With Confusing and Alienating Email, Air Force Improves Officer Education Process


On October 24th, just three days before release of the results of competition for its scarce and prestigious seats at Intermediate and Senior Development Education (IDE/SDE) schools, the Air Force announced via email a policy change fundamentally altering how officers navigate the decision about whether to accept designation.

Here’s a screenshot of the email. Take a moment to digest. Analysis after.

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At first glance, this looks like an answer to an unposed question. It’s not immediately clear what problem this is designed to solve. Upon reading it for the first time, I remarked to a friend of mine that it was like petting a dog that didn’t bark.

But upon closer scrutiny, this change reveals itself as a subtle adjustment with potentially significant impact on the health of the officer corps. In fact, it’s a welcome dose of common sense, even if it does come sheathed the language of flesh peddling.

Here’s the bottom line: under the old IDE/SDE system, once an officer made the decision to apply for designation, s/he was then locked into the normal assignment process. Once designated — several months after applying — an assignment, complete with a multi-year service commitment, would be formally offered. At that point, the officer had two options: accept the assignment and the lengthy commitment, or separate from the service (unless retirement eligible). 

The new system adds a third option: once designated, but before the actual assignment is known, officers who elected to compete but have changed their minds about accepting a long-term commitment can take an “off-ramp” without leaving the Air Force. The off-ramp leaves them with diminished career potential, but doesn’t totally slam the door on vertical mobility in the future.

The problem this solves, then, is that it retains more high-performing officers by not pushing them into an all-or-nothing decision. It also gives the Air Force added flexibility in maximizing utilization of its scarce DE opportunities. Under the legacy system, many officers predisposed to leave the service would nonetheless compete for designation … just to see how it panned out. Many would then bail out if they didn’t get one of their top school choices, either on the prestige or geography registers. The new system seeks to slim down that segment by publishing designation before assignment. This gives officers a bit more information with which to assess timing and career prospects, hopefully flushing out more decisions earlier and reducing the number of short-notice backfills necessary to fill every seat.

It certainly makes sense. The less you push people into total stakes decisions, the more likely they are to continue swimming along, all the while contributing to the service’s mission while they delay long-term decisions.

Of course, the policy isn’t perfect, and there are three main problems plaguing implementation that could endanger its goals.

The first is the failure of the policy to state those goals. No change to how we manage people should seem mystifying or weird at first glance. This is a case of the Air Force not wanting to excessively empower its officers by signaling them that they have more bargaining power in this process than in years past. But it’s a backward and dumb way to do business with intelligent people, and it exposes the continual inability of the service’s centralized personnel bureaucracy to find the healthy and productive overlap between service interests and individual aspirations.

Second, the timing is reproachable. Giving people three days to digest something this significant before they’re presented with a decision to make is not just bad form. It’s unfair and borderline abusive. Especially when no one knows what it means because the objectives are buried under a few shovels full of bureaucratic gibberish.

But the highest disdain is reserved for misappropriation of the core value “service before self.” There is something deeply objectionable about questioning the commitment of people who have served over a decade during a time of war, completing at least one service commitment already while performing well enough to earn a coveted DE designation. If we believe hard work begets success, these are among the hardest working people in our ranks. Their commitment to service is unquestionable and should never be questioned.

When an officer making an authorized decision within the bounds of his or her available options is construed as “placing self before service,” the message is that anything short of unthinking fealty is somehow disloyal.  We’re too smart to take such an approach, or at least we should be.

Officers who waited for information to be revealed before deciding under the old system were not being self-important. They were taking care of themselves and their families by exercising an option the service actually allowed. Portraying that decision as selfish is alienating. They were just being smart and thinking through their options critically. This is what we educate and train our officers to do, so we should herald rather than vilify it. If we want to shape the way they think about options, we do that through policy, as the Air Force has just done.

Chalk up another strong move for Gen. Dave Goldfein and his team. But this move also exposes the need for him to do two more things.

First, he needs to address the root cause that drove this policy change in the first place: the existence of too many undesirable DE assignments. Every one of these should be seen as a golden ticket, and if that’s not the case, the service needs to work on why and fix it.

Second, we’re long overdue for a conversation about what the core values are and what they aren’t. They are a common foundation for all airmen … a touchstone for the creation of a shared philosophy to guide individual and organizational thought and action. They are not a cudgel with which to beat people down or demonize their decisions. They are not a vise with which to squeeze and coerce people into acting in the service’s interest while everyone pretends it’s about doing the right thing. We have forgotten how to think about these values, and Goldfein needs to remind us.

In this curious case, the Air Force has managed to conceal a positive policy change behind a wall of negativity, which risks people reacting opposite the way intended out of mistrust or misunderstanding.

The next growth step for the service should be to stop creating needless angst and conflict and just talk straight. If the policies are right, the right people will make the right decisions most of the time.

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