war on the rocks

Crowdsourcing Navy Policy: The Flawed Navy Retention “Study”

October 7, 2014

The front page of The Washington Times recently blared: “Navy sailors distrust commanders, fear crippling political correctness.” Quoting a “survey of the fleet,” the report labeled the distrust as “widespread.” Surely, a headline like this should send shockwaves through the senior leadership in the Navy. But, the fact is, this so-called “survey of the fleet” was nothing more than an effort by the survey’s organizers and respondents to lobby Navy leadership for policy change, resulting in questionable recommendations based on unsupported extrapolations.

The story of this survey dates back to the March publication of CDR Guy Snodgrass’s widely read and discussed paper on officer retention, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon.” What happened next is a bit more interesting. CDR Snodgrass organized a group of almost 20 officers and civilians to develop a web-based survey with the stated goal of understanding retention in the Navy. The report that emerged from this survey was quite broadly titled the “2014 Navy Retention Study.” This was an unofficial venture, but one could easily think otherwise given that title. If believed, the summary of the survey’s findings are nothing short of stunning: low Navy-wide morale, poor work-life balance, waning desire for senior leadership positions, and widespread distrust of senior leaders.

However, there are two problems with the survey: The methodology is riddled with problems and the survey report’s most conspicuous recommendation comes out of nowhere.

The methodology used for this survey does not deserve the label. It was more akin to a signature petition for change submitted to Navy leadership. According to the reported findings, the survey was conducted by distributing a polling form online through “military social media channels.” Participants learned of the survey by word of mouth, apparently spread by a number of blogs and websites. But, while the report places confidence in its sample size and margin of error, it fails to consider the issue of selection or sample bias. Not only were those who knew of and participated in the survey limited to those active in social media, they also represent a demographic that sought out the survey in order to participate and – it seems – complain. Coupling the informal crowdsourcing approach (as described by CDR Snodgrass himself) with the probability that those who participate in voluntary surveys may harbor strong opinions on the survey subject, there is a very real possibility that the sampling method suffers from a volunteer bias that renders the findings unreliable.

While I recognize the obvious limits in constructing an unofficial survey that is representative, the survey’s authors do not. Instead, the survey’s report provides seemingly limitless extrapolations in speaking for the Fleet’s, not the sample’s, dissatisfaction with leadership. CDR Snodgrass’ report offers a series of recommendations to Navy leaders to help them overcome that gulf in trust.

The report’s very first recommendation is to “stop highlighting Commanding Officer and Command Master Chief firings.” The report labels this a “significant breach of trust with our Sailors.” Initially, it is worth noting that this recommendation appears unsupported by the data. Over 50% of survey participants indicated that they believed senior leaders would not hold themselves accountable. Analyzed against the report’s conclusion that highlighting misconduct has a negative influence on officer retention and morale, the overwhelming belief among respondents that senior officer’s are above the law either means that participants believe that there is both a lack of accountability in the Navy and an over-emphasis on accountability at the same time, or the report’s authors are expressing a pre-existing opinion disconnected from the data.

More importantly, though, the recommendation to stop publicizing the misconduct and shortfalls of commanding officers demonstrates a puzzling disconnect on the part of the authors with the current challenges Navy leadership faces. The misconduct of military leaders is a subject in which the civilian leaders in Washington consistently express increased interest. For instance, in May, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to include a provision in the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act mandating that the Department of Defense publicly release all DoD Inspector General investigations into senior officials. These would seemingly include both substantiated and unsubstantiated investigations. Similarly, DoD has expressed concern in the last year with the extent of misconduct among senior officers.

So, assuming for the moment that there is merit in this recommendation, the notion that the Navy realistically has room to back-peddle in publicly acknowledging senior officer misconduct fails to appreciate the current context. Reversing course now would appear self-serving at best, and complicit at worst.

Turning to the merits of the recommendation to stop publicizing commanding officer firings, public acknowledgement of misconduct serves both a practical and philosophical purpose. Practically, public firings allow the Navy to “get ahead” of the release of the information via gossip and social media and avoid the inevitable damage control that results when leadership appears to be caught on its heels. In his 2012 article in the Naval War College Review, “The Navy’s Moral Compass”, Captain Mark Light observed that holding commanding officers publicly accountable for their actions “is vastly preferable to hiding them until a disgruntled subordinate posts a video online for the world to see.” There is also a valid general deterrence argument in support of the publication of misconduct by superior officers. Corporate ethics scholarship speaks to the value of publicizing the nature of employee misconduct and the resulting disciplinary action in the communication of expectations throughout an organization…

Philosophically, public firings are consistent with the unique position that a commanding officer in the naval service holds. In the naval service, commanding officers have an express statutory duty, laid out in 10 U.S.C. 5947, to demonstrate “exemplary conduct” which goes beyond the required conduct of all uniformed members under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Moreover, those in positions of authority are directed to “suppress all dissolute and immoral practices.” These expectations are reiterated in Admiral Roughead 2011 Charge of Command, in which he emphasizes the importance of accountability in maintaining trust with one’s subordinates.

The retention survey’s recommendation misjudges to whom that trust is owed in the context of misconduct by a commanding officer – it is first and foremost owed to the subordinates of the commanding officer, not to the commanding officer. Publicizing the firing of a naval commanding officer keeps faith with the his or her subordinates by demonstrating that we all must abide by the same standards of conduct, while also reinforcing the commanding officer’s historic stature in the U.S. Navy. Just as a commanding officer’s successes are an example to others, so to are his or her failings. Perhaps, as the report suggests, there are those officers in the Fleet who hope against taking command because they would have a problem being publicly relieved. That ultimately sounds like a convenient way of describing a fear of one’s own self-discipline.

The retention survey was done in the name of retaining good sailors and in the interests of keeping faith with them – a goal for which the organizers should be commended. Unfortunately, the product of this “study” was most effective at publicly shaming Navy leadership with misleading data and trivializing serious challenges that they face, ironically the very sort of thing the report so zealously argued against. Perhaps the public messaging of this report was not well thought out, but what appeared to be a constructive endeavor in March hardly seems so now.


Ryan Santicola is a judge advocate in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy.


Photo credit: Official U.S Navy Imagery