Are the Coast Guard’s officer assignment and precedence-based officer promotion systems outdated? The Coast Guard, which employs some of the most talented people in government, shoulders a diverse portfolio of traditional missions and modern challenges. Despite the increasing complexity of the service and the maritime environment, there has been no recent serious review of the way leaders are assigned and promoted. Presently, promotions are limited by the criterion of time in service, which unintentionally fosters risk aversion and suppresses initiative. Compounding this problem, the assignment process often fails to place people in positions matching their skills and interests. Sometimes this is deliberate (to “broaden” experience), and sometimes it is expedient (to fill the billet).
I have seen several great leaders quit in frustration after 20 years of service because they saw subpar performers promoted, while they were compelled to wait in line rather than compete for a promotion on merit. A talented, innovative officer was passed over for promotion with his only apparent deficit being a career spent in nontraditional jobs. An officer with exceptional cyber skills was passed over because of one instance of poor judgment (resulting in no damage or injuries) as a deck watch officer on a mandatory afloat tour. A multilingual officer with two master’s degrees was passed over because of a poor performance evaluation from a supervisor with whom he had a personality conflict years earlier. Moreover, top talent is portable. Talented officers more readily leave the service when private-sector competition offers high salaries, geographic stability, and jobs that are immediately relevant to the 21st century.
Coast Guard officers exist in an “up or out” zero-defect environment. Minor errors in judgment and minor disciplinary issues can be fatal to a career. Supervisors frequently inflate marks to protect officers who have a past blemish that might prevent a promotion. In my experience, many officers unconsciously act on the principle that the key to moving up is to avoid risk. The result is a service where talented people work hard but frequently maintain a “middle of the road” course. Our assignment process focuses on filling billets rapidly rather than consistently ensuring good matches. While assignment officers work hard to align jobs with officer skills, in the end billets must be filled and mismatches are inevitable. An example is the aviator who wants to spend a career flying. This aviator will likely not promote beyond mid-grade for staying in the cockpit.
In a service anchored in tradition, it is difficult to accept wholesale change of processes we have used for decades. But I believe we can improve the way we assign and promote officers, thus creating a more satisfied team of leaders. At the same time we can make the Coast Guard more attractive to top talent.
In his book Bleeding Talent (Palgrave McMillan, 2012), Tim Kane proposes a system called the Total Volunteer Force (TVF), which advocates decentralizing the assignment and promotion systems, allowing promotions to occur on merit. TVF urges job selection based on matching skills with positions, enabling officers to stay at the same grade by choice. TVF deserves serious consideration.
Talented professionals in the private sector are heavily recruited, well compensated, and willing to change jobs frequently. The Coast Guard risks falling behind in this rapidly changing environment if it continues to handle officer promotions and assignments as it has for the past 50 years. Consideration should be given to eliminating or minimizing precedence as a factor in promotion. Small errors in judgment should be forgivable, particularly early in a career. Supervisors should rate officers accurately and be held accountable when they do not. Commanding officers, who are selected for having demonstrated competency and integrity, should have some latitude in determining whether an officer’s career track or past justifies an assignment. In other words, provide commanding officers with hiring authority.
These proposals are not perfect, nor are the current systems. One thing is certain: A discussion on the merits of modernization with regard to assignments and promotions is needed.