Does the Navy Trust its Senior Executives?
U.S. Navy (John F. Williams)
If you have spent most of your career in the Fleet or at lower echelon shore commands, you may not be aware that the federal government has a civilian counterpart to flag officers—the Senior Executive Service. SES members remain politically neutral from one presidential administration to the next, serving in key roles just below the top presidential appointees. They are qualified to hold leadership positions on U.S. armed services’ headquarters staffs, and frequently do so in the Army, Air Force, and Marines. The Navy, however, shows a clear bias for its own flag officers, with far fewer civilians being assigned leadership roles.
In the Department of Defense, career SES members are assigned within three tiers considered equivalent, by U.S. Order of Precedence, to one-, two-, and three-star admirals. The Army, Air Force, and Marines assign flag officers and SES members interchangeably on their headquarters staff. Because the Navy does not similarly assign SES members, sometimes civilians report to more “junior” officers.
Within the Navy Staff, for example, either a vice admiral or Tier 3 SES member could serve as a Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (DCNO). A look at the Chief of Naval Operations Fall 2016 Staff Organization Chart, however, reveals that all six DCNOs are vice admirals, while their own deputies are Tier 3 SES members and one rear admiral. At the division director level, there are 19 flag officers and only 9 SES members. Conditions are even more askew at Naval Warfare Centers, where Tier 3 SES members often report to one-star commanding officers. The lack of equivalency is evident.
One theory for this state of affairs is that the Navy prefers its active-duty flag officers to lead in multiple positions at each grade, while their SES deputies are charged with providing continuity across rotating admirals. Members of the SES, however, also need career-broadening experiences and leadership opportunities to be responsive to the needs and goals of the nation and to produce positive results for the American people. The Navy’s preference for flag officers is unfair to civilian naval employees.
It can be instructive to look at how the other armed services handle SES member assignments versus flag officer assignments. Among the leading armed service analytic organizations, the Air Force’s Studies, Analysis and Assessments is run by a Tier 3 SES; the Army’s Center for Army Analysis is run by a Tier 2 SES; and the Marine Corps’ Studies and Analysis is run by a Tier 2 SES. Meanwhile, the Navy’s Assessment Division is run by a one- or two-star admiral, who is not required to have an analysis subspecialty. The Air Force, Army, and Marines all require an analysis specialty for SES leaders serving in top positions of their analytic organizations.
In January 2017, the Navy released its “Navy Leader Development Framework,” which claims to “apply to all parts of the Navy Team.” However, nowhere in its 14 pages does it refer to the leadership development of civilians. In contrast, the Army’s FM 6-22 defines leader development as a process “that grows Soldiers and Army Civilians into competent and confident leaders capable of decisive action.” Had the Navy’s guide been titled “Navy Military Leader Development Framework,” one could at least anticipate a separate, but equal, civilian version to follow. It is clear, however, that civilian leadership growth and development are omitted from the Navy’s framework.
Leadership positions should be filled by the most qualified candidate, civilian or officer. If admirals and SES members were two different races, ethnicities, or genders, this situation would be seen as evidence of discrimination; since they are not, it reflects institutionalized unequal opportunity in the Navy. According to the Office of Personnel Management, members of the SES “possess well-honed executive skills and share a broad perspective on government and a public service commitment grounded in the Constitution.” And yet the Navy does not trust its highly qualified SES members to take on the most senior leadership roles.