Every so often, bright young officers, often frustrated by the US military’s often soul-crushing bureaucracy, turn to the private sector for inspiration. Businesses seem fascinating to government employees–the private sector is in a constant state of competition, and presumably, only those companies which can adapt best to the market rise to the top. At times, military writers take business analogies to absurd lengths: Chet Richards, one of John Boyd’s acolytes, once advocated abolishing the Defense Department, and replacing it with private contractors. Because, you know, because the defense industry is just that efficient and that trustworthy.
Though there’s much the military can learn from private ventures, ultimately, government is fundamentally different from business. Incidentally, as Andrew Exum points out, the grass isn’t really that green on Wall Street, either. Believe it or not, the US military can handle innovation–often more adeptly than business.
The Wall Street Journal isn’t Small Wars Journal.
In 2007, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling castigated the Army’s promotion system in an essay published in Armed Forces Journal. The article seems to have not hurt Lt. Col. Yingling’s career; he was promoted to colonel, and taught at the prestigious Marshall School in Garmisch, Germany. And many of his ideas were incorporated into Army policy, such as “360-degree” evaluations.
He wouldn’t have lasted long if Steve Jobs were his boss, though.
The woes of Apple Store employees don’t sound too dissimilar from the complaints from lieutenants and captains. Apple stores rarely recognize top performers, with coveted jobs in Apple’s Cupertino headquarters exceedingly rare. And though the average Apple Store employee brings in nearly half a million dollars in revenue, average employees bring home a paltry $25,000 per year.
So why aren’t we seeing front-page laments in the Washington Post or the Atlantic, bemoaning poor “talent management” at Apple? Simple: because Apple, according to the New York Times, actively tries to keep its employees from talking to the media.
In Washington, however, it’s common practice to selectively leak grievances to the press, no matter how frivolous they might be. The military also condones–even encourages–service members to controversial articles in professional journals (doing so brought Major Dwight D. Eisenhower to the attention of General George C. Marshall).
Traditional civil-military relations are good for democracy, but bad for efficiency.
In many respects, the US military would like to be efficient. However, the military is clearly subordinate to the whims of the US government. The entire House of Representatives is up for re-election every two years, the Senate every two, and the Commander-in-Chief every four years. Since time immemorial, elected officials have held on to their jobs by calling in in special favors from prominent constituents, and pandering to special interests. The military often finds itself caught in the middle of pork-barrel politics.
Goldman-Sachs never had to put up with the F-35’s second engine.
The military doesn’t get to choose its missions.
Organizations–whether public or private–naturally create a mission set which reinforces a certain identity. However, private ventures are free to choose their own niche, while government agencies do the bidding of elected officials.
In other words, Chick-Fil-A can choose not to do burgers, but the US military can’t forego nation-building (even if it means picking up the burden for the rest of the US government).
An iconic scene early in the movie We Were Soldiers features Mel Gibson (portraying Lt. Col. Hal Moore) overlooking a training exercise. As a squad of troops debark their Huey helicopter, he points at the squad leader:
“You’re dead”, shouts Moore, “now he’s in charge. What do you do now?”
Successful military organizations have learned that a little redundancy is a good thing. Twelve-men Special Forces teams, for instance, generally cross-train each other on specialties. It makes good sense to have two medics instead of one–the team can split up into two groups without losing a critical member. And knowing Murphy’s law, you don’t want the first person shot in a firefight to be the team’s only medic.
In the private sector, though, redundancy isn’t viewed in such a pragmatic light–two people performing the same job translates into double the wages for the same amount of work.
Don’t believe me? Witness how private-sector employees horde knowledge. If knowledge is power, they share it like Sauron.
Job openings in Isengard
Oversight–You can behave unethically in the business world
For-profit universities target naive veterans, while credit card companies hound college students at the beginning of the fall semester. It’s sleazy, it’s unethical, but it’s business–when your sole measure of effectiveness are your stock quotes, it’s entirely justified. But though government is far from cherubic, it is subject to a more effective system of oversight and regulation.
Unlike government institutions, good business does not have to produce good customer service. (See: Bank of America, Vodafone, etc)
Centralized Promotion Boards Have Their Merit
Legions of writers have bemoaned the military’s centralized promotion boards. Though their complaints aren’t without merit, are we certain that a de-centralized promotion system would be better? Promotions could get ugly when soldiers know exactly who jilted them during the latest board.
(And, by the way, the Army’s current promotion system seems “blind to merit” not because it’s centralized, but because it promotes everyone.)
The Army’s tendency to move soldiers around every few years might actually make it more innovative. Try changing a workplace when employees have been in place for decades.