Want to manufacture a rat race? Set up a spreadsheet that assigns point values for every possible square checkable by someone who needs continual promotion in order to secure a paycheck in an up-or-out personnel system.
That’s what the leadership at Travis AFB’s 60th Operations Group did, according to information provided to JQP. The photo above is a snapshot from a package of meticulously organized Word and Excel files that reduce the careers of enlisted airmen to a collection of quantifiable outcomes. The system then calculates scores based on the weights and measures of various checklist accomplishments, and neatly orders commoditized airmen into an easily digested merit ranking that tells commanders exactly how to stratify each airman against peers.
Note that an airman’s last three Enlisted Performance Reports (EPRs) comprise a maximum of 87.5 points. By contrast, his or her most recent three PT test scores comprise a maximum of 175 points (exactly double). This is one of many absurdities in a process that underweights direct performance in favor of the “whole person concept,” a term many duty-oriented NCOs have come to hold in contempt.
Lest anyone believe Travis is especially deserving of such contempt, it should be noted that spreadsheets like this are in use at wings all over the Air Force, and are becoming more prevalent. For years, officers have been reduced to numbers on spreadsheets to give O-6s an idea how to stratify them against one another. This was always understood as a proxy for the fact that O-6s routinely sign performance reports on people they don’t directly supervise and seldom even encounter. It’s a proxy for accepting the assessments of lower level commanders and for the existence of an evaluation system that provides meaningful, performance-based information.
It’s well-known that Air Force human resource practices prefer metrics and other easily quantifiable data to raw information that can only be lent meaning by thinking critically about it. It’s a sickness that has long infected the service and grown worse as the computerized tools to enable it have embedded themselves into managerial practice.
Now it is spreading into what was the last bastion of common sense: the NCO corps. Changes to the Enlisted Evaluation System and Enlisted Promotion System are triggering new processes to tee NCOs up for Senior Rater endorsement and stratification. The move to a new board process for Master Sergeants is driving the whole person concept leftward on the career timelines of NCOs. Matrices like this are the result of a perceived need to capture broadening and “whole personship” to feed these new processes. It’s a problem senior enlisted leaders need to note and begin unraveling before it gets further beyond their grasp.
A few additional observations concerning the Travis matrix, which is typical of others shared with JQP:
- A special duty assignment at any point in a career is worth more than above average performance in current duties.
- Someone with a 5 EPR and no Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) degree will be outscored by someone with a 3 EPR and a CCAF degree.
- Any unit award at any level at any point in the previous decade sets a “3” performer at least equal and probably above a “5” performer, notwithstanding other factors.
- Scoring 100 on the PT test is worth twice as much as a top EPR.
- A “knock down” from a Flight Chief or Flight Commander can completely nullify the effect of a 5 EPR.
How airmen are ranked against one another should be a matter of duty performance. If the EPR system isn’t providing enough information for that process, it should be improved until it does. Workarounds like this suffer from a host of problems, but a couple in particular cannot be abided.
First, they water down the impact of duty performance on promotion. Spending time at the gym, organizing a bake sale, attending night classes, or chasing a resume-padding special duty assignment may enhance someone in certain ways, but it should not allow that individual to out-compete someone with superior duty performance. When it does, we promote the wrong people, who then set about championing and promoting others who succeed on similar terms. This quickly erodes the focus of an organization.
Second, a rubric like this creates incentives for all the wrong things. Why sweat it out for a “mere 5 EPR” when you can overcome everyone else’s 5 by padding your score in other ways? Worst case, rational actors will seize on this and make the system pay for its perversion by advancing too far and inflicting careerism on those who follow. Best case, the hardest workers will spend their precious downtime checking squares themselves to make sure their performance isn’t nullified by careerists. This leads to burnout. It also leads those performers to advise similar burnout when they mentor successive generations on how to win in the promotion system.
This is how careerism happens. The problem with a rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. If Chief Cody is serious about getting the focus of the NCO corps back on duty performance, he’ll have to work through his subordinate Chiefs to end practices like this and force leaders to get and stay involved enough to stratify people without reducing them to walking equations.