The management of the U.S. Air Force’s human resources looks to be headed in the right direction. However cliche it might have become, the Wild Blue buzz-word “innovation” seems to be producing some delicious fruits for the Air Force way of life.

Here’s one example: news regarding the Enlisted Assignments Process is hot off the press, and is summarized in this article by William Howard of the Stars and Stripes, who states that “Airmen will soon be able to apply for duty stations based on rank and occupation rather than relying on an assignment wish list.” In other words, when Senior Airman Smith is up for reassignment, she will apply for the job she wants at the location she wants, and within ten days she will know whether she got the gig.

The current process has seemed pretty archaic, dating back almost to the Air Force’s creation in 1947: every few years we would list the top-eight bases we would want to go to next, and about five months after that we would find out whether we get to go to one of those places (or not). This process was surrounded by cynicism, and rightfully so…candid gripes about “fairness” and “reasonableness” regarding the process were heard regularly throughout the Air Force. A change has been overdue.

It sounds like good change is here, but before we start to imagine that the future will be pure bliss, let’s keep one thing in mind: in a bureaucracy of this size, nothing can be pure bliss.

The good news is that the Air Force has already shown that this system can function theoretically via a proof of concept, as seven career fields tested out this new process beginning back in April of this year (more info here).

The bad news is that this is unchartered territory for a bureaucracy the size of the Air Force which, by nature, is challenged by its fair share of Red Tape (some of it self-imposed). The biggest threats to the new enlisted assignments process are as follows:

1) Merit Inflation: Without a doubt, there will be an aspect of merit involved in this innovative and individualized system. But when the Air Force measures merit, it tends to paint an inflated picture…just look at an OPR whereby a Second Lieutenant’s program was claimed to have “Saved 1.4K lives” or “Mng’d $8.4B in equip”…come on now. If this program is to consider merit as a basis for assignment, the merit scales should be free of bias and inflation.

2) The Fairness Principle: Here’s a true story: a Navy Admiral once asked to contact the USAFE/A1 regarding an Air Force personnel matter…As the story goes, the Navy Admiral had just met an acquaintance in an Air Force Lieutenant whose NCO really wanted a follow-on assignment in Germany. Nobody knows exactly how that story ended, but it should not surprise anyone that the attempt was made to “pull some strings” for a third-party acquaintance. While this may have been “reality” in the old system, it was also a primary cause for skepticism and cynicism. Because this new process provides increased individual care for each Airman, it must also therefore provide an increase in transparency.

3) Structural Support for the New Process: Of course, no blueprints are yet available for the implementation of this program, but it is safe to say that it will have to involve some kind of a database that gets updated (daily?) to list which jobs are available, and at which locations. Given the Air Force’s self-imposed goal to respond to applicants within a ten-day turnaround, that means that the new system and its technology have to be fail-proof from a structural standpoint without down-periods. When an Airman is up for reassignment, it would sure be frustrating to log in and find out that the “system is down from ______ to _______,” or that it is “having problems saving.” In other words, the people who created LeaveWeb should probably steer clear of this situation.

4) The Frankenstein Principle: In 2014 when the Air Force implemented the DoD’s Force Management (or Force Reduction) initiative, the personnel branch was proactive in creating spreadsheets to show those potentially being forced out of the military; and in providing briefings and workshops for those potentially affected. That was good.

However, with this initiative and proactivity came an increase in self-imposed Red Tape…while none of the following constitute nonsense in and of themselves, consider for a moment the amount of Working Groups, Task Forces, Weekly Reports, Newsletters, Task-Management-Tool requests from the Pentagon down to the squadrons, etc., that were deemed “necessary” to analyze the effect and efficiency of the initiative. Such over-analyzing is just self-imposed Red Tape which must be avoided.

The new Enlisted Assignments process is a GOOD IDEA that should not become an UNPLEASANT PRODUCT. In short, the Air Force needs to keep it simple: heed the warnings that stand as obvious challenges ahead. Airmen throughout the globe would hate to see this promising opportunity turn into a bureaucratic Frankenstein.

The thoughts and perspectives shared herein are those of a private citizen and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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