Thursday, December 18, 2008

Qualifications and credentials

By Donald Sensing

In the 1970s the US Army assessed the damage done to the officer corps by the Vietnam War. It wasn't pretty. Careerism had largely displaced professionalism. Col. Dandrige Malone, one of the principal assessors, wrote that the Army's historic code, "Duty, honor, country," had been pretty much replaced by "Me, my [rear] and my career."

The Army's centuries-old ethic, not to lie, cheat or steal, not to tolerate anyone who does, had come to be honored only in the breach. With a combat leader's success in the profession was being measured primarily by how many dead enemy he reported after a fight - the now-mocked "body count syndrome" - body count inflation became rampant. A platoon leader would report, probably honestly, say 12 enemy killed. The company commander would add another five, the battalion commander another four, and by the time the report reached division, a 15-minute firefight would wind up having killed almost three-dozen VC or NVA.

This trend of corruption didn't actually start during the Vietnam War, though. Its seeds were sown in the early 1960s with the Zero Defects Program. The ZDP, first explained by a man named Phil Crosby and first implemented in the Martin Company in Orlando, Fla., held that every task, no matter how small, must be done right, every time. The performance standard was very simple: no defects or mistakes.

For mechanized manufacturing, it has a certain reasonableness, but for human-heavy institutions with millions of subjective decisions being made daily, almost all on the basis of incomplete information, the result is nothing but disastrous. ZDP's result is not the elimination of mistakes; it is the elimination of reporting of mistakes. In other words, ZDP compels people to lie. Integrity takes a back seat to meeting the performance standard, at least officially. The officers who didn't figure this out pretty quickly were rewarded with undesirable effectiveness reports, shuffle-aside assignments and curtailed careers. After all, for a brigade commander to suffer the continued service of a captain who makes mistakes is itself a mistake by the brigade commander.

That was the professional environment the Army carried with it into Vietnam, where things only went downhill.

There were a lot of appurtenances that cascaded onto the Vietnam Army. Since everyone knew that battle records were inflated (the inflation being an elephant in the room, though), combat records came not to mean as much as they used to when it came to promotions. Even decorations were corrupted, with "packages" of medals being awarded based on rank and type of assignment, but having nearly little to do with an officer's actual performance. (Even as late as 1991, I heard a three-star general defend awarding packages of medals in Vietnam.)

So the watchword for Army officers became not excellence but "competitiveness." When the next promotion board sat and looked at your record, what would make you stand out, to be more competitive? A series of top-level Officer Efficiency Reports wouldn't matter, since OERs were so badly inflated that few officers had anything else.

The quest for competitiveness led to the blurring, and then disappearance, of the distinction between qualifications and credentials. By the beginning of the 1970s, it was well understood that to get promoted to lieutenant colonel you had to have earned your diploma from the US Army Command and General Staff School. That requirement continues to this day. And it is wholly valid because CGSC completion is a qualification, an education without which an officer simply cannot satisfactorily perform at that rank or above. Yet every year, so my adjutant-general friends would tell me, some major would blow off CGSC, thinking his/her standout assignments, such as aide-de-camp to a general officer, would boost him over. They never did.

But also by the 1970s, if not a few years prior, it was not enough for an officer to have earned a baccaluareate degree (to be promoted to major), or completed CGSC to be promoted to light colonel, or to have a series of outstanding OERs. Someone who did merely that was not "competitive." And so thousands of officers would labor in night classes at extension universities to be awarded a Master degree, subject of which mattered not. Pepperdine's Master of Public Administration program was very popular.

It was a credential, not a qualification. Except for a few techical disciplines, a master degree did nothing to make an officer more competent in the military arts and sciences. And yet, promotion board would pass over someone without this credential in favor of those who had it, all other things being mostly equal (as they usually were). The quest for a Master diploma became a way of gaming the system rather than gaining additional, actual qualifications. And the officers who didn't game the system were thought a little odd for bucking the herd mentality. Best to let them find other employment.

So homogenized did the officer corps become by the early 1980s that Chief of Staff Gen. Edward C. Meyer, who served the office then, admitted at the end of his tenure that one of his most important tasks had been protecting the few mavericks still in the Army, because they were the only real innovators.

There were other credentials, such as German paratroop wings, that might be weakly justified on the basis of NATO interoperability, but that were in practice just a shiny doodad of no qualifying significance.

It took a number of years, but the Army corrected this corrupting trend (never completely, though) and the need, hence quest, for credentials rather than qualifications fell rapidly.

All of which is my stem-winding way of getting around to Pres-elect Obama's latest cabinet appointments, announced this week.

Dr. Steven Chu, energy secretary designate, has qualifications out the wazoo. At first I considered his Nobel Prize a credential rather than a qualification. It verifies his qualifications, rather than, prima facie, adds to them. Had Dr. Chu remained in physics research this might have been true, but in politics, symbols are very important. Holders of Ph.D.s in physics are a dime a dozen in academia (well, maybe a quarter a dozen!) and a doctorate alone would not necessarily enhance Chu's "street cred" among the energy czars and sheiks of the world. Doctorates among first-rank politicos of the world in a relevant field are hardly rare.

But a Nobel prize? That gets more than a head nod. If nothing else, it shows that its recipient is not a mere timeserver within his discipline. I refer to the hard science fields, not the political prizes like the Peace prize, usually awarded to whomever most publicly opposes the United States. The Nobel brings that classic political virtue to Chu - gravitas. In spades.

But let's take Lisa Jackson as EPA director. Does she have the qualifications? She has experience in New Jersey where she drew flak from all sides, which IMO means she was doing a good job in what is, unavoidably, a politicized office. She holds a BS and a master in chemical engineering, so she can handle technical matters. No problem.

It's what she said in her acceptance talk that made me think of this post. She offered what is now the standard political tripe that being a mother will make her a more capable administrator because she understands the effects of the EPA work on the children of the country. That's not a quote, but it true to the thrust.

When did being a mother become a qualification? Heck, it's not even a credential. I have three children, and if someone asks me child-raising advice, I have some sort of qualification to answer. But fatherhood neither qualifies nor credentials me to address technical issues, nor even to do sound theology.

Speaking of no credentials, we have the curious case of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg being seriously discussed as a Senator appointee to take Hillary's place. This is a person who has nothing whatsoever to recommend her to serve in high public office. No service experience of any kind. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Her only credential, such as it is, is her maiden name. And exactly how that deserves even to be a credential escapes me.

Welcome to hope and change folks. Same old identity and entitlement politics, amplified.

2 comments:

Mike Lief said...

While your comments regarding the woebegone state of the Army in years past are well taken, I'm afraid we part ways when it comes to JFK's kid.

Is she grossly unqualified to be appointed to high office?

Unquestionably.

Is her joining the U.S. Senate an embarrassment?

Well, that depends. I suppose the answer demands a follow up: embarrassing as compared to whom? Certainly not the members of the Senate.

The English House of Lords has long been derided as a collection of long-winded, bilious blowhards, the children, grandchildren and fifth cousins, once removed, of noblemen who once did something to curry favor with a long-dead King.

The House of Lords looks like greatest assemblage of deep thinkers and philosophers the world has ever seen, when compared to the collection of feckless crapweasels who bloviate on the floor of our Senate.

Kennedy will certainly be no worse than any one of a number of current or former Senators who serve with little (read: no) distinction, adding nothing to the debate over our nation's future.

If anything, Kennedy being miracled into the Senate is good for the GOP -- if it wasn't the Stupid Party, incapable of ever capitalizing on an opportunity to do something smart -- an opportunity to point out how deeply offensive it is for the party ostensibly on the side of the working man to give a Senate seat to a child of wealth and privilege, based on nothing more than noble lineage.

The only move that is consistent with the so-called status of the Senate is a special election, allowing the people of New York to decide if they want JFK's little girl as their gal in D.C. But that's a little too ... Democratic for the Dems.

Ironic, ain't it?

Snowed In said...

I find it somewhat amusing that a lot of the people pushing Caroline Kennedy (I haven't heard the Schlossberg name mentioned in a while) were the same people saying that Sarah Palin was too inexperienced to be VP.