corners of internet Trolldom.
But as I said, the page does instigate good questions, because airmen are conditioned to believe if they ask Chiefs questions, they’ll get constructive answers. Here’s a provocative input from earlier this month.
So, what we have here is someone who feels not merely underappreciated but victimized by his own customer base. To be sure, there’s some dramatization involved … like the insistence that working “past dark” or limiting oneself to a mere 30-minute lunch are in any way noteworthy. But in his public cry for help, this whining rogue has distilled something the Air Force has yet to admit: that there is a stigma attached to working in the finance career field. This stigma is richly deserved.
This is a topic we’ve explored previously here at JQP. Last year, we exposed an internal scheme to further gut base-level finance offices, something that would move finance services even further from operational airmen. See “Finance: Closing to Serve You Better.” We’ve also documented how finance shortcomings impact operational squadrons, creating the enmity this latest grumbler is distressed about. We’ve even doxed working phone numbers for base finance offices after the community made a sport out of preventing customers from reaching them. But that coverage has always hewn to a common theme: that finance offices have been irretrievably gutted and will not be healed, ever. And further, that both denizens and leaders in the finance community are refusing to face that reality and release control over aspects of their domain that can no longer be sustained on a reduced resource budget. They’ve over-committed, and thus endemically under-delivering. In this, they’re perfectly Air Force.
Interestingly, none of the E-9 responses covered any of this. They all devolved into cliché. Some played the cheerleader, urging the downtrodden airman to will himself into better spirits by ignoring negativity … something he doubtless tried before turning to the forum for help. Others played the comfortably numb nihilist. “Nothing matters,” they insisted. This is, of course, bullshit. If customer feedback doesn’t matter to an airman, then only his own assessment matters, a perfect recipe for the sort of self-obsession riddling the Air Force’s underperforming support communities these days. No response drove toward a root cause or helped the questioner pull apart and understand his dilemma more completely.
Any organizational issue can be understood by dividing it into three parts: that which you can control, that which you can’t control but can influence, and that which is completely beyond your control or influence.
Our finance troop can’t control the fact his shop is undermanned and over-tasked. He can’t roll the clock back on PBD720 or persuade former generals to come back on active duty and reverse their decisions to trade tens of thousands of needed people for fighter modernization projects … all without setting up sufficient infrastructure or devolving sufficient authority to adapt to the newly-created reality. He certainly can’t that across the service, there is an endemic and massive mismatch between the need for finance services and the resources provided to deliver them, and that this mismatch is setting finance offices up to fail.
But … his leaders can influence how these cold facts are processed and how they impact street-level airmen. In the decade since finance was originally dismantled, there’s been too little truth emanating from the smoldering ash pile that was once a proud career field. We’ve not heard from finance generals, colonels, and chiefs that the career field needs to be divested of responsibility in order to remain sustainable. Instead, rice bowl protection schemes have pretended all is well and that everyone is doing great work with acceptable levels of customer satisfaction.
This dishonesty is what drives everyone nuts. The finance community needs to tell the truth … that it has 30% of the people it needs to execute its mission. That phone calls will be returned in 30 days. That it can’t answer questions at base level. That its people lack the training to contend with anything beyond call-center-level questions. And most importantly, that they refuse to put airmen on terminal 12-hour/6-day shifts in a vain attempt to keep up … since this will simply exhaust everyone and drive retention into the pavement, leading to an even more debilitated career field.
This is what’s really going on. Communicating it would not only replace enmity with sympathy, but it would catalyse arguments to restructure how finance services are delivered. Truth, as always, is the trailhead for the journey to genuine improvement.
But in the meantime, Johnny and Jane Finance can make things easier on themselves by controlling that which is within their control. Don’t take long PT breaks and leave cryptic signs on the door. Don’t close unexpectedly. Don’t empty the office for “squadron functions” (Swahili for cake-eating) in the heart of the duty day. Answer phones. Reply to emails. Communicate clearly. Finish what you start without requiring follow-up. And never forget that when you make mistakes or refuse to help people, they and their families feel financial pressure … which is one of life’s most excruciating and coercive mechanisms. They need you to deliver … not just what you can, but all you can.
People bash finance for many reasons. Some are trivial and unfair. But to a degree, it’s because there is an entrenched attitude in finance that seems to resent the requirements of the job. Dealing with other airmen who are financially stressed and in a hurry is a core finance task. Bearing that in mind and dropping the seething angst about having to kiss the ring of operational airmen would go a long way toward healing the existing rift.
At least until the Air Force insists on fulfilment of the promises it was made about how airmen would be supported after the gutting of the finance career field. As one of the E-9s said, “leaders lead.” I might add that leading is distinct from cheerleading.