Thursday, December 15, 2005

Pers-42, XO/CO Screening and Chicken Bones 

My buds Joel and Chap have been venting a bit on the business practices of the Submarine Officer detailers (Pers-42), especially as compared to their counterparts in the Surface and Aviation Officer branches (Pers-41 and 43, respectively). One commenter even manages to drag the Enlisted detailers (Pers-40) in to the mix. Well, having enjoyed a rather lengthy relationship with BUPERS as a Reservist ('98 - '04, including ~ 20 months mobilized), I thought I'd jump into the fray, if not necessarily to defend at least to possibly illuminate some less than appreciated factors.

First I'll address the area I'm probably more familiar with: XO/CO screening. Having worked on two such boards I can say with a great deal of honesty that I've never been so happy to have gone into the Reserves. These events were a unique educational experience, as I never dreamed how seemingly random and capricious these boards can be. There are three basic steps:
  1. board members (senior O-6 and up, most of them squadron Commodores) review the records of each person before the board
  2. the board members brief the records they reviewed to the entire board and everyone votes their "confidence" in the candidate (0%, 25%, 50%, 75% or 100%)
  3. the records being reviewed are ranked by average confidence and cuts are made: screened, not-screened and the "crunch"
This will happen in several sessions (or "tanks"), with the board always pulling a few off the top, cutting a few from the bottom and leaving some in the middle. After all records have been "tanked" the ones left in the crunch are reviewed a second time (by a different member) and the process repeats. Usually after the second review there are very few left in the crunch and these may be sent back for review a third time or just run through the tank again against each other. This is repeated until all XO/CO slots are filled.

What should be apparent if the criticality of both the records available (especially the FITREP (Fitness Report) as well as the individual reviewing and briefing the record. Far too many times the latter is the deciding factor, as I've seen a quiet, reserved member put forward outstanding records only to fall to a mediocre record that is briefed by a strong, dynamic member. Likewise, I've seen seemingly innocent errors or inconsistencies on reports be interpreted like tea leaves by board members.

One thing that was completely consistent between the two boards I worked was the confidentiality and silence required on the results, a feature both Joel and Chap bemoaned. Pers-42 holds tight to the screening results until all non-screened submariners have been personally notified by their Commodore. This is because unlike the Surface and Aviation communities, there is no life in the Submarine community past being non-screened. You may still be an 1120 (Submarine Officer designator), but you will not work in the community again. You will no longer be eligible for Submarine Pay or Nuclear Officer retention bonuses. The act of non-screening an 1120 basically amounts to career death and at least a $30,000 pay cut. In this light I think it is entirely understandable that Pers-42 does what it must to ensure individuals do not find out about this change in their career on the internet or via message. I'm not saying the notification process couldn't be speeded up (I've had nothing to do with the results or how they are communicated after the board completes), but I do thing the personal notification afforded non-screened members is important and should not be compromised just for the benefit of getting good news out faster.

As for the detailing piece, while I've worked with and around the Pers-42 detailers I've never actually done the job, so I hesitate to throw stones. What I do know is that, right or wrong, officer detailing can be the most mind-numbing juggling trick ever created. On the one hand you have a slate of billets opening in a certain window and on the other hand you have a group of potential candidates. Besides all the balancing of technical scores between CO/XO/Eng to which Joel alluded, you also have overall wardroom balancing. For example, if you have a boat with a new Nav it may be worthwhile to slide a former Nav XO in there. Add into this every CO and Commodore calling and making their own personal requests for whom they want for which job, not to mention the various Admirals with their golden boys. Compound that with ever-changing priorities and vital shore billets that must be filled, continually changing the manpower availability and you've got a bit of the idea. As for Skippy's comment about the enlisted job selection system (JASS), I'd love to see a similar visibility for the Officer billets, but the reality is that the higher you go the more that "the needs of the Navy" are invoked for where you need to go. The market forces will basically level the competencies of most ships' sailors and petty officers, but Pers-42 must retain the ability to place a particularly strong officer into a specifically weak Wardroom when it needs to do so. Again, I'm not offering a blanket defense of the system, as I do believe greater transparency and self selection can work and ease the detailer burden, but there is a valid reason for the control exerted.

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