Monday, November 11, 2013

Headquarters Effect

Sorry no post in October...it was kinda a rough month.

Over the course of my time at Headquarters, I've received some very positive feedback on this blog. Many deep thanks to all the folks who take the time to read it, and especial thanks to the couple of people who have offered such kind words of support, either in emails or comments. And my sincerest apologies that I'm not better at responding more quickly and individually.

One reader said, "As a WG-10 from Maine who has spent more time visiting headquarters than I ever want to again, banging my head against the Head of the "Puzzle Palace," your writing reminds me that "The Agency" is heavily populated by incredibly intelligent, dedicated, well meaning and motivated people...Sometimes while trying to swim up river from the swamp I reside in, I forget that. Thank you for the needed reminder."

And another said, "I don't know what kind of problems you're working on at HQ. And I have no if I would agree with whatever you're fighting for...But from your blog posts, it seems like you really think things through and you actually give a shit. As a deck plate sailor, I don't always see that."

Couple these comments with some of the elitist whining that goes on in my office, and I have to wonder why Headquarters gets such a bad rep. I mean, even I have said that I want this to be my one and only Headquarters tour, and even though part of that is because the real fun is out in the field, part of it because Headquarters is frustrating. Decisions are tough to get, and even when they do get made, there can be so many compromises that the original intent of the initiative, whatever it was, is lost.

But why is this? Coasties, as a whole, are a dang good bunch of people -- hard working, smart, motivated, generous, and concerned about the outcome. Why then, when you put them in Headquarters, does it appear that we founder?

I asked this of one of my peeps from CG-12A. I love having this kind of talk with the -12A (pronounced, "twelve alfa") folks because they so totally get it. CG-12A is the Office of Workforce Forecasting and Analysis -- they're the ones who figure out accession numbers (how many people should go through boot camp, the Academy or OCS), provide end strength forecasts (how many people will there be in the CG in, say, 12 months), determine the advancement/promotion numbers (what the SWE cut-offs are for enlisted, or what the zones and opportunities of selection (OOS) are for officers), and generally make sure that policies under development don't irreparably harm workforce pyramids so that we continue to have a healthy "home-grown" workforce.

They are such a pleasure to work with, understanding the need to look big picture, thinking outside the box, and bringing recommendations or even solutions when they highlight problems or concerns with an initiative. What's not to love?! In some ways, it's part of their job to think big thoughts about the workforce, and they do it with flair and dedication.

So one quiet morning, I met for coffee with my trusted -12A agent (I'm not mentioning names only because I haven't asked permission). T12A2's (Trusted -12A Agent) initial response was that it's part of the bureaucracy (still can't spell that damn word). It's designed that way, similar to how the Constitution was written specifically to slow things down and generate debate within the three segments of government. And having read most of James Q Wilson's Bureaucracy, I can absolutely see the sense of that. The system needs a built in set of checks and balances to make sure that the whole system functions evenly. Without these checks and balances, for a very simplified example, we spend too much time and attention on operations, and maintenance would suffer, eventually negatively impacting operations. Systems of accountability also add to the bureaucracy. Assigning and tracking resources, documenting decisions and execution of decisions, and reporting out on all that, adds people and decision points and (sometimes deeply opaque) processes.

Somehow all this is supposed to make the system work better. I think to a large extent, the concept of bureaucracy does what it is supposed to do...in moderation. But I also think there has been an accretion of bureaucracy, and it's gotten to the point where we're sagging under our own weight. Processes have been added to processes, instead of going back to the original intent and figuring out how to make the whole thing work better. The problem with the wholesale overhaul is that the entire structure (I'm talking CG organizational structure here) would have to be overhauled all at once; doing it piecemeal is a recipe for failure due to the inter-relatedness/-connectedness of everything. And that kind of change is not easy. Or cheap. Or fast. Or simple.

T12A2 and I also talked about the external pressures to which Headquarters is exposed. I think we'd all like to think that our CG leadership knows absolutely what is best for our organization. But our system of government doesn't operate that way. We work for a Department who works for an Administration, but is funded and governed by a legislature. All of whom have, at times, opposing agendas. I'm treading on very treacherous ground here, suggesting that priorities among the different levels of the Administration are not completely aligned, because at the end of the day, we Coasties all serve at the pleasure of the President. However, there should be intense debates and discussions about how the Coast Guard fits into the national security portfolio -- I have to believe that these debates and discussions make us stronger because we subject our organization to serious introspection. Suffice it to say, sometimes we just have to salute our leaders, say, "aye, aye!" with conviction and step out on tasking whether we agree with it or not.

Maybe this next part is related to the internal bureaucracy bit I first mentioned, but I think there's also something to how strictly focused an office is on their own mission that contributes to the Headquarters Effect (T12A2 heard me out on this one, but I'm not sure I completely swayed him). There are some offices that have a requirement to look at the entire organization, like CG-82 or CG-12A, or CG-092 (External Affairs), or CG-095 (Strategic Planning). Other parts of the organization are very focused on whatever their office mission is, like CG-731 (Shore Forces) or CG-45 (Naval Engineering). This second type is the majority of Headquarters, I think in part because we have such a diverse mission set. We have to have specialized policy types to answer all the questions that are inevitably asked about the specifics of that particular mission set.

The difficulty with this organizational specialization is that the individuals involved can get such tunnel vision about their own issue, that they forget they are part of a larger organization with many such issues, and limited resources. I do see a lot of provincial-ism or overly narrow focus at the staff level, but that may be by design. Where we fail is when, at the staff level, we can't get offices to acknowledge that the Coast Guard will not wholesale fail if they don't get every concession they want for a project or initiative.

I think this is part of a larger issue, though. I think those office staff members are motivated by one primary thing that has underlying motivators/factors. They want to get done what their bosses want done (primary thing), so they meet or exceed expectations and get a good OER, civilian eval, or EER (underlying motivator); they assume their bosses are looking out for the overall good of the Coast Guard (underlying factor), because I think at heart, we all want what we do to help, not hurt the Coast Guard. This scenario (if correct) has the potential to allow inconsistencies and falsities to creep in in a couple of different places. The translation of what the staffs think their bosses want done is kind of like the old game "telephone." What gets said on one end can be unrecognizably mangled by the time it comes out the other end. Their boss's perception of what is good for the Coast Guard may be slightly off from senior leadership's, or more likely, still tightly focused on their world of work, ignoring the greater overall needs of the service. And maybe, in the rare case, the individual isn't motivated by their evaluation report because they simply don't care any more -- I think this is the exception rather than the rule.

I hope all this makes some sense. After reading through this, I sort of feel like I'm talking in code, and it makes sense to me because I understand what I'm trying to say, but it might be impenetrable to someone who hasn't ever experienced Headquarters. I would encourage any and all Coasties to accept a tour at Headquarters, if only to understand how it works.

I also encourage Every.Single.Coastie to read the message board. All of it. There is lots of information put out in ALCOASTS, and other message types that explains what is going on at Headquarters. Each of these messages goes through a pretty hardy review process, from various offices that have interests/stakes in the message. The words are important in many cases, specifically chosen to convey what leadership wants members to hear. I heard a statistic that only 10 percent of the Service is actually exposed to the information in these messages, and that *absolutely* is the fault of each and every one of us for not seeking out explanations that may be available. Ignorance is a piss-poor basis for bitching; a much stronger foundation for complaint is knowledge of the facts.

I'm curious about how the insights I've gained while at Headquarters will affect me once I get back to the fleet; will it make me more patient with the messaging and tasking and requirements? Or more frustrated that the pointy end of the spear is being intentionally dulled by shortsighted decisions from an air-conditioned office building? I hope it's the first, but I can't wait to find out. Max of eight months and counting!

Happy Veterans' Day, y'all!! Many thanks to all those who have served and who are still serving!

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