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Opinion: Stability, not change, needed in personnel policy

May. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Stevens ()
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To steal a quote from “Star Wars:” There is a great disturbance in the Force.

The turmoil throughout the Air Force is mostly caused by uncertainty in the personnel world.

From the outside, it appears to be a mess, but no one should doubt that personnel managers are trying to get it right. Problems seem to emanate more from a lack of experience and knowledge of the personnel system than from any malfeasance. But that is little comfort to airmen being considered for reductions in force, Selective Early Retirement Boards, Temporary Early Retirement Authority and involuntary separation — when they are already traumatized by the frequent policy shifts.

Incessant talk of enlisted promotion changes, including selection boards for more enlisted members, changing the enlisted performance report system, restructuring the weighted airman promotion system and creating another performance feedback form, breeds high anxiety — especially in the midst of a drawdown.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody is the front man for changing enlisted promotion policies, and while that may well be with backing from the Air Force chief of staff, no one should question that personnel policy and programs are best handled by the deputy chief of staff for personnel, in his policy hat and the commander of the Air Force Personnel Center, in her operations and implementation hat.

Other concerns are laid out in a Government Accountability Office report on drone pilots: low morale, insufficient training, a negative perception about their jobs, stymied personal development, perceived lower promotion opportunities, lack of feedback. Missile crews have had many of the same problems and pressures as drone pilots. However, they did not get a GAO study before dozens were fired, reinforcing the perception of many crew members that they are unwanted stepchildren.

Yet another concern is stopping sexual harassment, assaults and rape. These acts are so reprehensible that Congress is pushing to take some courts-martial authority away from commanders and place it in the hands of lawyers. Congress is well intentioned, but sometimes commanders’ knowledge of their people is the difference between justice and injustice. Surely, commanders are now walking a finer line in these cases.

The Air Force Personnel Plan, in use for more than four decades, is filled with effective tools to help all Air Force people reach their potential. But now and then, other priorities cause officials to put those tools on a shelf until, for many, it is too late. Failure to provide effective mentoring, education, training, supervision, feedback and counsel has brought many unexpected, unwelcome consequences.

Changes are being made or proposed to personnel programs, such as promotions for enlisted members, assignments, separations and retirements. These effective programs have evolved over dozens of years. These programs, again, are based on the Personnel Plan, and while specific rules and processes change, the principles remain stable. When personnelists who aren’t familiar with “The Plan” and nonpersonnelists who respond to the pressures du jour start changing major programs, they seldom benefit the troops.

The Personnel Plan was designed to cover the lifecycle of every Air Force member and to have a positive impact on morale, welfare and stability. There is no apparent benefit to changing these critical programs at this point.

Col. Terry Stevens (ret.) worked at the Air Force Personnel Center for eight years, as chief, retirements and separations; chief, assignments policy; deputy chief, Special Assignments Division; and chief, Recognitions Branch.

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