Maj. Gen. Brian Kelly, the recently promoted commander of the Air Force Personnel Center, doesn’t need to be told what many airmen think of his new command.
All it takes is a quick search of online sites like Reddit’s Air Force forum page to find examples of airmen dissatisfied with AFPC’s responsiveness — or lack thereof. But in a July 18 interview with Air Force Times, Kelly said fixing that problem is one of his top priorities.
“I’m not unaware that, in the past, there have been some frustrations from airmen in the field about how things go with [AFPC],” Kelly said. “The frustration that some of our airmen sometimes feel with dealing with us is a real thing, and we have to address that and we have to make sure we are being responsive.”
Also at the top of Kelly’s list is trying to make the assignment process more responsive to airmen’s needs, while still moving people where they’re needed to accomplish the Air Force’s mission.
Before taking command of AFPC on June 23 and receiving his second star, Kelly served as director of military force management policy at the Pentagon for three years, helping enact major personnel policy changes over that period. Among those were the Air Force’s massive 2014 drawdown, the subsequent effort to rebuild the force, and the rollout of the new performance evaluation system for enlisted airmen.
Making life better
Now, Kelly wants AFPC to take meaningful steps toward making life better for the 1.8 million total force airmen, family members, former airmen and retirees that it serves, and help the Air Force become a more lethal and ready warfighting force. That includes supporting Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein’s efforts to revitalize squadrons, develop leaders capable of working in a joint environment, and improve command and control, he said.
It’s especially important that AFPC be responsive, considering how swiftly the Air Force — and the wars it fights — have changed in recent years, Kelly said.
“As warfare evolves, as the country’s requirements evolve, as the Air Force evolves, Air Force human resource and talent management policy have to evolve, and [AFPC] has to be agile in order to evolve along with that,” Kelly said.
To do this, Kelly said he’s pushing AFPC to be transparent when communicating how it does things, and to be flexible in considering airmen’s unique circumstances.
“It’s not one size fits all for every airman in every situation,” Kelly said. “Working in conjunction with our partners at the Pentagon, who help us on policy, finding those flexible things to make sure we can meet mission and help out airmen and families (at the same time) is important as we go forward.”
The assignment process is one of the central functions that affect airmen’s lives. AFPC and the Pentagon are trying to find ways to improve it and make it more transparent. It’s a combination of art and science, Kelly said. The sheer volume of deciding how to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the total force, based on who is most eligible and what the Air Force needs, is a science. But taking into consideration matters like airmen’s individual desires and the needs of their families, along with the Air Force’s mission requirements and other matters, is an art, he said. The challenge lies in finding the balance.
“I’m not naive enough to say that everybody can be made exactly happy in every assignment,” Kelly said. The warfighting focus “comes first. There are valid requirements out there that have to be filled; some of those are in less-desirable locations than others. But I think there is a way to find a better balance ... and have more of an overlap between the individuals’ and the families’ desires and the locations while still meeting those warfighting requirements.”
This spring, Kelly said, the Air Force tested a pilot program for handling the reassignments of about 80 to 90 scientists and operations researchers (61X).The input of the officers, as well as commanders, was taken into consideration more than usual in an attempt to increase the satisfaction of the airmen and their families, with the hope of achieving better retention.
In the fall, the Air Force will conduct another test of this new reassignment process. Plans aren’t finalized yet, he said, but will likely encompass a few hundred pilots, possibly fighter pilots flying one or two specific aircraft. Improving the assignment process for pilots is especially important, he said, considering the manpower and retention problems the Air Force is struggling with in that field.
Kelly said the first test successfully considered the input of the airmen getting reassigned and the officers who were hiring them into their new jobs. The initial test, however, did not involve higher-level officers in the command chain, and they need to be brought into the loop. The process also wasn’t capable of handling some of the finer details of the reassignment process, such as how to handle dual-military couples requiring a join-spouse move, airmen who have a dependent with special medical needs, or airmen taking career-broadening assignments outside of their usual job, he said. The reassignment system needs to better take into account some of these unique circumstances.
Service officials hope the test this fall will better take those issues into account, he said.
Changing the culture
Kelly said he wants to change the culture to ensure AFPC is responsive to units throughout the Air Force and that members of the command understand their role in supporting them. And when units seeking AFPC’s help get bad news, he said, it’s going to come straight from him.
“Whenever a wing commander needs us to provide some capability, some resource, some answer to help with their warfighting mission, we are trying to get to ‘yes,’ ” Kelly said. “Trying to get to yes means maybe not doing something exactly the same way it’s been done in the past. Whenever we can’t get to yes ... the communication of a ‘no’ answer back to the field can only come from my level.”
But Kelly said he hopes AFPC will be able to find more solutions so those “no” answers are few and far between.
Airmen remember how they are treated by the Air Force and subordinate organizations like AFPC, he said, and that treatment tells them how much they’re valued by the service. All that plays a role in retention — which is especially important as the Air Force tries to rebuild its ranks after the 2014 drawdown, he said.
Other factors that affect retention, Kelly said, are how well the Air Force handles join-spouse assignments to keep couples who are both in the military together, how it handles assignment flexibilities, and how it handles exceptions to policy to accommodate airmen with family members who have serious medical needs.
AFPC’s information technology systems are out of date, which adds to airmen’s frustrations in the field, he acknowledged. They need to be modernized to keep up with the wide array of policy changes enacted in recent years, he said. Kelly also wants to increase automation at AFPC, so computers handle regular, everyday cases, which would free up employees to handle the more complicated, unique cases.
Kelly agreed that, in some cases, airmen have become frustrated by the Total Force Service Center, AFPC’s call center, when their calls are dropped or they can’t get through. He said that by and large, AFPC does a pretty good job responding to airmen, retirees and families, but he hopes that a combination of IT improvements and process improvements will help improve the center’s customer service. The Total Force Service Center recently installed a new system that will help answer calls more reliably, he said.
“Each individual person, we owe them the responsiveness and the answer and the transparency that they desire,” Kelly said. “Our goal is always 100 percent accuracy and 100 percent responsiveness to every customer, to every airman, to every family member, to every retiree who calls us. I’m not naive enough to say we won’t get one wrong ... but if we’ve slipped up, we’ll make it right by the airman going forward.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.