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Media Roundtable with ASD (FMP) Abell

Presenters: Charles S. Abell, ASD FMP
September 05, 2001 2:00 PM EDT

Friday, August 31, 2001 - 2:00 p.m.

Taylor: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the latest in our series of roundtables with senior Department of Defense officials. Today our guest is assistant secretary of Defense for force management policy, Charles S. Abell. I know many of you know him. For many years he was a senior professional staff member in the Senate focusing on personnel issues. And before that, he served as both an enlisted man and an officer in our U.S. forces.

And without further ado, sir, Mr. Abell.

Abell: Thank you. I'm here for you. I don't have any statement, except I'm delighted to be in this job and a privilege to serve.

Q: Can you tell us what your responsibilities are in your job?

Abell: Yes. The responsibilities of the assistant secretary for force management policy are to oversee the personnel management for military personnel, civilian personnel, the quality of life efforts -- and it's a fairly broad definition of quality of life; and the equal opportunity aspects of the Department of Defense, and to the extent that those carry down into the service activities.

Q: What do you deal with with readiness issues, since that's in your job title? Is it, or isn't it?

Abell: No. (Laughter.)

Q: Oh, okay. I'm sorry.

Abell: It's force management policy. But almost everything we do that has to do with personnel policy has a readiness impact.

Q: Oh, okay.

Abell: For instance, recruiting, and retention, and development of the civilian workforce, and the quality of life aspects, of course, and they impact on both recruiting and retention.

Q: How is recruiting doing?

Abell: The latest reports that I saw earlier this week are that recruiting is doing very well. It's a function of a lot of people -- good people doing a lot of hard work and just extraordinary vigilance and effort on behalf of a great number of people. I think in the next couple of weeks the statistics will be available for release, and I think you'll find them extraordinary.

Q: How much do you think the downturn in the economy has to do with that?

Abell: I can't link it to anything other than hard work and good policies.

Q: On the civilian workforce, there's been a lot of talk about downsizing the civilian DOD workforce. What is your office doing currently on that?

Abell: Well, the department and, in fact, the entire federal government's been participating in a fairly significant downsizing now for a number of years. I think, on the civilian side, that there's probably still -- that that's not a complete action, so there will still be some downsizing, but not nearly to the magnitude that they've experienced or that we've experienced over the past five, six, seven years.

What we are going to do is to within the next several months or over the next several months create a -- develop a human resources strategy that will look at where should we be in the short, mid-, and long term, and then how do we get there. And that will help us be able to develop and recommend to OMB and OPM and the Congress flexibility. So we might think we need new authorities, perhaps give up some old authorities. But generally, how do we want to manage the workforce?

And we're also developing a strategy, a similar strategy, for military personnel and one for the quality of life effort as well.

Q: Can you -- does -- there's a push by some in Congress to revisit the question of gender-integrated basic training. Is that something that falls under your purview?

Abell: Yes.

Q: And is there any consideration of taking another look at how the services train in basic training? As I'm sure you're aware, the Marine Corps has one philosophy, and the other services don't. Have you looked at -- are you looking at that at all? Is that something you might be reviewing?

Abell: I don't have an active review of that ongoing right now. It's my view that the test here is the quality of the soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine that reports to the fleet and the force, and that this is really a -- ought to be based on readiness indicators. And so if the training regime that the service secretary and the service chief have in place is producing the type of soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine that their force or fleet needs, then it's my view that we don't need to tinker with the makeup of the training base.

Should we determine, as we monitor readiness, that the fleet or force is not as ready as we'd hoped, then we would have to go back and conduct such a review.

Q: And on the question of recruiting, can you give us any idea whether all the services are meeting their recruiting goals for this year as we approach the end of the fiscal year? Do you know that yet? Have you gotten a --

Abell: My recollection of the numbers -- and I don't have them in front of me -- is that all the services are doing very well in recruiting.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: A lot of people say that a lot of the money that's gone into retention issues, including force management issues, pay, health care, has come at the expense, over the past few years, of modernization and procurements. Do you feel that those two budget priorities are in competition, and where do you see that heading?

Abell: What I can speak of is what's happened since May the 8th of this year, from this perspective. But clearly every year those are -- the different budget categories are in a push and pull against each other. And one of the great challenges that this department has and the administration has and the Congress has is to find what they deem to be the appropriate balance between the modernization accounts and the personnel accounts and the readiness accounts.

I'm an optimist. I have a great deal of belief that the budgets that come out actually find the balance that's appropriate.

Q: A lot of people now say the balance should be that the real gap now is in procurement funds, and it should go that way. Would you agree with that?

Abell: Oh, I think there's an appropriate amount -- a considerable interest in procurement, and there ought to be. I'm not the one that makes the judgment as to what those balances are. My job is to make sure that the secretary is informed of what the needs and impacts are on the personnel side. The secretary and others make those trade-off decisions.

Yes, sir?

Q: A question in specific about the impact on readiness. The Air Force, for example, says that it still has a need for about 1,100 pilots. Can you address some of those specific shortfalls and how your office will try to turn that around or affect that, since that in one case, at least, is a significant readiness issue for the Air Force?

Abell: Well, pilot shortage is an ongoing problem. It's been a problem that we've -- that the department and the Congress have looked at for a number of years. I think we all understand that the airline industry can consume all the pilots that we could train, and probably more.

We look at this problem very carefully. We're engaging now in some continuing research into what does it take to scale our pilot force to meet the needs of the various services. It's my view that we'll probably continue to have a pilot shortage for a number of years, and then -- so what we have to do is also figure how do we manage the force, given those shortages.

Q: Secretary Abell, two issues. I wonder if you could clarify what this administration's position is on looking at retirement and possibly changing the system, and looking at the up-or-out system and changing that as well. What are your goals there, and are there studies in the offing?

Abell: Well, clearly, the secretary of defense on the up-or- out issue has expressed a number of times that he thinks that's a policy that ought to be re-looked, sort of a legacy of the mid-'80s, perhaps. And as part of our human resources strategy for military personnel, we will look at that. Now, as you imagine that you might change or consider that you might change an up-or-out policy and another initiative that the secretary has charged us to review are longer tours and longer careers as well, as you do all those things, then you certainly have to, as a component of that, look at the retirement system and see, if you make other changes, how does that affect the current retirement system, and then are there changes that should be recommended to the retirement system as well?

We aren't there. As I said, we have begun to develop the human resources strategy. These will all be considerations that will be studied and calculated. We will use -- we will use expert agencies outside the Department of Defense, and we're going to do all of this hand-in-hand with the services as well, because we are not about dictating, we're about working together so that we don't do something that creates a problem 10 years down the line to the extent that we're able to foresee that.

So, yeah, retirement -- retirement will be one of the factors we consider as we look at all those other factors.

Q: Just a follow-up. As soon as you mention retirement, people get pretty excited about whether their benefits are going to be affected. What do you say to the typical, say, career military person today about any kind of review on military retirement? Is it already the policy of this administration that they won't be touching their benefits, but it will affect other generations, or can you say that at this point?

Abell: To my knowledge, this administration has not made such a policy pronouncement. Clearly, my recommendation would be that we would not do anything that would reduce the benefit of those currently serving. Now, it's possible that we might, ala redux reform of a couple of years ago, we might offer the individual some choices that that individual could make. But I would think that the nation would not want us to force a reduced benefit on someone who didn't accept it in return for some other consideration. But that's just my personal view.

Q: How long do you think it'll take before you get some concrete ideas on where you're heading on this?

Abell: I think by mid-December, we'll have the outlines of the three strategies that I mentioned. I think once you look at the strategies, you'll see, and we certainly plan to have some things that can be done on a short-term, in the 12- to 18-month category; some in the mid-term, you know, two to four years; and then some things that are going to take a long time to get done. There's a fair amount of research and study that has to be done because you can't just change something in a personnel system because it's such a very complex system, and it involves humans. So we have to be very careful.

So there are some things that will happen in the next year or so, and then there are some things that will begin the journey that won't happen probably on our watch.

Q: And what are some of the outside groups you've got to sustain?

Abell: Well, we don't have any yet. But we -- but, I mean, there are a number of agencies that help the department with research and can bring technologies to bear, some of which are sort of the standard federally funded research centers. And then I'm sure there's others of which I'm not even aware at this point. But we turn to academia to help us understand, we turn to the best business practices out there in the private sector to see what they're doing.

Yes, sir?

Q: Sir, one issue that we read about all the time, as far as the civilian workforce, the federal government broadly speaking, is the difficulty in attracting technical people, scientists and engineers, to government employment. Does the Defense Department currently now have any particular concerns or any ideas on how to solve that problem in order to staff up or maintain the workforce for defense labs, the service labs, and procurement offices?

Abell: Certainly. The Congress, over the last couple of years, has given the department the direction and authority to conduct several demonstration projects that involve expedited hiring authorities and pay banding, and term appointments, and sort of innovative and more flexible ways to be able to attract. And all these are aimed at that very community, the science and technical community in the labs and the research centers. And we are working -- putting those in place. And now what we have to do is administer them and then evaluate them. And, frankly, we're hopeful that these authorities will show us that -- what we believe; and what we believe is that these are good things and authorities that should actually be expanded perhaps beyond the science and technical community. But we have to conduct a demonstration, as we're directed by the Congress, in order to produce the evaluation that will prove the point.

Q: What's the biggest quality of life challenge and goal for you?

Abell: Well, the goal is to give our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, civilian employees, the best quality of life that we can. I think the biggest challenge is that the quality of life to me and quality of life to you are not necessarily the same thing. So that it's such a broad field, and it is one in which if you're uncomfortable in your workplace, then your quality of life's not good. If I'm uncomfortable in my quarters, then my quality of life's not good. So we have to, much as I discussed earlier in the balance among the budget categories, we have to find a balance among the various categories that fall under quality of life as to how do we apply our resources, scarce as they may be, in the most effective manner.

Q: Within those different categories, which one do you think is the most important?

Abell: I think right now our first focus is on housing, both bachelor and family. But certainly we're also -- the SecDef has pointed out that our facilities must be recapitalized. And that gets back to we don't want to send an airplane mechanic to work in a hangar that leaks or that is unheated in the winter. So I would say facilities are our first priority at this point, but that's not to say we're neglecting the others.

Q: I just wanted to ask a pay raise question. Congress passed a law several years ago that -- I don't know how binding it is or whether it's just the intent of the Congress -- but to give military people a pay raise a half percent above what wage growth is in the civilian sector. Last year they executed, I guess, the first or the second year of that, and so there's another series of pay raises above wage growth in the private sector planned. But a couple of things have -- I've been wondering whether that will actually occur. One is the recruiting being improved. Secondly, there's been a big plus up in the personnel accounts. The Marine Corps commandant the other day talked about that now the Marine Corps spends 62 percent of its budget on manpower, where it used to only spend 50 percent on manpower.

In that background, do you believe that this administration will back pay raises that are still a half percent above wage growth in the private sector?

Abell: I believe so. I mean, we have not put together the pay plan for the out years yet. But it clearly is the policy of the president and the secretary of Defense that we have to pay our people in an adequate benefit, both their compensation and their non- compensation, but the compensation side specifically. We have to pay them competitively with their counterparts, or else they won't come in and they won't stay.

Now what's going to happen a year from now or two years from is too far for me to see, and I think the Congress, when it put in the ECI plus one half, only put it in for five years. So we've got a couple of years left of it, as you note. And I expect that it was the Congress's intent, I believe, if you read their legislation and the accompanying legislative history, that it would -- that there would then be a review at that point as to whether it was necessary to continue or not. And I think that's a wise course, and I think that's something that the department does every year.

I don't want to go away, though, from something you just sort of said in passing, is that now that recruiting's okay. Recruiting's not okay. They're going to make their numbers this year, I think we'll know in a week or so, but that's not the time to relax. They didn't make their numbers because it's easy, they made their numbers because a lot of people worked 20-hour days, six and seven days a week, to attract and contract those high-quality young men and women out there in America. This is -- making the numbers is a -- I guess a recruiter might be able to go home and take a deep breath, but he has to get up the next morning and start again, because you can never relax in the recruiting business, or you will not make your numbers next year. It's constant vigilance there, and I don't want any of you to think that making the numbers means that you take a break for a while, because that's not the case. You go right back to work and you work just as hard.

Q: Do you think there's still a pay gap, or has the recent pay raise closed that?

Abell: I think the pay gap is a measure that some use to make their point for increased military compensation. Both my time in the Senate and my short time here -- it always seemed to me that what mattered most was human behavior and that as long as you were paying enough or you were paying something comparable, then you could describe the benefits and the nobility of service, and people would be attracted. But if you weren't paying enough, then no matter how much you described the benefits or the nobility of service, you couldn't attract people.

Whether there is a gap between an infantryman or an E-2 or E-2 seaman and his high school classmate in whatever he or she's doing is only relevant to the effect -- the extent that that service member doesn't come in or doesn't stay in. That's my view on the pay gap.

So I've always thought that rather than trying to measure against -- military pay raises against pay raises in the private sector and deciding that one outstrips the other, we ought to look at what do we have to do to have a pay and compensation package that attracts quality men and women -- the quality level of men and women that we're seeking into the military.

So it's sort of a long-winded way of saying I don't care. (Laughter.)

Yes, ma'am?

Q: On the housing issue, do you see the trend strengthening to increasing privatization of housing facilities and various military facilities? Or is that -- I mean, there has been sort of a movement toward that, toward privatization generally.

Abell: I need to preface this by saying housing is not in my portfolio, but quality of life is. So we watch housing, but it's not my program specifically.

But, I mean, I think it's obvious that the department has decided over the past several years, and clearly, Secretary Rumsfeld has made several statements to this effect, the department can't possibly, through military construction, build or renovate housing in the numbers and in the time frame that are required to make the improvements that are necessary for military families, so that privatization is the way to do that. And I think the budget submitted over the last several years, and probably for the next several, will indicate that that's where his priorities are.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: This human resources strategy, is that going to address out-sourcing government jobs? And do you think that the A-76 policy may be changed in the future?

Abell: Sort of last to first. I don't know what will happen with the A-76 policy. Again, that's not mine to change.

But clearly, our human resources strategy will consider whether -- to what extent we ought to have functions performed by civil servants, and to what extent some other functions could be more efficiently and effectively performed by the private sector, and then, what authorities would we need and what plans and procedures do we need to have in place that would allow us to move in that direction.

So the human resources strategy will deal with that in a very macro sense. And later on, as the strategy develops into actions is where we'll have to respond to changes, if there are any, in the A-76. So what we're going to look at is what is our strategy for managing our people, and how do we do that over time. And A-76 becomes an external influence that we must be prepared to deal with.

Q: Is that something that you will be sending to Congress for approval, or do you not need approval from Congress?

Abell: Of what, the strategy?

Q: The strategy.

Abell: I'm sure we'll want to -- I want to brag about the strategy -- I mean, I haven't even seen it yet; it's just started. But I'm confident that we're going to want to brag about it. So yes, we'll tell the Congress.

See, the strategy is just that, it is a strategy. When you come down inside the strategy and say, okay, what do I need to have this strategy implemented over time, there may be individual pieces of legislation that are required to either remove an impediment or to give us an authority that we don't have today. But that's not the strategy itself, those are the actions that precipitate from the strategy. But we'll want the Congress to know what we think.


Q: On commissaries, I know General Courter has been working on various initiatives down there to try to reduce or get in control the expenses and put more money into modernizing stores. Have you been -- do you follow those issues very well, and how would you say that's progressed in the past year? How is the taxpayer subsidy situation with the commissaries going?

Abell: Yes, I follow that, and I believe that the Defense Commissary Agency is doing a good job at that. They are modernizing. I'd like to believe that if you walk into a commissary that has been modernized and renovated, that you would find it equivalent to any of the more successful commercial grocery stores that you might also frequent.

I know General Courter has been very aggressive in his tenure there in modernizing and in improving the efficiencies of DeCA. He's very proud of his goals of being able to increase the savings to commissary patrons. I believe the last time I heard, it was in excess of 25 percent. I have a number in my head, but I hate to quote it, because it'll be wrong. But it's significant savings to folks who use the commissaries, and that's not developed through additional subsidies, that's developed through better and more efficient use of his facilities and his management and buying practices.

Q: And do you -- just to follow up that, there was some discussion by this administration as wanting to test whether or not some commissary operations could be done as effectively by private grocers. Where does that proposal stand now?

Abell: The secretary mentioned that in a list in his testimony. He mentioned that in a list of other things that he was considering or thought that should be considered. And clearly, as we look at every aspect of the military resale system and how to make it efficient and a better deal and a solid benefit for the service members, we have to look at that.

I don't have a plan on my desk that would lead to privatization of the commissaries. As a matter of fact -- and I'm sure you've read it too -- the indications from the House Armed Services in their markup is that they would preclude that, should we try it this year. So we'll continue to work to find ways to make that operation as efficient and as effective as we can, consistent with the guidance we receive from the Congress.

Q: On deployment pay, you helped write the -- in your past life -- the provision that would pay a hundred dollars a day to somebody who is excessively deployed, under congressional language. Now you're on the other side of the table, so to speak. That's coming up in mid- -- early November. Do you think you're going to be paying that to people? And do you think you can afford it if it comes to pass?

Abell: My expectation is that there will be some people who will have been deployed more than 400 days and thus will begin to receive a per diem sometime in the next fiscal year. Whether that happens in November or later in the year, I don't know. I don't think the data's good enough that anybody actually knows that at this point. I think the November 5th date is one of those sort of worst-case -- if you've been deployed every day since October 1st of last year, that's when you might qualify. There may be a soldier or Marine or sailor or airman out there somewhere who actually has been deployed that long. I doubt it, but there might be.

But yes, people will receive the deployment pay as they come due. I think the important part of that effort was to put in place or begin to put in place the mechanisms to manage the PERSTEMPO, and in that regard, I think that it's already begun to work. And clearly there's a long way to go.

Is there money in the budget to pay it? I'm confident that we'd find the money to pay it.

Q: What about the flip side of that? I mean, as commanders seek to prevent this from happening on financial grounds, what about that odd person who loves the military so much he never wants to spend a day in garrison?

Abell: I salute him -- or her. (Light laughter.)

Taylor: Are we finished?

Q: I'll take one more. There's been a lot of, you know, tinkering -- you know, the pay table spent about a generation being a pretty straightforward thing. We raised it a few percentage points a year. There's been a huge amount of working with it, massaging it over the last couple of years to take advantage of changes in the way people view their jobs.

Are we looking at -- as you look at the -- as you go through this manpower survey or study, will part of that be to question whether every E-4 should be paid the same or whether we should start linking pay more closely to jobs?

Abell: Certainly, as we look at, again, the human resources strategy for military personnel and how to move to the force of the future, we'll review compensation. And as we review compensation, we will look at every aspect of it. We've got a lot of data. There's been a Quadrennial Defense Review of military compensation every four years, ironically -- (chuckles; laughter) -- for the last 36, I guess. And so there's a lot of data out there; not all of it fresh, obviously. But, yes, it's always something we look at.

And the pay tables are not sacred. I think you can see over the past couple of years there have been several efforts, including in this year's submit, to modify the pay tables to get at those areas where we weren't paying certain grades comparably with their private sector counterparts. And I expect that will be a continuing effort. The thing about changing the pay table is it's expensive and you can't do it all at once. We've never had that much money. But as we have money to use in the compensation arena, that will certainly be one of the things we look at.

Q: I know you're not in the out years budget process yet, but do you get a sense of the -- I guess the momentum continuing for a large deal -- a great deal of focus on military pay issues, as opposed to we got it solved this year with this pay table?

Abell: You know, I worked in the Senate for nine years, and I've been here for three or four months. And I think compensation is something that's never solved. I think that's -- if you ever took that attitude, I think it would be like the recruiter trying to take a month off. You'd get so far behind, you couldn't get back where you need to be without extraordinary effort. It's not something that you can ever not focus on.

Yes, sir?

Q: What are your thoughts on the pay gap in the health care sector? And is it big enough yet where it's going to have a big adverse effect on staffing?

Abell: Now can you explain "pay gap" in the health care --

Q: I mean the pay gap between military physicians and, say, physicians, nurses in the private sector.

Abell: Again, I -- what it doesn't -- whatever pay gap we talk about, I think what's more important is the -- are our programs sufficient to attract and retain the numbers and the quality of folks that we need for military service. And as long as we can continue to attract and retain the health care professionals that we need, then the pay gap, to me, becomes a cocktail conversation.

I will tell you that we are always concerned about the health care professionals. And it's like many other of our fields; it's a struggle to recruit those that we want and to retain those that we need. But it's not significantly different than any of a number of other critical fields, in my view. Again, not anything you can ever take for granted, but the fact that there might be a heart surgeon in New York that makes more money than I'll ever think about, in a year -- I think we offer things to health care professionals, experience and opportunities, that they would probably not be able to find in the private sector. And I think that, combined with their patriotism and love of country, is what blesses us with such great people.

Thank y'all.

Q: Thank you.

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