Excerpt from NAVADMIN 265/18: “This NAVADMIN cancels reference (a) and reinstates the requirement to display the Official Photograph for all Officer Selection Boards. This policy change is the result of board feedback received since the removal of the photograph requirement that the photographs aid the board’s ability to assess the Title 10 requirements of an officers ability to perform the duties of the next higher grade.”
Before I go on, I’d like to ask everyone to watch this four minute clip from the movie, Moneyball, of baseball scouts assessing the talent of future prospects. I promise it will be worth your time.
Now, I’m not saying this is what happens during Officer Selection Boards, but I’ve never sat in on a board, so I can’t say it doesn’t happen. Judging from “board feedback” on officer photos, it seems entirely plausible this kind of conversation happens – senior officers trying to assess who passes the “eye candy test.” But lets take a step back, before I jump to conclusions, and examine the possible motivations for board members clamoring for photos to assess the potential of rising officers.
The Fat Test
Someone once told me “the Navy doesn’t want fat officers.” Fair enough. There is real military utility in physical fitness and officers should lead by example. If only we had some way of assessing physical fitness of our officers on a semi-annual basis… oh wait, we do! The Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA) Program! The PFA assesses both the physical readiness and body composition of our officers. Perfect! What’s that you say? The PFA doesn’t reliably assess whether officers are “in shape” and look good in uniform? Well, I question the impact how good an officer looks in uniform has on the Navy’s ability to accomplish its mission. Granted, public perception of an all-volunteer force can have a tangible impact in a democratically elected republic. As officers, we are all symbolic to an extent, but for the most part the American public doesn’t know the first thing about how to defeat a future enemy force in multi-domain warfare. I’m not saying we need pink-haired, nose-ringed cyber warriors in uniform (although I wouldn’t mind), but if a big fat Ensign would’ve had the intestinal fortitude to tell LTJG Sarah Coppock to call her Captain and potentially save the lives of seven sailors, would you select him for promotion? We give too much credence to perception in officer promotion at our own peril.
Oh well, I guess if perception really is the dominant factor, then we should overhaul the PFA Program to more accurately determine “in-shapeness?” Too hard, you say? So we should just have selection board members give an eyeball judgment before they promote officers? In that case, let’s just save some money and eliminate the PFA Program for officers. Hey, at least we’re not pretending like we actually care about physical fitness anymore!
The Diversity Test
An entirely different motivation for using officer photos at selection boards might be to ensure diversity among selectees. This would be fine with me – I embrace the military utility in officer diversity (if you disagree, please, oh please, let me know in the comments!). The problem with using photos to ensure diversity is that the Navy has not acknowledged this purpose. In fact, the Navy specifically stated the reason was to assess “an officer’s ability to perform the duties of the next higher grade.” If diversity is the motivation behind this phrase, then we have bigger problems.
In any case, to my knowledge, there is no documentation that states selection boards must select a certain amount of officers for promotion based on factors such as gender, race, etc. Quite the contrary, Title 10 U.S. Code states “Any metric established pursuant to this subsection may not be used in a manner that undermines the merit-based processes of the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard, including such processes for accession, retention, and promotion. Such metrics may not be combined with the identification of specific quotas based upon diversity characteristics.” I’m not weighing in on either side of this debate. I’m simply saying that requiring a photo for ambiguous reasons leaves people to wonder whether the Navy is trying to manage diversity “off the record.” Worse, it leaves open the terrible possibility that the Navy is trying to limit the promotion rate of certain races or genders. I don’t believe that’s the case, but an ambiguous photo requirement only emboldens people who are inclined to think this way.
The Eye Candy Test
Perhaps worst of all is the possibility that board members want to see officer photos so that they can judge subjectively whether the candidate has “the look” of a naval officer of the next highest grade. This would introduce a whole host of undocumented, unconscious, and unchecked biases into the equation. If individual board members are left to their own devices, it is quite possible candidates will be rejected or selected based on factors outside of the performance and career potential documented in their record; factors that are irrelevant to building a more effective maritime warfighting force. We are all subject to these biases, and selecting people based on photographs opens up commercial businesses to all kinds of legal jeopardy from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is why private industry almost never asks for photos from job applicants.
I can hear it now: “the military is different from private industry!!!” I get it. I agree in fact. The Navy should not be managed the same as a commercial business, but, in this specific case, there is no military utility in evaluating officers based on their photograph. At least no utility that cannot be achieved through a rigorous, comprehensive PFA and performance evaluation system.
Just like the scouts in Moneyball, if we’re using the eye candy test, we’re not even trying to solve the right problem. Our job is to win our nation’s wars at sea. We should be promoting officers based on factors that have military utility in accomplishing that mission. And. Nothing. Else.
Oh, I have a new email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Fire away and come visit me and my friends at www.saltyherald.com. BTW, the volume of feedback from the fleet is picking up! Apologies if it takes me a while to respond!