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New Coast Guard Officer Evals Don’t Go Far Enough

Lieutenant Commander Travis S. Collier, U.S. Coast Guard

The Scarlet Letter of Non-selection

In the Coast Guard, commanding officers (COs) personally notify those not selected for promotion before the board results are released. The proceedings of promotion boards are closed, however, so most officers never get a clear explanation for why they were passed over, enduring the stigma of non-selection without the benefit of a chance for improvement.

Sometimes officers get hints or generalities but never specific feedback to improve future chances. Even when officers do receive feedback, the rationales can be inconsistent. For example, geographic stability often is viewed negatively. In some cases, however, officers have spent more than a decade in one state and nevertheless were selected.

Some passed-over officers may know they suffered a career-killing event, but others may not be aware that a “soft kill” is following them. Official career counseling can provide an early warning, and should be consulted often. However, career counseling insights do not yield a proportionally increased chance of selection. In some cases, it may just have been a bad year for a particular specialty.

Without feedback, officers cannot plan how to improve. Without clarity, the Coast Guard limits incentives for those officers putting in the work to be competitive.

Uneven Evaluations

Lacking access to Coast Guard-wide data on officer performance, some evaluators inflate the value and skills of their subordinates, while others rate theirs lower across the board. Raters do not know if peer reporting officers are high or low raters; promotion boards may not either.

The new OER forms improve the process for evaluators, a revision cheered by the service because the old OER could take 40–60 hours for a supervisor to complete. But reporting officers (the second line signature) do not get feedback on how their evaluation standards rank with peers. Detailers and promotions boards can see community disparities; reporting officers should be able to do the same. Unfortunately, all reporting officers see are their own histories. As a result, the new forms do not reduce inflation.

Unwritten Rules

When evaluators can choose any of the 18 OER performance categories to expand, which are the most important? All 18 categories are supposed to have equal weight. But some are more equal than others.

Over time, officers learn certain categories mean more for future assignment and promotion. No one gets promoted because they max out “Health and Well-Being.” But officers who face boards for lieutenant commander or higher with a 5 (out of a maximum of 7) in the “Judgment” category will be on the bubble for non-selection.

The OER’s performance categories are supposed to mirror the 28 leadership competencies, but the leadership competency framework was released in 2006. Its vague expectations for junior, mid-grade, and senior officer levels do not conform to the current OER. Each community has its own expectations, but in front of Coast Guard promotion boards, aviators, afloat officers, marine inspectors, emergency managers, and logisticians are evaluated on the same scale. If individual community expectations do not match well with the unwritten rules, careers will be in danger.

Finding the Right Road

The one thing virtually every Coast Guard officer transitioning out of the service praises is the end of OERs—not the form itself, but the form’s shrouded expectations and feedback. Officers should know before a promotion board their “risk profile” for non-selection. Evaluators should receive clear examples illustrating what good OERs look like for every operational specialty. Unwritten rules should be made formal or abandoned.

That is an improvement the Coast Guard needs to take to compete in the talent market.

Lieutenant Commander Collier is a marine inspector and port state control officer assigned to the Port of New Orleans. He is a 2001 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and a 2010 graduate of Boise State University.

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