In March 2022, the Minister for Defence announced that the ADF would grow by 18,500 personnel by 2040. To do so requires the ADF to double its current recruitment rates and maintain that rate for the next 20 years; an ambitious task given that the current targets have been missed for the previous ten years. This comes at a precarious time of increasing geopolitical tension and indications of large-scale conflict.
Complicating this expansion even further are increasing separations rates, where those needed to maintain Army’s most basic functions and knowledge-base are also those separating at the highest rates: junior non-commissioned officers and junior officers. How will the Army successfully grow when its experience and leadership are separating at an increasing rate? This essay explores the issue of retention, how it is currently being addressed, and highlights intrinsic issues that may be more responsible for separation than the allure of work external to the ADF.
With any discussion regarding retention, it is important to appreciate how immensely complicated the topic is. The infinite combinations of intrinsic and extrinsic factors unique to each individual make it very difficult to derive primary causes of separation. There is plenty of useful data on the Directorate of Workforce Management intranet page that provides trend analysis and general statistics of the workforce. Unfortunately, whilst this data provides an insight to the ‘what’ (the numbers), it doesn’t provide an insight to the ‘why’ (the reasons behind the numbers).
The analysis captures group trends across rank and corps; however, this is just the first step in isolating the problem. To provide a more holistic understanding, it would be useful to combine empirical statistics with subjective feedback (i.e., pulse surveys or transition interview summaries). In this way, the feedback (which is ultimately just an individual’s opinion) might be validated or negated by factual data. If an academic study was instigated to capture the trends in separation along with the reasons why personnel were discharging, then predominating causes would surface and could then be appropriately addressed.
Poor leadership is another important factor affecting retention, but given the personal nature of the topic, it is taboo to address within a hierarchy. A recent publication from the United States War College entitled ‘the Battalion Commander Effect’ (BCE) empirically demonstrates exactly how detrimental poor leadership is. The study captured the retention trends of lieutenants and correlated them to the battalion commanders they served under, using data from 1,745 battalion commanders and 36,032 lieutenants.
The models developed from this data demonstrate that each battalion commander had a statistically significant effect on the propensity for their lieutenants to remain in the Army beyond their initial minimum period of service, with the average retaining 59 percent (a BCE of 59). Moreover, when these models were modified to include the performance characteristics of the lieutenants, it was found that the effect was far more concerning; poor leadership from battalion commanders contributed to a significantly higher separation rate of the highest performing lieutenants, with the worst commanders retaining less than 10% of them.
Although this study focussed primarily on battalion commanders and lieutenants, it is reasonable to suggest that a similar correlation would exist between any rank within a chain of command, to varying levels of significance. Despite the widely known repercussions, very little is being done to identify or address poor leadership, and its effects are only magnified in an environment that is already suffering staff shortages. Nonetheless, within the Army’s analysis regarding retention, perhaps concepts like the BCE should be explored in an effort to put reason behind the data.
Oft quoted is that the ADF needs to be more competitive with the private sector in order to retain its talent, particularly regarding provisions for families, higher salaries and benefits, geographic stability, and flexible working arrangements. Several policies have been implemented in an effort to support this. The Total Workforce System was introduced to provide more options to render service to the ADF, shifting the predictable routine of service life away from its regimental origins and creating a more pliable workplace.
There is thus now a far greater ability to develop professionally and personally both within and external to the ADF. Whilst the objective success of this system is not known to the author, it is a step towards corporatising the ADF and levelling the playing field with competition from private industry. The Army Capability Retention Scheme (ACRS) offers a monetary incentive in exchange for an extended return of service obligation. This is attractive particularly for those who are enticed by the potential for higher salaries external to Defence (hence why it is targeted at critical trades); however, despite its effectiveness, it is costly and thus is unlikely to be a financially efficient means to affect the masses.
Competition with the private sector is not new. There has and always will be strong incentives created by government and corporate organisations alike to attract and retain a talented workforce. A lot of effort is placed in looking externally to find ways to be competitive; however, should an equal effort not be placed internally to capitalise on the positive things that make the ADF different? Given that work in the private industry is always a viable alternative, do increasing separation rates possibly suggest a decrease in the value people are finding in service life?
Ultimately, people choose to serve knowing that service life contains a completely different set of rules and opportunities, so perhaps it is disillusionment within the organisation itself as opposed to the allure of a life outside of the uniform that is causing talented soldiers and officers to leave.
One underappreciated issue affecting retention, is the insidious nature of bureaucratic inertia; the propensity for organisations to compound administrative processes despite the inefficiencies subsequently caused. This inertia is not something that exists only within the Army. Any organisation arranged into a hierarchy is at risk of its development, and it is no doubt just as prevalent in the civilian sector as it is within Defence.
Often times however, complaints of these inefficiencies are dismissed as a trivial matter, but the repercussions for which they are responsible are perhaps underestimated. The potential impacts of this can be drawn from an interesting anecdote from WWII. In 1944, the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS; the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency) developed a manual entitled ‘simple sabotage’ to be given to OSS operatives to train citizen-saboteurs in occupied countries, such as France and Norway.
The manual addresses “the innumerable simple acts a citizen saboteur can perform” that will cause a “constant and tangible drag on the war effort of the enemy”, particularly those which may “harass and demoralise enemy administrators”. Specifically, to target organisations, the field manual proposes several damaging practices; to “insist on doing everything through channels” and to never “permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions”, to “refer all matters to committees”, to “bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible”, to “haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes and resolutions” and to defer decisions on the basis that it “might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon”.
Managers and supervisors were recommended to “demand written orders”, to “insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products”, to “lower morale”, to create duplicate files, and to “multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instruction” particularly those regarding basic administrative matters such as employee pay. Whilst it might be a comical parallel to draw, considering that much of the above is routine practice within the Army, perhaps it should be viewed with a degree of caution. If the OSS’s recommended protocols for sabotaging organisations are commonplace within our own, why are they dismissed as trivial matters?
Unfortunately, this is far from hyperbole; examples of such practices are widespread, impacting general administration and our ability to quickly plan and deliver output. Take for instance a ‘one-page health support plan’ that is in fact four-pages long. This demonstrates the seemingly innocent workings of bureaucratic inertia. Considering that what was once just a ‘health support plan’ has been renamed to a ‘one-page health support plan’ suggests that at some time, the document had been shortened, presumably to simplify it.
The fact that it has subsequently grown to be four pages long is self-evidently administrative inflation. Another example is found within unit administration matrices (that most units have), which are documents that designate what level of authority can approve specific administrative practices within that unit. In almost all cases, the designated authority in a unit administration matrix is one or two levels higher than it is within the overarching ADF policy: the Pay and Conditions Manual (PACMAN).
Regardless of the intent behind its implementation (most likely to minimise the risk of error by junior administrators) this causes several problems. Firstly, raising the delegate authority causes administration to pass through more hands, which multiplies the workload across the unit and ultimately delays the decision. Secondly, removing the authority from junior commanders removes exactly that; their authority, or at the very least their sense of it.
How is it that a lieutenant, entrusted to command personnel in conflict, is unable to approve basic administration within barracks (especially when the overarching policy says they can), and how are they to feel reassured that their judgement is sound and their authority legitimate when they realistically have very few opportunities to exercise them? Further, does the cause for such a document (inexperience and risk of administrative error by juniors) not raise a concern as to why this is the case? Does this not present itself as a gap in corporate knowledge that might be better remediated through professional development?
If not, how else are soon-to-progress junior commanders to develop a working understanding of these matters? Whilst it might appear far-fetched, there are tangible repercussions to such seemingly trivial matters, especially when multiplied across every aspect of administration and management.
Of all the issues that face an organisation tasked with defending Australia and its national interests, it makes sense that the embuggerance of administration might be low in the priority of concerns. However, with issues like retention perhaps the Pareto principle should be considered. Do the sidelined frustrations caused by bureaucratic inertia have a disproportionate effect on job satisfaction and organisational efficiency? If so, how can they be addressed?
Whilst a unit cannot throw the rulebooks out the window and revolutionise the workplace in its entirety, they can exploit every possible means of creating efficiency. If efficiency is considered to be of utmost importance, as the vital grease to the organisational gears, then any process deemed inefficient should be thoroughly investigated (perhaps the ‘simple sabotage field manual’ might serve as a baseline for what is inefficient). A unit can set in place blanket authorisation for any administration that recurs on a periodic basis and, where appropriate, replace antiquated minutes and briefs with an email, discussion, or phone call. They can provide adequate training and authority to junior commanders to allow them to action administration, and hence reduce the overall administrative workload of the unit. They can strive to reduce the frequency, length, and audience of conferences or even skip them if there is no genuine need; such as with planning conferences, where it may be quicker to disseminate instructions for planning responsibilities to the group in person.
Most importantly, they should genuinely consider the time penalty that some new piece of administration or process will have on the unit and seek to minimise it as much as possible. Whilst these measures are vague, the overall theme is assumed to be understood by the reader.
Simple arithmetic can determine how much time is spent doing mundane processes that detract from commanders focussing on their primary roles and provide a steady flow of frustration in the process. Whilst it may seem like a trivial component of the overall problem it is nonetheless a component and if it were really that trivial then it should be relatively simple to change. If small changes have the ability to reduce the workload of staff by even as little as 25% (which is a modest amount), then they should be exploited at every opportunity. As a point for thought: would another corporation turning over $32 billion annually dismiss the prospect of shortening the work it requires of staff by 25%?
Retention is in no way a simple problem to address. It is an incredibly complex multivariate issue that fluctuates in a near unpredictable manner. Whilst we look externally to see what may be attracting members away from the organisation and seek to offer similar incentives to keep them in, we mustn’t forget to look internally to see what is detrimental to the value of service life. Ultimately, people seek meaningful work, and when they find themselves doing things that are difficult to perceive as meaningful, they become disillusioned and begin to look elsewhere. The effect of bureaucratic inertia may be just one element amongst the plethora of other issues that are contributing to the current retention rates, but is an issue nonetheless and should be treated as such. If the ADF is to successfully grow it needs to retain those already holding rank to avoid becoming hollow in the middle, and to achieve that, it cannot allow for the intrinsic value of service life to be questioned.