The early reactions to the Air Force's new quota-driven enlisted performance system are in — and some airmen are skeptical.

Dozens of Air Force Times readers commented on the policy online and on the newspaper's Facebook page, and most said they don't think the new system will work.

What's more, many are convinced the new system will only reward favoritism.

"In a nutshell, you better be top 15% brown noses of your unit's [staff sergeants] or [technical sergeants] or you might as well forget about promotion," Air Force Times reader Mike Witham said on Facebook.

Others questioned the Air Force's plan to have squadron commanders decide who should get the top "promote now" recommendation, and who should get the next-highest "must promote."

"The squadron commander should in no way be in charge of selecting individuals for promotion," Air Force Times reader Kaleb Lance Shah said in a comment on the story. "Why? Simply because they don't work with you. They don't see how you deal with a troubling situation or how you lead others. And coming from personal experience they don't care. No matter what you implement favoritism will exist."

The Air Force is now in the final stages of a massive overhaul of how enlisted airmen are evaluated and promoted, and is putting into place a new system that aims to rely much more heavily on airmen's performance. The old system was hampered by the fact that there were no restrictions on how many airmen could receive the top performance ratings. Grade inflation worsened over the years, until some 90 percent of airmen received the so-called "firewall 5."

On June 19, the Air Force announced the quotas — or as the service calls them, "forced distribution" — limiting how many airmen can get the top two recommendations and the corresponding points on the enlisted performance report. And to educate airmen about how the quotas, new EPR forms, and other elements of the new system will work, top Air Force officials are now touring at least 91 installations around the world to conduct so-called "roadshow" briefings.

The Air Force is holding these in-person briefings to give airmen a chance to ask questions. After receiving some criticism from airmen and observers online for only having in-person briefings and not webcasting them or releasing slides, the Air Force posted a video briefing with the slides on its internal myPers site June 30. But airmen are still waiting to see copies of the updated EPR forms for noncommissioned and senior noncommissioned officers. SNCO forms are expected out in July, and NCO forms will come in October.

In a June 26 statement to Air Force Times, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said "the response we've been receiving so far has been positive."

"As anticipated, airmen have a lot of questions and the dialogue has been great," Cody said. "We understand airmen want to have a copy of the [new EPR] form, and as soon as we get it into the final Adobe format we'll release it to the field."

Tony Carr, a former officer who comments on Air Force issues on his John Q. Public blog, sounded cautiously optimistic. Carr said the system has a chance of success — as long as it is put into practice properly and truly focuses on airmens' performance. And that means leaders are going to have to step up, he said.

"I'm a fan of the new system in concept, but its workability rests on the assumption that leaders will effectively implement it and keep it firmly moored to duty performance," Carr wrote on his Facebook page June 20. "In an Air Force with a climate of strong and trusted leadership, airmen would see this change as a way to restore accuracy and meaningfulness to the rating system. But in an Air Force where leaders are assumed to be too uninvolved to accurately judge performance, many airmen worry that it'll just raise the stakes on skillful pragmatism, leading to even more perverse incentives, with the added problem of unhealthy competition."

Rob Frank, a retired chief master sergeant and CEO of the Air Force Sergeants Association, said that rolling out this new system at the same time Congress is considering changes to military pay and retirement benefits could stress airmen, but there's probably no better time to do it.

Frank said quotas on the top promotion recommendations is the right move. But he said the Air Force needs to remain willing to adjust the system if something has unintended consequences. And Frank said he's not concerned about the new system spawning favoritism.

"Commanders don't work in vacuums," Frank said. "You're going to have a chief, you're going to have a first sergeant, you're probably going to have an ops officer involved in this conversation. There will be a lot of discussion there."

The key to enacting a new system, Frank said, is to keep communicating with airmen and supervisors with a consistent message, so they know exactly what is expected of them and how the system works. Frank said top Air Force leaders have the right idea with their "roadshow" briefing tour. But after that's done, he said, the Air Force needs to continue talking.

"A big part [of airmen's concern] is the nuts and bolts of all this — how does this work out for somebody?" Frank said. "I think information is what people want. I don't hear an outcry of people saying, 'No, we shouldn't do this.' The Air Force is working hard to get this right, and we certainly see great potential in these changes."

More consistency

Frank sees the EPR close-out dates set by rank as a positive change. When the Air Force experimented with a noncentralized quota system in the early 1990s, it failed, he said, because everybody's performance reviews closed out at different times and quotas weren't applied consistently across organizations.

"It really did fall apart in a short period of time," Frank said. "There were some wings that were more diligent in applying a quota. But if your EPR closes out at different times ... in the past, there were some people who got the short end of the stick. This [the new system] changes the game in that respect, because all the EPRs close out at the same time. It's absolutely a positive change."

But retired Col. Terry Stevens, a personnel expert, said there's no way a quota system doesn't lead to backstabbing and favoritism.

"If you can one-up somebody and get a top rating and get promoted, are you going to do it?" Stevens said. "Of course you are. There's all kind of games that's going to be played with this. You're trading one problem [the so-called firewall 5 effect that meant nearly everybody got the top rating] for another one."

But Stevens said there may not be a way to create a perfect system that eliminates the firewall 5 effect and prevents favoritism.

"The problem is, no one has a real good answer to that, or it would have been in place," Stevens said.

In a June 12 interview, Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, the director of military force management policy, said he thinks the new system's feedback form, called the Airman Comprehensive Assessment, will help keep favoritism from trumping performance.

The feedback form will require an airman and his supervisor to have a detailed conversation each year about that airman's goals and expectations. Kelly said that way, when evaluation time comes, there shouldn't be any surprises on how well an airman is performing.

And since that feedback form is viewable all the way up the chain of command, Kelly said, that will help provide checks and balances against a commander unfairly favoring one airman over another who clearly performed better.

"It's viewable from the supervisor who conducts the feedback with the airman, the squadron commander, the group commander, the wing commander, up the chain," Kelly said. "So there should be a direct correlation between what is in that Airman Comprehensive Assessment and what their final rating is. So the ability for somebody to not perform well on a daily basis, but get a good rating just by mere fact of the 'good ol' boy network' or sitting close to the commander or something like that should be weeded out. We shouldn't have that."

In another interview June 12, Cody said the transparency provided by the feedback form should minimize favoritism — but probably won't eliminate it entirely.

"There's never going to be a scenario where somebody isn't going to be able to provide a valid example of that" type of favoritism, Cody said. "We try to build a system that does not allow for that or makes it very difficult to do that. But the idea that I would say that would never happen, I'd just be putting my head in the sand. But I do think we have a system that, if you look at it objectively, I'm not sure how much better it could be."

Kelly also said that the Air Force has put a lot of responsibility on commanders and senior NCO supervisors to have integrity, and that the service has to trust leaders to "do the right thing" and not play favorites.

Kelly anticipated the concern many airmen would feel, and said he would be "shocked" if airmen didn't express their qualms.

"Change is difficult," Kelly said. "We fully expect that anytime you go through change, there's going to be some anxiety and some concern and some worry. People will naturally have that. But I think, as we go through, over time people will get used to it. And I think the vast majority of our airmen will find this is exactly what they have been asking for — which is, I want my performance to count for what happens" in deciding who gets promoted.

Volunteerism's impact

Several Air Force Times readers said they doubted Kelly's statement that volunteering is "not going to be how we determine who gets promoted" under a new system.

"It won't? That'll be the day," retired Tech. Sgt. Mark Schmitt wrote on the Air Force Times Facebook page. "Here's how they'll circumvent the General's statement and still 'require' volunteering: Step 1: If you don't volunteer, you won't get any awards. Step 2: Without the awards, you won't get the top rating on the new EPR. Step 3: Volunteering is once again a de facto requirement."

Stevens also doubted volunteering wouldn't be a deciding factor, especially with commanders deciding which airmen get the top promotion recommendations.

"How do you get visibility?" Stevens said. "One of the ways is by volunteering to do the things that the bosses want done. Is it going to be mentioned in the [airman's] report? Maybe not. But is it going to have an impact? Of course it is."

Stephen Losey covers Air Force leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times.

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