The armed services still have a way to go to provide complete pictures of an officer’s background when they’re being considered for senior assignments, according to a report released in June.
The process for collecting adverse personnel information, like investigations or discipline that would affect whether an officer is considered for a promotion, still has some loopholes and ambiguity, the Rand Corp. study found, despite some improvements since the last process update in 2014.
One of the main issues, researchers found, is that commanders can respond in a range of ways to the same incident, and how they choose to counsel or discipline an officer will determine whether that action ends up in a promotion packet down the line.
For example, the Defense Department instruction that governs which information gets reported allows the services to omit anything that resulted in “non-punitive rehabilitative counseling,” which is generally just a discussion of the issue and how to correct it, without any formal action.
But there’s wide leeway for commanders to use it, for anything from tardiness to sexual harassment. So when the services compile a packet of reportable information to send to the Senate Armed Services Committee for approval, as they do for prospective O-4s and above, two officers might have committed the same misconduct in the past, but only one of them will have it in their records review.
“Different superior officers may choose different courses of action in response to the same behavior,” the report reads. “Thus, the language in the definition introduces opportunities for inconsistent reporting of adverse information across officers and across Services, because the policy permits behaviors to be reported as adverse for some officers but not for others on the basis of the type of action their superiors took.”
A similar issue arises with investigations, whether they resulted in any action or not.
“Also, there is variation in Service understandings of the phrase ‘investigation or inquiry,’ with some offices delineating an ‘intake’ or ‘pre-investigation’ phase, in which a complaint has been received but the office is verifying elements of the allegation (e.g., which individual is being accused) and deciding whether to open a formal investigation,” the report found.
There’s also a feeling, within the services and the Senate, that complaints tend to crop up around the time that officers are selected for high-profile positions, purposely seeking to torpedo promotions.
“We heard repeated concerns that complaints against officers are being ‘weaponized,’ or reported at strategic moments simply to derail officers’ careers,” the Rand report reads. “Further study would be needed to understand the nature, extent, or impact of such a phenomenon, if it does indeed exist.”
The Army, in recent years, has explored a new battalion command selection process, as a way to head off the investigations and reliefs it carries out each year for senior leaders who ― once an investigator is asking questions ― are found to have a history of questionable behavior.
“We spend more time on an enlisted Ranger than we do on a battalion commander,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said in 2019. A battalion commander, “I would argue, is the most important position for the enterprise.”
Rand’s first recommendation is for DoD to tighten up the language in its instruction, so the services are working with the same definitions and providing the same level of information about officers.
Next, the report recommends that DoD, through databases and assigning of specific personnel, upgrade its process so that the widest amount of information is available and reviews can be done as quickly as possible.
And finally, there are several recommendations that include creating training and a written guide on how to prepare promotion packets for the Senate.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.