It Would Be Hilarious if it Weren’t So Frustrating


man-pulling-his-hair-out

“Because the rule book says so.”

This is the reason for a million inane and counterproductive practices. The reasoning it exemplifies assumes any number of things … that the rule was written by someone intelligent and authoritative, that it has been correctly interpreted, that it was intended for application on an indefinite timeline, and that it should always be thoughtlessly followed as scripture regardless of circumstance. 

In many cases, the assumptions underlying a rule have been long ago invalidated. Circumstances change, processes adapt, exigencies manifest. This is why we should, as a rule of thumb, only write down that which needs to be written down, relying mostly on rules of thumb. Once a rule is formalized, it accrues organizational legitimacy, becomes presumptively valid, and is subsequently difficult to repeal.

In many cases, the original assumptions founding a rule were invalid in the first place. Rules assume that a positively stated obligation, backed by legally conferred authority and enforced coercively, is the best way to get something done. This is usually not the case. Informal structures reliant on continually adaptive expertise and unwritten contracts are much more efficient and effective … while avoiding the organizational friction introduced by written rules.

For the Air Force, there are certain organizational tendencies that intensify addiction to rules and exacerbate the friction resulting from having too many of them.

One such tendency is centralization. The concentration of formal authority within headquarters staffs tends to create staff-esque responses to organizational problems. What staffs do best … is author policies and rules for generals to sign into effect. Deficiency with aircrew training? Write a rule mandating new commander tracking and reporting requirements. Travel budgets a little hefty the last few years? Beef up an instruction to require more approvals and reviews. Too many airmen committing suicide? Promulgate a new program requiring recurring events and discussions. (Falsely perceived) issues with “professionalism” across the force? Put together a new creed and a new standards Bible.

None of this usually solves much. But everyone feels like something was done, and no one can countenance the alternative of accepting that some things can’t be solved by staffs. Of course, no one counts up the costs of these rules either.

What staffs don’t do well is (a) actually provide the resources to make the rules they write achievable (see “more with less,” ca. 1990-Pres.), or (b) repeal rules that are manifestly unnecessary. 

Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak, who is generally caricatured as a mayhem maker and ineffective Chief of Staff, was actually an insightfully disruptive leader who understood how centralization was crippling his service’s innovative and creative impulses at precisely moment they were most needed. He tore down Cold War rule structures, liquidated staffs, and put the service on a much lighter diet of mostly informal and generalized directives. But not long after he retired, the service receded toward formalism. Today, things are as structured as they’ve ever been.

Another pernicious tendency is overreaction to political pressure. This is baked into the Air Force’s DNA. The service had to affirmatively and forcefully argue its way to institutional independence, and developed an unhealthy sensitivity to political whimsy as an incident. In its infancy, the new Air Force found itself in a propaganda war with the Navy for prime agency in the emerging nuclear warfare mission. This deepened its affinity with perception and politics, creating an image-obsessed service culture.

In 2008, when the Chief of Staff and Secretary were fired as a result of failure to properly manage the nation’s nuclear capability, the new leadership team embraced a service-wide “compliance culture” as a means of demonstrating a serious response to nuclear community’s issues. Never mind that the problems in the nuclear community were less about compliance and more about institutional neglect. Creating the image of a sound response was what mattered most.

This lurch inflicted new formalization upon communities that were already healthy and had already found the right equilibrium between a checklist mentality and a fluid, adaptive orientation. Suddenly, the service’s 4-stars were opining about the importance of scriptural compliance, chilling any potential push-back. Rule creation became newly en vogue as bureaucrats reacted to a powerful incentive for the infliction of control, direction, and monitoring across the institution. Almost a decade later, the false narrative of a non-compliant force in need of more control has never been corrected, and the rule-making it catalyzed continues to choke productivity.

But maybe the worst tendency is over-reliance on the results of formal inspections as an indicator of leadership. Commanders are graded primarily on how their units perform in staff inspections rather than how well they conduct operations and fight wars. Staffs are oriented on policies, rulebooks, and checklists. Thus, inspections are about checklist compliance rather than actual performance. 

We’ve all known exceptional leaders who have been cast aside by the service because of a mistake made by an airman under their command during a headquarters inspection. When even the most obviously capable and valuable leaders have their careers summarily ended by errors committed during checklist-driven inspections, a powerful incentive arises for checklist-driven micromanagement in preparation for inspections. Commanders find themselves pushing down hard on things like documentation and archival completeness. The energy and focus they might have committed to taking care of airmen or building expertise in the mission is instead devoted to making sure they get through the next inspection unscathed. Basically, headquarters staffs have commanders on a short leash, and the result is an Air Force molded in the staff image.

This is not to say that the service is totally or intractably rule-driven. There are pockets of resistance in tactical aviation, joint fires, and special operations … where commanders understand no-fail missions depend on improvisation and ingenuity, and therefore can’t afford undue bureaucratization. But because of the service’s diversity of capabilities and functions, there is a persistent diversity of organizational culture. It bubbles out of the service as an overflow of confusion, sometimes inviting airmen to feel they are part of an institutional identity crisis. They find themselves quarreling with one another over rules that have no purpose … rather than working together toward a common purpose.

This schizophrenia is manifested in the difficult charge of Gen. Mark Welsh, the current Chief of Staff. On the one hand, he understands and pushes the importance of innovation. He tells airmen to break free from inanity and to take it upon themselves to stop doing non-value-added things. On the other hand, he has acquiesced to and even encouraged the accelerating publication of thoughtless rulebooks explaining to airmen with unwelcome specificity, precision, and completeness how they should behave — and indeed how they should think — at all times. He seems to genuinely want airmen to grow and stiffen their intellectual spines, yet he has failed to hold accountable senior leaders who have ruled through the sort of intimidation and coercion tactics that extinguish creativity by effectively banning challenges to conventional wisdom.

This bundle of tendencies, and the muddled intellectual foundation upon which they rest, is how we end up with results like the one shared below. The formatting makes it a little hard to follow, but try to enjoy it … because it would be hilarious if it weren’t so frustrating.

From: XXXXXXXXX
Sent: Thursday, February 04, 2016 10:03 AM
To: XXXXXXXXXXX
Subject: FW: FOUO\\ FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
 
ALCON,
 
I thought you all might appreciate a peculiar “failure” of our post-modern society.  The USAF will not issue orders for me to return to my family until my family is medically cleared through the EFMP process to live in a location where they have been living since April 2014.  Start at the bottom and scroll up for the blow-by-blow account. 
 
Very Respectfully,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXX, Major, USAF
 
From: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Sent: Wednesday, February 03, 2016 3:14 PM
To: XXXXXXXXX
Cc: XXXXXXXX TSgt USAF; XXXXXX SSgt USAF; XXXXXXXX SSgt USAF XXX Det 1 XXX FSS/FSMPD; XXXXXXXXX MSgt USAF XXXXX XXX FSS DET 1/FSMPS; Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMP Chief; Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Subject: RE: FOUO\\ FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
 
Sir,
I’ve discussed this matter with my NCOIC and we must have the complete AF Form 1466. It would be a Category 1 discrepancy for us if you arrive at your next duty station with your AF Form 1466 not filled out correctly, as medical clearance is mandatory.
 
 
V/R
Career Development
Det 1, XXXX FSS/FSMPD
 
 
From: XXXXXXXXXXX
Sent: Wednesday, February 03, 2016 2:44 PM
To: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Cc: XXXXXXX TSgt USAF; XXXXXXX SSgt USAF; XXXXXXXX MSgt USAF XXX XXX FSS DET 1/FSMPS; Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMP Chief
Subject: RE: FOUO\\ FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
 
SSgt XXXXX,
 
EFMP Issue:  Thanks for the verification.  At your earliest convenience, please provide the ramifications of not putting my family on the orders.  Please keep in mind I am moving with a stack of books, a bookcase, a TV, and a truck from XXXXXX to our house in XX Florida.       
 
Security Manager Memorandum Issue:  Unfortunately, I live in XXXXXXX so this is the first time I’ve heard of CPO XXXX and I can’t “go to CPO XXXXXX” unless CPO XXXXX is running around XXXXXXX somewhere or your office funds a trip for me to visit CPO XXXXXX.  Please work with TSgt XXXXXX to forward the memorandum to CPO XXXX at your earliest convenience.
 
Thanks again for your time and consideration.
 
Very Respectfully,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, Major, USAF
 
From: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Sent: Wednesday, February 03, 2016 11:41 AM
To: XXXXXXXXXXX
Cc: XXXXXXXX TSgt USAF; XXXXXXXXX SSgt USAF; XXXXXXXXX MSgt USAF XXXXX XXX FSS DET 1/FSMPS; Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMP Chief; Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Subject: RE: FOUO\\ FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
 
Maj XXXXXX,
I just got off the phone with the EFMP office at XXXXXX and was told that for your dependent to be medically cleared page 4 and 5 of the 1466 needs to be completed. I spoke to two different members, Maj XXXXX  being one of them about this at phone number DSN: XXXXXXX.  Also, I talked to your CSS about your security manager memorandum and was told by TSgt XXXXX (cc’d) that you should have gone to CPO XXXXX to get this signed off. If there are any problems getting this signed TSgt XXXXX can help you with getting it signed.  Please let us know if you have further questions.
 
V/R
XXXXXXXXXXX, SSgt, USAF
Career Development
Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD
 
 
 
From: XXXXXXXX
Sent: Tuesday, February 02, 2016 9:46 AM
To: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Cc: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMP Chief
Subject: FOUO\\ FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
 
To Whom It May Concern,
 
Please find attached all of the documentation required for orders.  I am still seeking clarification to the EFMP issue described below.  Additionally, the XXXXX Security Manager will not sign the Security Memorandum until someone at Det 1, XXX FSS signs it first.  Thanks for your time and consideration.
 
Very Respectfully,
XXXXXXXXXXXXX, Major, USAF
 
From: XXXXXXXXXXXX
Sent: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 1:06 PM
To: ‘Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element’
Subject: RE: FOUO\\ FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
 
To Whom It May Concern,
 
According to the EFPM Office, only the first three pages are required.  Are your internal requirements for EFMP different than the EFMP’s office? 
 
From the XXXXXX EFMP Office:
 
Sir,
 
If no family members are traveling with you please complete the first three pages of the 1466. On page 2 section 2 you will list your family members, annotate the number and sign. Is your family receiving care at XXXXXXXX already? If so they do not need to be cleared for XXXXXXXXX.
 
V/r,
Maj XXXXX
 
My Response:
 
Maj XXXXX,
Here is the 1466 as requested.  If I’m missing something please let me know.  My wife changed our TRICARE coverage to the plan that allows them to see anyone in the TRICARE network with copays.  In summary, all of their medical needs have been met since they moved back to the XXXXXXXX area in April 2014.  Thanks for your time and consideration.
Once again, thanks for your time and consideration.
 
Very Respectfully,
XXXXXXXXXXXX, Major, USAF

—–Original Message—–
From: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Sent: Thursday, January 14, 2016 11:29 AM
To: XXXXXXXXXXXX
Cc: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Subject: FW: FOUO\\ FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
Importance: High
Maj XXX,
We are missing page 4 and 5 of the 1466. The most important part on page 5 the Air Force physician has to sign off on the document. Please forward the documents to our office.
V/R
Career Development
Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD

—–Original Message—–
From: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMP Chief
Sent: Thursday, January 14, 2016 9:17 AM
To: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMPD Career Development Element
Cc: XXXXXXXXXX
Subject: FOUO\\ FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
Career Development,
OTY…
If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact me.
V/r
XXXXXXXXXXX, MSgt, USAF
Career Development
Det 1 XXX FSS, XXXXXXXX

—–Original Message—–
From: XXXXXXXXXXXX
Sent: Wednesday, January 13, 2016 3:21 PM
To: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMP Chief
Subject: FW: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
To Whom It May Concern,
Maj XXXXX redirected me to your office.  Thanks for your time and consideration.
Very Respectfully,
XXXXXXXXXXX, Major, USAF
From: XXXXXXXX
Sent: Wednesday, January 13, 2016 9:58 AM
To: ‘XXXXXXX EFMPM’
Subject: RE: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS (FOUO//PII)
Maj XXXXX,
Here is the 1466 as requested.  If I’m missing something please let me know.  My wife changed our TRICARE coverage to the plan that allows them to see anyone in the TRICARE network with copays.  In summary, all of their medical needs have been met since they moved back to the XXXXXXX area in April 2014.  Thanks for your time and consideration.
Very Respectfully,
XXXXXXXXXXXX, Major, USAF

—–Original Message—–
From: XXXXX EFMPM
Sent: Tuesday, January 12, 2016 4:23 PM
To: XXXXXXXX
Subject: RE: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS
Sir,
If no family members are traveling with you please complete the first three pages of the 1466. On page 2 section 2 you will list your family members, annotate the number and sign. Is your family receiving care at XXXXXXX already? If so they do not need to be cleared for XXXXXXX.
V/r,
Maj XXXXX
—–Original Message—–
From: XXXXXXXXXX
Sent: Monday, January 04, 2016 10:25 AM
To: XXXXXX EFMPM
Cc: Det 1, XXX FSS/FSMP Chief
Subject: AF 1466 for Unaccompanied PCS back to CONUS
To Whom It May Concern,
Happy New Year!  I hope things are well in XXXXXX.  I am writing to request relief from the AF 1466 process for an upcoming PCS from XXXXXXX  to XXXXXXXX, FL.  I am currently serving an unaccompanied tour in XXXXXXX  as a result of the EFMP.  My dependents live in XXXXXXX, FL near XXXXXXXX AFB (where they have lived since Apr 2014).  In summary, I’m the only one moving for my upcoming PCS.  Thanks for your time and consideration.
Very Respectfully,
XXXXXXXXXXX, Major, USAF


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