Defense Problems as People Problems: Mattis’s Human Capital Challenge


Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s arrival in the Pentagon in late January was to launch an era of intra-Pentagon harmony — familiar face, familiar knife hands, well-known to both the E-ring and the most distant forward operating bases.

But the Department of Defense is an unwieldy, complex beast, and, as former Secretary Ash Carter indicated to Congress, can’t be governed on autopilot even with the best intentions. From a polished, secured office overlooking the Potomac, it’s easy for secretaries of defense to be disconnected from their vast human enterprise, spanning continents but starting with the men and women just outside their door. To succeed in his role, Mattis must give serious attention to how he utilizes his immediate staff. But to excel and leave a worthy legacy for his successors, he should use his position to invest in all civilian human capital under his purview.

And now’s the time to start. The Department of Defense is slowly (really slowly) but surely building up its slate of political leadership, with new nominees and appointments coming out every day. More so than the senior general officers he inherited, these men and women are Mattis’s connectivity to the rest of the department (both the 1.3 million active duty service members but also the 742,000 civilians reporting to him — 23,000 of whom cross the threshold of his office building on a daily basis).

In practice, secretaries of defense interact with very few of their civilian personnel, separated by protective bureaucracy of his front office and sometimes superfluous layers. He is likewise a mystery to them — one of us recalls walking with Secretary Bob Gates around the Pentagon, totally unrecognized, despite his regular efforts to engage with his team in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. How Mattis organizes, communicates with, and grows his civilian staff — from those immediately around him to the lowest echelons — will have real impact on his effectiveness.

Let’s run through the Pentagon’s various civilian entities and how to organize them.

The Front Office

The constellation of political appointees, career civilians, and military staff surrounding senior leaders in a front office is an almost uniquely Washington phenomenon. How it breaks down depends on the leader in question, but the basic functions should be: organizing and tracking his priorities, managing all aspects of his schedule (who, what, where, when) to make sure they are implemented, and communicating with line staff on these threads. If any of these lines of effort aren’t possible, it’s their role to find out why and initiate the change to fix it. And that’s it. The smaller the better. Those tasks are difficult enough.

All front offices get this wrong, as one of us has personally experienced. The last several front office teams have been progressively, and then aggressively, bigger and more centralized. Mattis reportedly has a jaw dropping 24-strong team (apples to apples comparisons are challenging, but Secretary Gates, for example, had four staff in substantive advisor roles).

Putting in place a team whom the principal can trust and who are worthy of trust by the rest of the organization is harder than it sounds. The first is part is specific to the secretary. The second demands that he recruits people who have a real respect for and knowledge of the organization they serve. Clichéd aides on TV tend to hover around their boss, full of secrets. By contrast, the best front office staff act as semi-permeable membranes, communicating what is necessary up and sharing all possible feedback down (front office tradecraft involves boss stalking and coffee date-induced kidney ruination in pursuit of gleaning and sharing information). These are not positions for people seeking credit or the spotlight, or who are looking to drive a specific portfolio. “Special projects” and “CAGs” frequently cover all manner of front office sins, and the ever-shifting “strategy” groups dotting the E-ring are just another name for morale-killing duplication.

The best teams recognize two bosses: the secretary and the organizations that report to him. If the front office team begins to view the building as the enemy, something has gone wrong — plus, everyone knows, the State Department is the enemy. When they see something wrong or lacking, that’s when a front office should stick its neck out by directing time or attention to fixing the problem — whether it be lack of people, guidance, morale, resources, or a voice. In doing so, they can be just as valuable to the two million defense personnel as they are to the secretary himself.

Front office staff roles should be transparent to the whole organization. Where nearly all principals (and their chiefs of staff, military assistants, and specials) fail is in growing to believe that it would be faster, more effective, or more appropriate to just carry out the functions of the line staff themselves. Writing talking points for a National Security Council meeting, redrafting Afghanistan options, leading the defense strategy process — know anyone who’s horded those? It always feels easier, or more close-hold, to run these directly outside the secretary’s door. But it will serve him poorly. If this happens, the best-case scenario has the front office staff coming off like a bunch of good idea fairies. At worst, the department’s line staff will think the secretary does not trust them to do their jobs. Task forces are another similar tactic to elevate priority issues out of their traditional bureaucracies to the watchful eyes of the front office, like the “Efficiencies,” “ISR,” and “MRAP” task forces of the Gates era. Did those succeed? Yes. Did they have lasting effects improving how the Pentagon manages such issues? Not really. Removing responsibility from those personnel who should be accountable for the success or failure of their portfolios does nothing to train the organization to meet its mission.

Front office structures also fail when they or principals come to believe that negative or bullying reputations are the cost of doing business. The best front office staffers are seen as the organization’s best friend. If the organization trusts them, they are able to protect the boss because they have a pulse on what is really going on and can push aside layers of politics and personalities to get the real story. The worst ones are everyone’s worst enemy. Mattis would be well-served by having a trusted outside network of people he can ask how his front office is faring.

The Office of the Secretary

This is the secretary’s principal staff, with nearly 40 direct reports and 2,000 staff, made up of political appointees (generally in leadership roles at the top and throughout the organization), career civilians, some military personnel, and contractors. They run security policy, acquisition, budget and program evaluation, and personnel. If it is not functioning the secretary can’t, no matter how strong the Joint Staff and Combatant Commands are. The Office of the Secretary of Defense serves as his brain, his reach, and his oversight arm. Every element is important.

Political Appointees

“Agenda SecDef” has already addressed the need to get senior political appointees in the door quickly, which seems to be moving forward. When they start, they need to be empowered right away with priorities, performance and management expectations, and clear delineations of roles and responsibilities. To the extent these can be written down, all the better — adjudicating turf wars between 4 star-level civilians is a task to wish upon no one.

Mattis should be clear with his incoming team how decisions will be made. In meetings? On paper? Over dinner? In the bath? He should also be clear on how they will be held accountable. He should note what issues merit his personal attention or decision, and what can be delegated to lowest level. And most importantly, he should relay that he holds them responsible for the health of their organization’s human capital strategy and management issues are fundamental to mission.

Career Staff

This treatment of political appointees should transparently trickle down to career staff. Mattis and his appointees will be happy to learn that mid-level experts they have inherited in the Office of the Secretary of Defense were in many cases the civilian “strategic corporals” of the 2000s. They should also be aware that they have begun their tenure at a low point for these men and women. Years of hiring freezes, threats of government closures, pay freezes, and proposed staffing cuts have conveyed a message that those at the Department of Defense not in uniform are not valued. But this is largely an organization of motivated and competent staff eager to perform well for the secretary if given a chance. In order to capitalize on the talent within his purview, Mattis should put extensive thought into how he and his appointees are drawing out both civilian and military perspectives (hint: never assume). He should ensure that destructive temptations — such as substituting civilian and military advisory roles for expediency — are avoided. Military advice is a valuable and protected function, but career staff generate ideas informed by their roles and experiences as civilians and can provide a range of options to the secretary beyond the operational level. They can provide input on the political-military implications of any policy, and tie strategy to budget and resourcing, looking beyond deliberately-parochial service or combatant command priorities. In short, they are an invaluable tool, not a civilian oversight rubber stamp — but Mattis has to be sure they are involved in that way.

Supercharging Human Capital

Setting up his immediate teams to make the most of their contributions will go a long way toward enabling Mattis’s success as secretary. But he should go one step beyond that and invest resources and thought into the civilian human capital life cycle, just as the department does for military personnel. To be frank, most secretaries skip these steps in pursuit of other demands, and in doing so generate increasing harm to their successors. Mattis can go above and beyond by investing in the following:

Lead a Human Capital Strategy

As the recent Bipartisan Policy Center report notes, despite the technical and high value roles civilians at the department play, “relatively little attention is paid to the management of this important component of the total force.” The department already has a range of reports assigned by Congress to map its human capital. These are rarely used as management tools, and have been limited by the never-ending parade of freezes, reorganizations, and threats of Reductions in Force. Mattis should insist on a total force human capital strategy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense at a minimum. This should be supported by sub-component strategies across the department, addressing how the civilian workforce will be managed over the Future Years Defense Program and should include an assessment of the mix of military, civilian, and contractor personnel across the department by function. It should also make a leader-driven effort to assess skill and talent needs for the current and future civilian workforce, and identify the challenges associated with bringing that talent in.

Invest in Professional Development

There are two ways to gain efficiency among defense civilians: cutting bloat and increasing competence. Personnel reform overwhelmingly tends to focus on the former in an effort to cut costs. But such initiatives are often shortsighted and ignore the potential for increased effectiveness across the department if the secretary truly leveraged the talent under his employ. Training and education are core tenets of the military personnel system, but have almost no bearing on the civilian personnel system, despite their equally critical roles. The Department of Defense invests significant resources in understanding its technical proficiency needs for recruitment and training for the uniformed side, but has done little for civilian equivalents.

For example, if the secretary places an O-6 and a civilian with comparable years of defense experience in his office, one will likely have had multiple years of higher education and training paid for and incentivized by the government. The other will likely have been forced to carve out time for lesser quality two-day courses that take lower priority than his job responsibilities. Likewise, with its Force of the Future initiatives of the last few years, the Department of Defense put deep thought into military career progression, experiential growth, and workforce health. An increased focus on education and training opportunities for civilians, while potentially costly up front, presents a strategic investment opportunity for the secretary that will pay dividends during his tenure and beyond.

“Right-Size” for Mission, Not Numbers

The growth of headquarters staff is a frequent target for reform-minded leaders and members of Congress. This is with good reason — it is too multilayered and too large for effective management, and, as Michèle Flournoy noted:

In the private sector, bloated headquarters staffs have been documented to slow decision-making, push too many decisions to higher levels, incentivize risk-averse behaviors, undermine organizational performance, and compromise agility.

But resizing initiatives start out as punitive exercises that belittle the value of civilian staff, treating them like cannon fodder. Moreover, these efforts tend to prejudice against the relatively small staff of the secretary himself without diagnosing the extensive duplication of effort and expertise across the Joint Staff, service staffs, defense agencies, and combatant commands. Rightsizing and delayering are necessary exercises, but they must start with the premise that there is talent and value within the ranks, and that effectiveness, not size, is the ultimate goal.

These are just a few of the initiatives Mattis might pursue, but they start with the premise that the civilian staff of the Department of Defense is a national asset, and, like the military, he owes it to his successors and the American people to utilize it carefully and leave it in better shape than when he found it. Most incentives will push him do the opposite: to privilege the military, to treat career staff as wasteful bloat, to view the Office of the Secretary of Defense as an opportunity for budget cuts, and to focus on shaping servicemembers for future threats. That’s natural for this role. But Mattis should push back on these incentives.


Katherine Kidder is a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in the Military, Veterans, and Society program, and a doctoral candidate in Security Studies at Kansas State University.

Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. Ms. Schulman left the White House in 2014 after serving as Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. She has also worked as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council Staff, and as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.