Debriefs are emphasized across the naval service. In Navy warfare communities, there is a focus on taking a hard look at what happened and why. Air Wing Fallon exercise debriefs, Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) evaluations, and Naval Reactor inspections are all thorough and comprehensive. Aviation debriefs often last longer than the flights because they are that important. Professional warfighters learn by examining their own mistakes and those of others. Yet the results of selection boards are rarely properly debriefed and often leave service members scratching their heads.
Contrast the details in a tactical debrief after a two hour flight with those received by officers who fails to select on a statutory board after ten or more years of service. The information provided after the selection board usually consists of a commanding officer or detailer reading tea leaves and repeating rumors such as “This year was very competitive for aviators,” or “I don’t know why you didn’t make it—you have a good record.” Not only is it a disservice to the officer, but it also leaves other junior officers uncertain as they chart their own careers: “Does joint professional military eduction phase I (JPME I) or a master’s degree really sweeten the odds of promotions? Should I volunteer for an individual augmentee (IA) or back-to-back sea tours to show the board how much I love misery? Is that Olmsted scholarship or exchange tour really worth the risk?” In a tactical debrief, you get a face-to-face conversation grounded in facts.
Promotion board members are prohibited from discussing deliberations, but even if the board itself is a black box, the officer data cards (ODCs) and performance summary reports (PSRs) contain data ripe for analysis. Right now, board statistics look like this:
It is not much to go on. Officers are making career decisions in an information vacuum, substituting anecdotes and rumors for hard data. This lack of information breeds self-fulfilling career prophesies, like these truisms from the aviation community: fleet replacement squadron instructors are on the golden path: the training command is less desirable: and station search and rescue is career suicide. Those with good records and connections self-select into desirable billets; the remainder find themselves pushed into everything else. This is reinforced when fewer officers in less desirable billets promote. Without the postmortem analysis, it is impossible to understand the causality.
Publishing more extensive data from promotion boards would allow officers to make better decisions about future tours. Imagine being able to look up the conditional probability of promoting and achieving career milestones based on the record, potential tours, or qualifications, and being able to counsel subordinates on their career decisions based on sound data. Board transparency would allow analysis such as "Of the 147 fleet lieutenants—between year groups 1990 and 2002—with similar records who went to [postgraduate school, federal executive fellowship, test pilot school, exchange tour], 129 made lieutenant commander, 96 made department head, 74 made commander, and 44 screened for command.” All the data required already exists in office data cards (ODCs) and performance summary records (PSRs). We have the technology to conduct this basic statistical analysis.
Transparency in promotions is not only good for officers making career choices; it also is good for the Navy’s talent management. Imagine a junior officer with a mediocre record who wants a funded, full-time graduate degree. A look at how officers with similar records fared in later promotion boards would reveal the conditional probability of the service receiving a return on its investment. How much return does the Navy receive from paying two years of tuition and personnel costs for an officer who then goes on to an unrelated sea tour followed by a scant chance of promotion to lieutenant commander?
Finally, transparency improves trust. Was the board really impartial? Did it follow the board precept? Did it display biases for or against aspects of a record—like ethnicity or gender—that have nothing to do with “best and most fully qualified?” No one likes playing a rigged game—the perception that promotion boards select on anything but merit sours morale and encourages promising officers to vote with their feet. Commander Guy Snodgrass’s 2014 work, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study,” and the supporting survey show that junior and midgrade officers view senior leadership with a jaundiced eye. Publishing detailed board statistics serves as a tonic against cynicism; continuing the status quo lends the appearance of having something to hide.
Lieutenant Commander Fox is a foreign area officer attending the Chilean Naval War College.