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March 2016
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The Public Manager

The Workforce of the Future

The Department of Defense is working to bring its talent development efforts into the 21st century. Undersecretary Brad Carson shares how the Force of the Future program is aiming to create a better, more effective workplace.

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Nearly a year ago, Brad Carson was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Defense for personnel and readiness. Carson spoke to The Public Manager about the Force of the Future ­program—a detailed blueprint for how to rebuild the talent ­system at the DoD.

The Force of the Future program aims to bring DoD talent development and readiness into the 21st century. What are the top issues facing the department that the program is designed to address?

First, I think for both our civilian and military workforces, we really don't know our people as well as we have to. As a result, we don't necessarily match them up with the jobs they are best suited for, get them the training that they might need, ensure that they have a career progression that really works for them, and get the most out of them and for themselves. So, we have to know our people better.

On the military side, you have a very rigid promotion system that's been in place for almost 50 years. Add to that, all the Navy services going back almost a century—a system that has promotions based on time rather than on performance. This is in no way consistent with private-sector best practices. This rigid promotion system works against us.

The third issue is that there's really no permeability. In the military, you come in as a second lieutenant and rise as far as you can over the course of your career. The civilian side isn't very different. However, people enter the military and spend their whole career here. Very few people simply come in for two, three, or five years, and then leave for the private sector, just to come back to military service. Most of our hiring here is done laterally from other government agencies, or it's a first job and you spend your entire career here. Trying to find ways to make it more permeable with the private sector is an important priority for us.

The program proposes some fundamental changes. Why now? Is there a precipitating event influencing the plans for the Force of the Future?

Coming out of two wars over the last decade and a half has given us the chance to look strategically at where the Department of Defense is going in both the military and civilian personnel system. We're taking this opportunity to say, "What's the private sector doing? What practices in the business sector have relevance to us?"

There's been a revolution in human resources in the private sector—in how they think about talent and the flexibility they've introduced into their systems. How they identify talent. How they groom talent over time to take on leadership positions. How they train managers. I think some of their practices offer us, if not specific recommendations, at least a North Star to guide our personnel system.

The DoD secretary has signed off on the blueprint for the Force of the Future, but what about implementation? This is a big beast. What's the strategy, especially given the time?

The implementation strategy will hopefully be from the bottom up. The secretary of defense has laid out his vision, sometimes quite specifically. He says, "We want to move to this place. How you get to that place may be different across the services, across the military departments, and across OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the military departments."

We'll encourage people to take what we have announced and do new things with it—encourage their own thinking to develop new programs that are consistent with our vision. In other words, we're trying to outline the Promised Land and say, "Let's all find different ways to get there, and when we're in the Promised Land, we might live in different areas, but it'll be a better place for us all."

You talk about a bottom-up implementation. What can midlevel managers (GS-11s and GS-12s, for example) who are laboring away in depots and labs do to further the cause?

We have to change the workplace culture across DoD to bring in flexibility, innovation, creativity, and more risk taking. Everyone can do that. We create the culture ourselves; it's a human artifact in any organization.

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What people need to do as managers, employees, and colleagues is help foster this new climate. The goal of Force of the Future is not about any one specific proposal, although there are nearly 80 specific reforms, it's about changing the way we think about how we approach the people who work for us. We must recognize that they are our most valued asset—that the long-standing edge of the American military is our people. We should invest in them as much as we do in the weapons platform. It's not our fancy equipment but the people and how their ideas are embodied in doctrines and concepts. That's what really matters.

In the end, we all need to change how we think a little bit. We need to move to a world where we recognize and appreciate unique talent and find the right spot for them to make an impact and stay.

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So, what's likely to change for civilian frontline managers? What's the Force of the Future going to do for them?

I think you're going to see more money invested in civilian training. Right now, the amount that the Department of Defense invests in training civilians is much less than you typically find in the private sector. For example, people are often promoted to manager because it's the next logical step in the grade. So, you're going to see more investment in developing managers.

You see this happen a lot with technicians, even though they may want to just stay focused on practicing their technical expertise. Also, you should see more flexibility, in which people can grow in their professions and make more money year-by-year—without having to assume managerial responsibilities they might not want. Basically, the idea is that if you want to be a technical expert, you can and still expect career progression. But if you want to manage and lead, in effect, that becomes your profession, and we will train you for that. We invest in you because we know good management is a learned skill.

Also, we hope there will be more fellowships in which leaders can spend time with a specific industry. For instance, if you're a GS-11, GS-12, GS-14, or GS-15 SES, you can go spend time with Amazon or UPS for a year or two and return to government service with higher levels of expertise.

Finally, you're going to see more seamless moves across the Department of Defense for civilians. Although the services have unique military cultures, the civilian workforce should be able to move more easily than they currently do between the Air Force, Army, Navy, and OSD. From OPM's perspective, we're five separate agencies, and moving from OSD to the Army is like moving from OSD to HUD or the Department of Labor. It doesn't make much sense, but it is just one of the artifacts of an old way of thinking that reforms will address.

It's essential that DoD invest in and commit to our civilian managers. On the uniform side, we think a lot about leadership and invest a lot in training. We need to do the same thing for our civilian workers who are equally important to the national security of this country.

Do you expect any major sources of opposition and resistance to the reforms laid out in the Force of the Future? Is there enough support to overcome the bureaucracy?

There are probably some people who are satisfied with the status quo. Some might even think the status quo is working for them because they can't envision a different world. But I have found across the department that midlevel civil servants and midlevel officers are very excited about these reforms. Senior leaders are hearing the pent-up demand for change in the way we do business. What's more, they recognize the war for talent and how hard it is to bring in good people.

I think the bureaucracy is easily tamed if you have the right buy-in from senior leaders. It's a hierarchical place, after all. When senior leaders say, "We want to do this," it usually ­happens—and in a good way. Granted, we're not going to be able to micromanage every reform across the Department of Defense. We can't tell the Navy how to organize its personnel system from alpha to omega. Instead, we want its practices to be consistent with our vision for talent management, even though they might be slightly different from the Army's, or the military might be different from the civilian workplace.

We have so many different agencies, and the departments themselves are very diverse. But talent management is what it's all about, and if we're all seized with that issue, only good things will happen. Indeed, in the end, it will work because we want something new to happen. It's a bit like throwing a thunderbolt into a teeming pool of amino acids; you never know what interesting life forms will emerge. That's the goal, right? Even better, we see that some departments are saying, "We're already doing this. We're moving on this or that." When I hear that I think, "Why didn't I think of that? What a great reform."

How will you measure success of the new program? What's the short-term scorecard? What do you think the Force of the Future will look like in five years?

The short-term goal is to get these reforms approved by the secretary of defense and then have the services begin implementing them in some way. In five years, I want to come back to the Department of Defense to see people talk about our personnel system in a different way; that it's not about administrative ­compliance—those eye-glazing, soul-annihilating check-the-box programs. I don't want to see an HR function that says no to everything; I want to see HR as a strategic enabler among the most important people at DoD, because talent makes us a thriving organization.

I want to see people thinking differently about talent. Ultimate success would be changing those unstated or invisible assumptions that guide people's actions. I think we can get there. I think we will get there.

About the Author

Michele Rhoades is the former of the Healthcare and Government communities at ATD, as well as the former publisher of The Public Manager.

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