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​Civilian Talent Development Within DoD

Discover the challenges of civilian talent development within the DoD.

I recently wrote about how defense industry executives self-identify the source of their knowledge about federal sales—with 100 percent reporting on-the-job training as their primary source in my ongoing research. I think we need to find a way to address this, and hope my research results in some small piece of that puzzle in the coming months.

Civilian Talent Development in the Department of Defense


It turns out that the civilian workforce in the Department of Defense suffers from a similar challenge that is equally pervasive. The three major observations and findings of a report by the Defense Business Board (DBB) have far-reaching implications. The DBB specifically identifies:

1. Civilian development is not seen as a priority in the DoD culture.

2. The organizational structure is not postured to effectively manage talent.

3. Talent data is a strategic asset. The way the Department collects it and uses it is flawed.

It’s admirable that the challenge is being formally reviewed. Prominent industry leaders like former DoD Comptroller, Dov Zakheim; former NDIA Chair, Arnold Punaro; and AEI Senior Fellow, McKenzie Eaglen have all previously commented publicly about this challenge. Often, the conversation revolves around acquisition or readiness. This review by the DBB looks much more holistically at an ineffective culture. Deputy Secretary Hicks, in remarks made while receiving the report, acknowledged the necessity to incorporate recommendations and action steps. 

DBB Key recommendations


Key recommendations identified by the DBB include:

1. Transform civilian culture to prioritize talent management.

2. Prioritize and elevate talent management within the organization.

3. Modernize the Department’s workforce planning and data.

The recommendations are summarized, but also strike me as too executive in their delivery. They are wavetops. We have lived with a condition with the civilian workforce for far too long that most in industry acknowledge as part of the terrain. Something we all live with knowing that the elephant of DoD is just so darn big.

The subject of civilian talent development is regularly raised in Congress, but its focus is most typically on protection or strengthening of the industrial base and finding ways to support industry. 

For Consideration


Thinking back to a prime mover in the development of the uniformed Joint Force we appreciate today, it took a major effort by Congress in the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 to initiate the required development to bring that force about. From that legislation evolved a comprehensive effort to better educate the military force in joint warfare. Even with that legislative push, it took the individual services years to adapt to its intent. Only when promotion to flag and general officer rank was tied to compliance with joint education did the services fully fall into line. Waivers were granted for the joint education provision of the law for more than ten years before waivers were phased out completely. Change came slowly, but it did come.

​Placing additional emphasis on factors that encourage professional growth and include eligibility for promotion can strengthen the civilian workforce. Click To Tweet

The emphasis on acquisition professionalism in the uniformed acquisition corps is also noteworthy. It was also slow to fully implement. Again, eliminating waivers to support promotion helped bring the services into line.

A similar emphasis on promotions may be required to implement the DBB findings. Many in industry would have no trouble identifying candidates who could be culled from the DoD workforce without a loss of continuity. Government work is safe, and being removed from a government position is quite rare. Placing additional emphasis on factors that encourage professional growth and include eligibility for promotion can strengthen the civilian workforce as it has strengthened the uniformed Joint Force.

The Make Your Move podcast is a multi-season series devoted to the lessons learned of military members in their post-active duty lives. I hope you enjoy the stories of the men and women brave enough to share their transition stories so publicly. Listen to the latest episode here.

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