The U.S. Coast Guard has had recent success modernizing talent management in the ofﬁcer corps. Among the developments are: new ofﬁcer evaluation report (OER) forms that have reduced the length and number of OER comments required by one third; an April 2017 all-officers message (ALCGOFF 045/17) that mandates lieutenants must qualify as sector department heads before boards consider them for lieutenant commander; and “specialty considered selections,” which prioritize promoting ofﬁcers by career field. These improvements were long overdue, but do not go far enough.
The Coast Guard cannot afford the robust financial incentives offered by the Defense Department. As a result, the incentives for most Coast Guardsmen are promotions and specialized assignments. Timely, speciﬁc feedback is critical for ofﬁcers to compete for those assignments and promotions. Unfortunately, the new OER continues to lack clear, speciﬁc feedback—especially for counseled ofﬁcers. Evaluators run risks with their subordinates’ careers when they use the form to provide such feedback. The Coast Guard needs to fix these problems.
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.
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.
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.
For more great Proceedings Today content, click here.