If you’re a member of the USAF, Secretary Deborah Lee James and Vice Chief of Staff General Larry Spencer are asking for your ideas on how to save money. Before I tell you why, in my humble opinion, you should not participate in this initiative, there are a few things worth registering about the nature of this “Make Every Dollar Count” (ME$C) campaign.
First, note that it’s a campaign. It’s being launched not because it’s an inherently good idea, but as a response to sequestration. As a campaign, it will have definitive starting and ending points. This doesn’t mean James and Spencer will not care about saving money after this moment passes, it just means they’ll do less about it. When any campaign ends, it becomes a part of the past rather than a persistent feature of an organization. This will be no different, except that since it won’t be marked by medals, promotions, the application of airpower, or entries in the historical ledger, it’ll be forgotten quite quickly, along with its participants. Don’t believe me? Ask a randomly-selected general at USAF Headquarters to name one person who participated in last year’s “Every Dollar Counts” campaign. You’ll likely be waiting for an answer until every dollar does indeed count, or until Hell freezes over, which will happen at roughly the same time. Alternatively, you might be given the single name mentioned in the article celebrating last year’s program — a name culled from more than 11,000 suggestions and used to tout as a great example something many if not most units had implemented before this initiative. To the extent some units hadn’t yet figured out that they should make re-deploying airmen turn in unused gear for re-issue, should a centralized savings campaign really have been necessary to figure that out?
Second, note that this initiative isn’t open to contractors, retirees, or the general public. Now maybe I’m being obtuse, but if the point is to save money, do we really care where the ideas come from? I know a bunch of people with decades of Air Force experience who have an idea or two about how to save money, and since their taxes fund the service, seems to me they should be invited to participate. The fact they’re not says something about how much input the Air Force really wants (or doesn’t). Believe me, if this were open to those who have left the service in the last few years, they could definitely make it rain. They’re not nearly as constrained in their level of candor, and tend to make their points with less dithering and punctuation given their freedom from the career consequences of speaking truth to power.
Third, SECAF and VCSAF don’t want your general ideas, your biggest ideas, or even your most ingenious ideas. They want your suggestions relative to your own area of expertise. This is a critically important point. It means that strategic-level suggestions can only come from generals, and that airmen seeing inefficiencies in areas outside their shops are not really welcome to opine on them. It means if you’re a radar technician and you submit a suggestion about uniform issue policies, your suggestion could be disapproved on the basis of being unrelated to your primary job performance. This is a massive loophole in the program, given that some of the most expansive and anecdotally least efficient programs in the Air Force are logistical support and supply processes that impact all airmen but are managed by a relative few. Limiting airmen to their own “swim lanes” also violates a core canon of ideation and problems-solving: gathering fresh perspectives from those who have not had their thinking structured and limited by direct participation in an activity.
With that context established, here are five very sound reasons to avoid this program like a mustache-brandishing pilot avoids a diamond-wearing E-9 at a downrange DFAC.
1. Your Time is Too Important. Your suggestions stand very little chance of being adopted or even getting the kind of review they deserve. Last year’s program was heralded as a way for airmen to speak directly to the corporate-level USAF to champion red-tape-cutting solutions. But that wasn’t the experience most people had. Suggestions too often met with the same bureaucratic stifling and red tape that created the wasteful behavior at issue in the first place. One officer who suggested doing away with desert flight suits got a reply that went beyond vagary into disingenuousness (I wrote about that sequence of events here). After waiting 10 months only to receive an unserious 200-word email shooting down his idea, he came away from the process feeling as though the entire ordeal had not only lowered his opinion of the process and the Air Force, but had been a waste of his time. Remember: your time is worth no less than anyone else’s. Guarding the expenditure of it carefully is the best way you can contribute to efficiency. Giving it away on a dead-end prospect is the road to reduced productivity, meaning the more airmen participate in ME$C, the less productive and more wasteful the Air Force will be.
2. Your Participation Will Harm the Air Force’s Credibility. When the service doesn’t carry through on the promise to make every dollar count after assuring airmen it will, the harm done to its credibility is significant. The Air Force proved last year that every dollar doesn’t count, and it continues to prove it right now. From Tops In Blue to DV airlift, from desert flight suits to unnecessary deployments, from superfluous generals to extraneous airlift missions with empty cargo holds, there is plenty of systemic waste lurking in the Air Force budget. The service’s unwillingness to root out stubbornly ingrained waste is understandable given the many impediments to real change bureaucrats are capable of erecting. Resistance to change is, after all, the first rule of any bureaucracy once it has become large enough to be self-serving. But there’s no point in assisting the service in carrying on the fiction that it cares about budgetary efficiency. Doing so only enables it to betray its own words to a greater extent, and with every airman who gets a “thanks for playing but just kidding” email in response to an earnestly researched and proffered suggestion, the growing rift between leadership and airmen will grow a little more.
3. The Program Enables a False Impression. When you tally up the evidence, ME$C doesn’t feel like an earnest savings initiative so much as something designed to create the impression of an earnest savings initiative. Think about it. If you’re running the show and sequestration is creating non-stop budget headaches for you to solve, the thing you need to do is restore a higher level of spending authority to create some breathing room. To do that, you need to represent that you’re saving as much money as possible. This is not an invalid imperative. When the budgetary screws get over-torqued, leaders get continually seized with solving funding problems at the expense of other issues they care deeply about and know are in desperate need of attention. In many ways, this is the story of General Mark Welsh’s tenure as Chief of Staff. He took the controls of an Air Force that recognized his immense leadership capability and expected a lot out of him in terms of getting an ailing service healthy and back on vector. That hasn’t happened, and it’s least in part because he’s spent an inordinate amount of time contending with the serial crises, branches, and sequels of sequestration and its budgetary cousins. But this doesn’t validate ME$C. If the Air Force is conducting a “fly for presence” effort to create legitimacy for additional budget topline, this amounts to an unacceptable breach of integrity that unwittingly manipulates the good faith energies of airmen, destroying their individual agency. Some will argue that this is a harsh or even unfair assessment, but until the service shows more willingness to slay a few sacred cows, airmen are entitled to the conclusion that the push for savings isn’t a completely serious effort. And if it’s not, then it is at least in part about creating political or perceptual cover for the acquisition of more funding or the exercise of cost-cutting measures in other areas, such as the ongoing personnel drawdown.
4. The Initiative Is Itself Wasteful. As many critics have said for years now, if the Air Force wants to save money, it doesn’t need campaigns, initiatives, slogans, or gimmicks. It just needs to develop and encourage a culture of conservation. This means empowering commanders and airmen at unit-level to make efficient changes where it makes sense. It’s not a mistake that the service has become more wasteful and inefficient as it has become more centralized and rule-driven. Airmen constantly propose ideas to their commanders for savings, only to watch those ideas die at the embryonic stage when commanders deliver the bad news that rules and resistance above unit-level will never let common sense prevail. The answer is obvious: push authority down to the lowest possible level, where the experts can see and responsively act on opportunities. Instead of running a centralized approval process like ME$C, run a decentralized one every day. This means accepting that units might have slightly varying processes and it means accepting that junior or mid-level airmen may wield more authority than cubicle-dwelling staffers located thousands of miles from the inner workings of a potential savings initiative. A few years ago, aircraft commanders in the airlift community grew weary of executing missions across thousands of miles to deliver just a few pallets worth of cargo. They understood that given a fixed operational cost of around $25,000 per hour, they’d be most efficient carrying as much cargo as possible. When they sought authority to refuse non-emergent missions carrying diminutive cargo loads, they were directed, in USAF parlance, to “shut up and color.” Air Mobility Command lacked the true devotion to saving money to alter its processes or divest authority from the staff to operators (and in addition, didn’t trust them enough, but that’s a different sermon). This same idea was suggested in last year’s “Every Dollar Counts” campaign and failed to gain traction there as well. This is evidence that the service isn’t ready for the kind of culture change required to truly redeem new efficiencies. Until it is, gimmicky campaigns are a waste of energy and a part of the problem.
We don’t know how much money was saved in last year’s campaign. No website has been put up or document published to show airmen what percentage of suggestions were adopted or what patterns of rationale could be discerned for approval and disapproval. This contributes to the idea that we’re not dealing in serious reality, but in the world of impression and perception. But airmen are too intelligent to be taken in by quasi-propaganda, and certainly too smart to be fooled twice in consecutive years by the same tactic. That’s why this initiative will inevitably fail, and that’s the fifth and most straightforward reason to steer clear of it: there’s no reason to associate oneself needlessly with failure, especially in an institution that once prided itself on excellence and someday will again.
Last year’s program was called “Every Dollar Counts” and this year’s carries the tagline “Make Every Dollar Count.” The rhetorical shift is significant. After last year’s program and some of the negative response to it, the Air Force could no longer claim that every dollar counted. By backing away from last year’s claim in fielding a sequel, the service is admitting that on some level, this is a fiction created to serve other purposes besides making airmen stakeholders in financial responsibility. While the ends the Air Force seeks to serve with this fiction may be valid, that doesn’t legitimize entertainment of this magnitude of fantasy in order to fulfill them.
There are simpler ways to generate savings, and they are in better keeping with the core value of integrity. Tell airmen you want to save money, tell the chain of command to respond to their ideas, give commanders the authority to act on their ideas, adopt ideas that make sense — even (and especially) when it means clearing out bureaucratic and regulatory underbrush, and reward those airmen who make the service more efficient. Not with a giant check for $50 in MWR vouchers, but with a promotion, a medal, a coveted assignment, or a share of the savings.
Do those things, and you will move closer to making every dollar count. At least until a serious effort is made to empower airmen to save money, they should avoid contributing to the nascent fascination with corporate sloganeering.