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Why ‘Good Enough’ Isn’t Good Enough: Abandoning Time-Based Promotions

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“It is what it is” is one of the most harmful sayings in the British Army’s lexicon.  Accompanied with a shrug of the shoulders and a rueful look, it is taken to mean that whilst the status quo may be highly undesirable, the alternatives that exist are no better or, indeed, actively worse.  There are of course situations where its use can be justified.  Too often it is used to excuse a lack of imagination on the part of those who are in a position to genuinely improve things.  A senior officer for whom I once worked banned the use of that pernicious phrase in their presence, saying “It only is because you allow it to be”.

Career management

One of the areas where we most readily accept the status quo is in personnel and career management.  For the most part this appears to be justifiable – a career management decision never affects only one person.  Yet an ill-thought-out policy can have catastrophic implications for hundreds of personnel and by extension military capability.  If the system appears to be working OK, and those who preceded you thought it was the best we could manage, why tinker with it?

There comes a point where inaction becomes more damaging than action, and we defend the status quo because we don’t have the collective imagination to see how things could be better.  One area in which this is particularly apparent is in officer promotions and the system of time-based promotion quotas.  This system is applicable at multiple ranks, but its shortcomings are felt most acutely at major, being the rank at which officers have to spend the most time before their first look at subsequent promotion (at least seven years, and in practice much longer).  For all the good work that Programme CASTLE is doing, it does not appear that the current quota system is on their agenda for change. 

Many of us will have met people who represent the failures of time-based promotion quotas.  Perhaps you know Sam, the talented young major who has signed off because even though eligible for promotion she has no feasible shot at it for years, with the dissatisfaction and pay stagnation that comes with it.  Or maybe you remember Steve, the long-serving lieutenant colonel whose soldiers lacked both direction and motivation because he just wasn’t that good at his job.  Or the full colonel with whom you met up in Costa, who knew both Sam and Steve, acknowledged that neither situation was great, but that not much could be done about it, and said with a shrug “it is what it is”.

But the system only is because we allow it to be.  This article will explore what time-based promotion quotas are and why we have them, why we should get rid of them and, crucially, what we ought to consider in their stead.

What are time-based promotion quotas and why do we have them?

In order to promote people in the Army, you require a vacancy at the higher rank into which to promote them.  That vacancy might be created by the incumbent themselves being promoted, say a lieutenant colonel being promoted to full colonel, which leaves a lieutenant colonel’s PID to be filled.  This is termed throughflow.  Or the incumbent might leave the Army, either due to Premature Voluntary Retirement (PVR) or reaching the end of their commission and ‘timing-out’.  This is termed outflow.  If you have too much outflow at a certain rank, you end up being under staffed, whereas too little outflow leaves fewer opportunities for people to promote.

The primary means by which this is addressed when it comes to promotion to lieutenant colonel (aka the ‘Pink List’) is through time-based promotion quotas.  A regular commission allows an officer to serve for 34 years or until the age of 60.  The date an officer leaves the Army is their End of Engagement Date (EED) and the time they have left to serve is their “EED minus”; an officer with ten years left to serve would be described as being at EED-10.  Provided they meet other promotion criteria, such as having a Regular Commission, a major is typically eligible for promotion to lieutenant colonel from EED-19 at the earliest, to EED-3 at the latest. 

When it comes to the Pink List, Army Workforce Plans will conduct statistical analysis to determine the average time that newly-promoted lieutenant colonels should have left to serve in order to ensure a sustainable outflow.  This varies by capbadge and by year, with the current planning assumption being EED -13.5. So if majors with an EED- greater than that are promoted, then majors with less time to serve will also need to be promoted to ensure that it averages out.  If too many majors with an EED of -16 or -17 were promoted, for example, then they would hinder the promotion prospects of later cohorts as there would not be enough vacant lieutenant colonel PIDs caused by outflow to promote them.  Therefore, promotion quotas are applied on the basis of EED.  If a capbadge needed to promote nine majors with an average EED-13.5, they might promote two majors with EED-16 or 17, five majors with EED-10 to EED-15, and two majors with EED-3 to EED-9.

Why should we get rid of time-based promotion quotas?

Assuming you are still with me after that short numerical interlude, why does this matter?  It matters because in order to promote people with less time to serve, the score they require to be competitive on Pink List is less than those with more time to serve.  For example, note the below table, based on an Army Personnel Centre-provided example.  A major who scores 40 points at EED-17 does not promote, whereas a major who scores 29 points at EED-4 does promote. 

If I hadn’t taken the time to explain to you how the quota system works, this might appear rather absurd.  Even if you do understand the quota system then I hope that you have not been sufficiently inoculated by years of career briefs and therefore still recognise it as absurd! In this fictitious example, Mediocre Mike at EED-4 has thirteen years more experience than Thruster Tom at EED-17.  You would have hoped that the experience garnered over that time in different jobs and different locations would have given Mike a breadth of perspective that makes him a standout performer in his field, but evidently not so.  Instead of lamenting the fact that someone so senior can be comprehensively outperformed by Thruster Tom, we promote Mike.  Tom receives a consoling pat on the shoulder and we hope that she or he doesn’t lose faith in the system. W e are double-accounting for experience.  Time in rank should make you better, and even if it doesn’t, hang in there long enough and you may get promoted anyway!

This system, and the outcomes it produces, is wrong.  Apart from the offence it causes to our innate sense of fairness, it has several practical negative consequences.  First, and most seriously, it means that we put people in charge of our soldiers and our capabilities who are not good enough when compared to others who could do the job.  Taken to a logical conclusion, this could put lives at risk.  The traditional defence is that because a person has scored above the quality line (i.e. the minimum standard to promote, usually 25 points or five points per board member) they are ‘good enough’.  But this is nothing but a fig leaf to hide the fact that if there is someone of a higher calibre available, then the person we promote in their stead isn’t good enough.  That might sound brutal, but if we demand the highest standards of our soldiers and potentially ask them to make the ultimate sacrifice, then nothing but the highest calibre commanders and staff officers will do. 

Defending the Indefensible?

I have heard multiple officers in Army Personnel Centre Glasgow defend the quota system on the grounds that “the Army still needs mediocre people”.  Perhaps they meant to reassure me as to my career prospects and I have missed the point, but I think we can do better here.  Yes, there are some jobs that are punchier than others, and not everyone wants to work for a thruster.  But at the same time, if we want to be part of an Army with fewer procurement cock-ups, fewer unimaginative exercises and fewer terrible meetings then perhaps we need to be a bit choosier with the people we promote.

Second, in the context of a shrinking Army and a national economic crisis, we risk a significant brain drain that will damage military capability.  A major promoted first-look who has just been awarded their Regular Commission might be at EED-25.  Let’s say that they are above average compared to their peer group: not quite at the top, but solidly top third – the military equivalent of Tottenham Hotspur.  Although eligible to promote at around EED-18 or 19, under current promotion quotas their first realistic shot at promotion might not be until EED-14.  Faced with an 11 year wait for promotion, and with their ascent up the major’s pay scales vastly outstripped by inflation, even once pay awards are factored in, it would be entirely reasonable for them to jump ship to the private sector.  The counter-argument runs along the lines of “Fine – let them.  Serving the King is a vocation and requires a level of commitment beyond just chasing a pay cheque”.  But part of the reward in serving in the Armed Forces is the feeling that you are making an impact and a difference to people’s lives, as well as a sense of being valued for your outputs, and promotion is an integral part of that.  You might therefore forgive a talented major approaching their fourth or fifth SO2 assignment deciding that they might want to try their hand at something else.  In the 2022 Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey, 1 in 3 Army officers were dissatisfied with their opportunities for promotion, a record high since the survey started in 2007, and this is only likely to get worse as the Army gets smaller.

Is there a better system?

So, with all of this in mind, is it possible to have a system that promotes officers exclusively on merit but at the same time enables outflow at a rate that doesn’t gum up the system for subsequent cohorts?  I think it is and would propose the following solution. 

Upon selection for promotion to lieutenant colonel, we should make substantive promotion to that rank contingent on a change of terms and conditions of service.  Upon accepting promotion, you agree that you will either serve for ten more years or until the end of your Regular Commission, whichever is shorter.  If during that time you are selected for promotion to full colonel, your service can be extended.  With two years left to serve you have not promoted to full colonel, you could apply for an extension in service to the end of your original Regular Commission, on the basis of knowledge, skills and experience (KSE) that cannot be easily replicated, similar to VEng(Long) for soldiers.  

Should you reach the end of your ten years as a lieutenant colonel, and have not been selected for further service, that is the end of the road.  This would have pension implications for those who were promoted with more than ten years left on their Regular Commission and ‘timed out’ as lieutenant colonels, but these should not be insurmountable.  I suggest ten years for lieutenant colonels because that will cover at least three postings, and therefore give them ample opportunity to demonstrate why they should be offered promotion or extension.  Noting that I do not have the breadth of statistics available to me that Army Workforce Plans do, it should also replicate something close to an average EED-13.5 once extensions of service are factored in.

For the cream of the crop, this policy will have no effect – they will pick up their red tabs as full colonels well within those ten years and go on to even greater things.  It is the remainder that this will affect, and it will effectively ask people whether they want to trade off an element of job security in return for better career progression.  For those who value job security, they can still have a full career if they promote to lieutenant colonel with ten years or fewer left on their Regular Commission.  We just won’t be giving them an additional, unfair leg-up in order to achieve it.  Those who value career progression get an earlier realistic shot at promotion as they will be unaffected by quota constraints.  A capbadge that needs nine new lieutenant colonels could promote nine relatively junior majors, rather than need to average out EEDs.  Of course, they run the risk that their Army career will end in their forties rather than their fifties, provided they are not promoted or extended.  But of the majors I know not many of them see themselves serving to fifty-five anyway.  Indeed, we already have Senior Officer Compulsory Retirement for generals and now full colonels, this just builds on that principle of pulling through talent by doing it earlier.

Of course, this approach will have losers, and in a sense that is no bad thing.  The worst-off person will be the decidedly average major with a handful of years left banking on the nigh-on guaranteed promotion to lieutenant colonel on grounds of seniority.  But final rank matters far less on the current pension scheme, and if people really want the promotion, then perhaps the new policy will provide a helpful spur to their performance.  Indeed, if we decide this policy is unworkable because it will hurt people, then our priorities really are in the wrong order.  If we want to retain good people by giving them a fairer shot at promotion, and have our soldiers led by the best people available, then things need to change.  Promoting someone because they are merely “good enough” isn’t good enough.

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Owen C

Owen is an officer in the British Army.

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