Challenging Time in DOPMA: Flexible and Contemporary Military Officer Management

Challenging Time in DOPMA: Flexible and Contemporary Military Officer Management

by Peter Schirmer, Harry J. Thie, Margaret C. Harrell, Michael S. Tseng

Many of the laws and policies that govern officer career management (often referred to as DOPMA, after the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980) may not meet the requirements of the future operating environment. One criticism of DOPMA is that it does not allow for much variety in career paths because it is time-driven. The authors demonstrate how a… See more details below


Many of the laws and policies that govern officer career management (often referred to as DOPMA, after the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980) may not meet the requirements of the future operating environment. One criticism of DOPMA is that it does not allow for much variety in career paths because it is time-driven. The authors demonstrate how a competency-based system could provide more flexibility in preparing officers for the wide-ranging roles and missions of the 21st century military.

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Challenging Time in DOPMA

Flexible and Contemporary Military Officer Management
By Peter Schirmer Harry J. Thie Margaret C. Harrell Michael S. Tseng

Rand Corporation

Copyright © 2006 RAND Corporation
All right reserved.

Chapter One


The military services and the Department of Defense (DoD) devote considerable time, effort, and attention to the development and utilization of their people. The services typically focus on managing military and civilian personnel within the constraints of law and DoD policy. They might consider longer-term policies not limited by today's constraints, but changes to federal law and DoD policy regarding personnel management normally fall beyond the services' planning purview. In contrast, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) takes a broader perspective and has the responsibility to consider alternatives to current law and policy that affect all of the services.

Why might alternatives to current law and policy regarding military personnel management be needed? The growing operational demands placed upon the military have significant implications for military personnel. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) calls for DoD to "foster innovation by encouraging career patterns that develop the unique skills needed to meet new missions, such as irregular warfare." This mandate can be traced to the previous QDR, which cited the "growing range of capabilities" of potential adversaries and the "variety of potential scenarios" besides conventionalforce-on-force warfare in which the military will have to operate. The 2001 QDR averred that the military and civilian personnel systems "merit serious examination." In response, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness identified questions to be addressed regarding the management of military personnel, including the following:

How do we develop a system that facilitates cross-functional broadening for leadership development and succession planning needs? How should military officer force management change to better balance breadth of experience (generalization) with depth of experience (specialization)? Should we "slow down" assignments to ensure more time-on-station?

Current law, policy, and practice create a system designed around fixed, short tenures, promotion timing, and promotion opportunity. The system is relatively simple to manage and provides uniformity of outcomes and opportunities across services and skills. But the desired outcomes of a future officer management system differ from the outcomes the current system can deliver. Not everyone would agree with the list below, but it emerges from published comments and RAND's discussions with senior decisionmakers, service personnel managers, representatives of organizations that officers serve, and officers themselves. The future officer career-management system should enable the following outcomes:

Longer job tenure Longer careers More geographic stability for military members and their families Comparable promotion opportunity Joint and service development More individualized development

More choice for individuals

Greater emphasis on competencies

Greater emphasis on experience

Alternative career paths

Greater organizational stability

More flexibility in career management Greater ability to accommodate breaks in service

Greater ability to take advantage of skills learned in the private sector.

Since 2001, the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI) has studied changes to law and policy that would support the Secretary of Defense's interest in the first two outcomes listed above-longer job tenure and longer careers. NDRI began by studying how assignments and careers could be lengthened for general and flag officers (grades O-7 and above). We found that some, but not all, assignments and careers could be lengthened without significantly affecting promotion opportunity through the grade of O-9 (lieutenant general or vice admiral). We presented criteria for identifying assignments that are good candidates for being lengthened. Most of the recommendations could be implemented by changing DoD and service policy, with only minor implications for federal law. The second phase of the study, the findings of which are presented in this monograph, examines career management of active-duty officers in grades below O-7. This second phase addresses longer assignments and careers and other desired outcomes that are of concern to senior OSD leaders-geographical stability, promotion opportunity, officer development, emphasis on experience, and flexibility. However, it is beyond the scope of this research to forecast impacts on organizational outcomes or individual performance. We do not attempt to determine optimal assignment or career lengths, nor do we recommend specific assignments to be lengthened or types of officers-e.g., specialists, fast-trackers, due-course officers (those whose careers follow typical time lines)-who should have longer careers. We focus on changes to law and policy that would enable the desired outcomes of a future officer career-management system.

Although the constraints of the current system limit flexibility, the services are implementing policies that could result in longer assignments. Some assignments have already been extended to meet the requirements of the Global War on Terror. As a long-term policy apart from the imperatives of the present day, the Army plans to implement unit stabilization for personnel, which would result in longer operational assignments for its officers. The Navy recently introduced a SWO (surface warfare officer) Specialty Career Path that will enable mid-career officers to enter specialist tracks that offer greater career stability. Changes to law and policy that enable longer assignments and careers might therefore appeal not only to OSD but also to the services and to officers.

Allowing greater variation in the timing of due-course officer promotions could support the recent service initiatives and help generate the outcomes that senior OSD leaders desire. Like assignments, promotions constitute an important aspect of officer development and career management. We show in this monograph how variation in promotion timing logically fits with the goals of OSD. We will also discuss the changes in federal law and DoD policy necessary to allow more-variable promotion timing.

A Competency-Based Career-Management System

Longer assignments, longer careers, and more-variable promotion timing all contribute to a more flexible officer career-management system. In principle, flexibility seems desirable, but when faced with the challenges of implementation, one is likely to seek a more practical rationale for changing the existing system. The rationale is that enabling officers to serve longer in certain assignments, to have longer careers, and to have more-variable promotion timing would support development of a competency-based career management system. Such a system complements the new focus of defense planning and the services' emerging human capital strategies.

A human capital strategy links mission and goals that result from capability-based defense planning to personnel policies via competencies or KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities). For example, the Navy is in the process of conducting a job analysis that would define the KSAs associated with each officer billet. It has already done so for enlisted and civilian jobs. Through the billets, KSAs will be associated with naval and joint capabilities and will form the basis for shaping career paths and individual development plans. Similarly, the 2004 Air Force Personnel Strategic Plan recognizes the need for "linking force requirements to the personnel competencies necessary to satisfy them."

The services acknowledge and even embrace the idea that officers will develop different competencies through different experiences. The Navy expects its KSA studies to lay the foundation for multiple career paths; the Chief of Staff of the Army has instructed the Army's Human Resources Command to make the Army's officer personnel management system less prescriptive, with broad career paths that provide officers with a range of competencies.

If certain competencies require longer assignments or a greater number of assignments throughout a career, officers cannot easily develop those competencies without putting themselves at a disadvantage to their peers. Current laws and policies do not accommodate less prescriptive, longer, or more-varied careers, particularly within the same competitive category or career field. Although the services decide who gets which assignment and who gets promoted, the law mandates that everyone gets promoted at about the same time, and DoD determines what the "desirable" promotion timing should be. Those who do not get promoted in lockstep with their peers (even if they are promoted later) are de jure failures. Due to legal constraints and incentives (both positive and negative), careers end at about the same time, too. Such are the outcomes of today's time-based career management system. This monograph explores the outcomes of a competency-based career-management system.

Terms Used in This Monograph

We use terms that may cause some confusion if they are not clarified, because they mean different things to different people. The first such term is "competency." We use that term to refer to the KSAs of individual officers. The acronym KSA itself is shorthand for a variety of characteristics that make a person qualified and competent to meet the requirements for a particular job. Some characteristics are enduring, while others change. Variations on KSA include KSAO (knowledge, skills, abilities, and other); KSAT (knowledge, skills, abilities, and tools); and SKE (skills, knowledge, and experience).

The word "competency" has a variety of meanings within DoD. As the Air Force and Army use the word, both individuals and organizations possess competencies. The 2004 Air Force Personnel Strategic Plan discusses the need to link "force requirements to the personnel competencies necessary to satisfy them [emphasis added]," but the Air Force has also identified three "core competencies" that apply to the service itself, not to individuals. The Army's 2004 Posture Statement states that the Army as an organization has two core competencies; the Army tends to associate competencies with people only in reference to leadership competencies. In the Navy's terminology, a competency is the demonstrable performance of a task that supports an organizational capability. An officer's KSATs enable him to perform a task. Similarly, the 2006 QDR calls for a human capital strategy that is "based on ... the competencies U.S. forces require and the performance standards to which they must be developed." Our use of the term is most similar to that used by the Navy and the 2006 QDR.

A second term to clarify is "assignment." In the military, an assignment could be to an educational or training billet; an assignment to a location or to a unit or organization could include multiple jobs, in the sense that an officer changes duties and billets. Our definition of an assignment is narrow: It is the time an officer spends in a single job with a single set of work-related responsibilities. Permanent changes of station (PCS) moves to fill a student billet at a school are not included in our use of the term "assignment." Although PCS moves to a school are assignments in military parlance, OSD's focus is on work-related, not school-related, assignments. OSD wants to increase the amount of time officers spend in a billet performing a particular set of work-related duties. When appropriate, we discuss time spent in school separately from discussion of time spent in assignments.

Organization of This Monograph

The next chapter describes current laws and related policies collectively referred to as "DOPMA" (after the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act), and it demonstrates how time-based rules govern officer career management. In Chapter Three, we explore the effects of extending assignments and careers in a time-based system. In Chapter Four, we make the case for a more flexible system based on competencies (as opposed to one based on time) for officer career management. Chapter Five addresses implementation of a competency-based system, with issues ranging from the level of federal law down to individual officer behavior. Chapter Six offers our observations and conclusions.

Chapter Two

DOPMA and the Time-Based Management System

In this chapter, we explain how current laws and policies (commonly, if somewhat inaccurately, referred to as DOPMA) create a time-based officer management system. We also show how that system limits the services' ability to establish less prescriptive, longer, or more-varied careers. In the following chapters, our baseline modeling cases examine outcomes of officer career management under the DOPMA system and modifications to the system. Our final recommendations offer alternatives to the DOPMA system that could help the military services establish a competency-based career management system.

Defining DOPMA

Some confusion exists over what DOPMA really is and what aspects of DOPMA are federal law and what are DoD policy. The eponymous Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, was passed in 1980 and is codified in Titles 10 and 37 of the U.S. Code. Although the basic framework remains in place today, many of its sections have been amended or repealed during the past 25 years. Moreover, earlier versions of DOPMA (it also passed in the House in 1976 and 1978) contained some precepts that were not in the 1980 law but ended up in the accompanying House report conveying congressional intent. Some of those precepts later became DoD policy rather than federal law.

The relevant sections of DOPMA that we examine can be found in U.S. Code, Title 10, Chapter 36, "Promotion, Separation, and Involuntary Retirement of Officers on the Active-Duty List." Those sections

authorize service secretaries to establish competitive categories

require that promotion zones be based on seniority

limit the percentage of officers within a competitive category who can be selected for promotion below the zone

allow officers only one opportunity per grade to be in a promotion zone

allow officers above the zone to remain eligible for promotion

define those not selected for promotion while in the zone or above the zone as having "failed of selection"

require O-3s and O-4s who twice fail selection in a single grade (once when in the zone and a second time when above the zone) to be separated or retired involuntarily unless - they are within two years of retirement eligibility or - they are selectively continued by a statutory board to remain on active duty

set career tenure limits between 20 and 30 years of service through the grade of O-6.

Related DoD policies are based on congressional intent conveyed in the House and Senate reports accompanying the DOPMA legislation. For example, the House report stated that "promotion of due course or typical officers within the following promotion windows is regarded as generally desirable": to O-4, 10 years active commissioned service (YCS) +/- 1 year; to O-5, 16 YCS +/- 1 year; to O-6, 22 YCS +/- 1 year. The same flow points are given in DoD instructions. DoD instructions also list a desirable minimum promotion opportunity of 95 percent to O-3, 80 percent to O-4, 70 percent to O-5, and 50 percent to O-6. Those guidelines date back to the Secretary of Defense's Report to Congress on Officer Grade Limitations in 1973 and were repeated in the 1980 House report.


Excerpted from Challenging Time in DOPMA by Peter Schirmer Harry J. Thie Margaret C. Harrell Michael S. Tseng Copyright © 2006 by RAND Corporation . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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