It’s Time to Re-Evaluate the Officer Evaluation System


The recently-passed James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 contained an inconspicuous provision that could significantly impact how the military services evaluate their officers. What started in the House-passed version as section 508, directing the Army to review its evaluation system, expanded to include a review of all services’ evaluations in the compromise bill between the House and Senate. Now, section 509C of the final bill requires the comptroller general of the United States to review military officer performance evaluations and provide recommendations to the secretary of defense on how to improve the processes. For the Army, this means that a long-needed overhaul of its evaluation system could be nearer than anyone thought.

Under Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville’s leadership, the Army has embarked on an ambitious, years-long journey to revamp its approach to talent management. From the Assignment Interactive Module 2.0 portal to the Battalion Commander Assessment Program and the Colonels Command Assessment Program, the Army has enacted meaningful change that improves — but has not yet perfected — the process of putting the right people into the right billets and the right leaders into the right commands. But while the Army designed the new talent management system for the information age, the evaluation system for officers is an industrial-age relic.



It’s all well and good to institute a process that finds the best lieutenant colonels for battalion command, but if the Army’s evaluation system doesn’t promote the best officers to lieutenant colonels and colonels, the command assessment programs cannot select from among the best. It is time for the Army to make a substantial change to its officer evaluation system, and the comptroller general should recommend that the Army transition to across-the-board quarterly evaluations. Quarterly evaluations would provide frequent, formal feedback to officers, do away with the much-maligned permanent evaluation profiles, and remove extraneous information from evaluation forms. Drawing from more data points, the Army could then promote, retain, and select for command the highest performing officers. 

Flaws with the Current System

The Army implemented its current evaluation forms in late 2013. These forms aimed at “instilling rater accountability, more accurately identifying elite performers and synching the report with current leadership doctrine.” The length of evaluations — one year — remained constant. And while different evaluation forms exist for company-grade officers, field-grade officers, and colonels, the new forms all had two common components: numerically constrained block checks for the most qualified officers and subjectively written narratives. An evaluated officer receives a block check and written narrative from their boss — their rater — and their boss’s boss — their senior rater. Sometimes they also receive a narrative from an intermediate rater.

The block checks and narratives may have been an upgrade from prior iterations of the Army’s evaluation system, but they are insufficient for the Army’s “information age” talent management apparatus. Among several problems with the block-check system is that the senior rater must consider not only the evaluated officer’s potential against their peers in the unit but also against all future, theoretical peers. This is because an evaluator’s block-check profile is permanent — a top block given now generally means one fewer top block to give later. An evaluator may find themselves giving the best officer they’ve ever encountered a “center-of-mass” rating because they ran out of top blocks.

And if numerically constrained block checks represent one major flaw, the other is the narrative blocks. Modern-day Army evaluations have become so over-inflated with flowery verbiage that someone could write an evaluation for a subordinate that would make their mother blush but would not get them promoted. Phrases such as “promote ahead of peers” are frequently used to indicate strong performance and promotion potential, but less than 10 percent of officers are actually promoted below the zone. The narrative blocks allow evaluators to make up for a mismanaged or immature block-check profile. In using these narratives, astute evaluators can use superlatives to highlight the promotion potential of their subordinates. “Top 1 percent of officers I’ve observed in twenty years” is a common way to call out a high performer, whether they received a top block-check or not.

The problem, though, is two-fold. First, there is no restriction on how many “top 1 percent officers” an evaluator can mention. If they believed every one of their 20 subordinates deserved a strong evaluation, they could include that same language. The second problem is the disparity in competency between evaluators. Because no formal guidance exists for how to write the narrative blocks, the best some officers receive is a slide show from Human Resources Command. A rated officer is therefore at the mercy of the informal mentorship that their evaluators received on how to write a strong narrative. The slide show demonstrates how easily a well-intentioned but undertrained evaluator could mismanage this process. For a “lackluster/weak” evaluation, the slide recommends evaluators use such comments as “Superior/Outstanding performance,” but without enumeration or comparison to other officers in the senior rater’s unit.  

Beyond the faults with the block-check system and the written narratives, there are several more significant shortcomings with the annual evaluation. The first and most evident is that many evaluations aren’t annual. While officers should strive for a yearly evaluation, there are multiple situations in which an officer is assessed less frequently — change of rater, senior rater option, and change of duty, to name a few. The minimum requirement for these evaluations is 90 days of service, meaning an officer with three months in the job could be evaluated against an officer who has been in their position for a full year or even more under an extended annual evaluation!

Another area for improvement is the performance feedback hole that exists in the current system. While the Army mandates quarterly counseling for officers, these feedback sessions are too often deprioritized and forgotten when the training calendar becomes busy. The first performance-based feedback that many officers receive is when they sign their annual evaluation. For a company commander receiving the most critical evaluation of their young career, it is too late to take feedback and earn a better rating if they only receive one annual evaluation before they finish command.

The problem isn’t that the system is unfair. An unfair system can still produce outstanding outcomes for an organization. The problem is that the system is unfair, and because it’s unfair, it produces results that can stifle the promotion prospects for the highest-potential officers. Also, the seemingly arbitrary nature of the existing process might encourage a star performer to depart the Army and try their luck in the private sector, which many perceive as more meritocratic. To address the deficiencies in the current system, the Army should overhaul the evaluation system and conduct across-the-board quarterly evaluations of officers.

The Great Transition: Quarterly Evaluations

If the Army decided to ditch the annual evaluation, it would be in good company. A 2016 Harvard Business Review report claimed that more than a third of U.S. companies — including IBM, General Electric, and Microsoft — were doing away with annual performance reviews in favor of “frequent, informal check-ins between managers and employees.” By transitioning to quarterly evaluations, the Army would address many of the shortfalls found in the annual system.



First, and perhaps most important, quarterly evaluations would mandate frequent feedback and give low-performing officers an azimuth check and an opportunity to change their behavior. Quarterly evaluations would also put all officers on the same evaluation plane. Officers with short evaluations would no longer be compared against officers with a full-year evaluation. More frequent evaluations would also benefit officers down the road when senior leaders meet to conduct promotion boards. Board members would have more data to determine an officer’s promotion potential, and one poor evaluation wouldn’t derail an officer’s chances. 

However, a quarterly evaluation system would undoubtedly increase the time burden for leaders. To make quarterly evaluations work, the Army would have to make several critical adjustments. To start, the Army would have to reduce the number of officers each senior rater evaluates, and then reduce the time they spend filling out the evaluation form. 

The first step in reducing the number of officers each rater evaluates is removing the permanent block-check profile — perhaps the most reviled component of the current system among officers. 

Because evaluators would assess all subordinates over the same period, they would no longer need to carry forward their profile: It would reset every quarter. Each quarter, evaluators could indicate who their top-third officers are, who the middle-third officers are, and who falls in the bottom third. Or the Army could require evaluators to rank their rated officers, 1 through X. The following quarter, they would reevaluate and reorder their subordinates, as appropriate. 

By removing the permanent evaluator profile, the Army could then reduce the number of officers senior raters evaluate. This should be relatively simple. The current system incentivizes the “pooling” of as many officers into a senior rater’s evaluation scheme as possible. Pooling gives the senior rater many evaluations to spread over a large population to balance their ratio of top blocks to middle blocks. They can then give average evaluations to officers who do not need a strong evaluation — officers who are not in their key development positions or who are separating from the service — and give more top-block evaluations to officers who would have otherwise missed out. 

But with the permanent evaluation profile gone, evaluators would no longer need to pool officers. A framework for revised rating schemes should follow a simple principle: commanders evaluate commanders, and staff officers evaluate staff officers. With pooling gone, there would be no compelling reason for a brigade commander to evaluate all company commanders in the brigade, and the brigade assistant operations officers, and the company-grade brigade staff officers, and the commander’s adjutant. The deputy brigade commander, operations officer, or executive officer could evaluate the non-commanders.

The next challenge the Army would need to address is the forms themselves. The current forms, the DA 67-10 series, contain irrelevant information and are long overdue for a change. The company-grade report, with its six attribute narrative blocks, is the most egregious of the four forms. Between the rater narrative, the rater’s block check, the six attribute narratives, the intermediate rater narrative, the senior rater narrative, and the senior rater block check, the rater’s narrative and senior rater’s narrative and block check are the only components that allegedly matter to promotion boards.


Figures 2 and 3. DA Form 67-10-1, company-grade report.


The sections of the form that provide no functional value — to the rated officer, promotion boards, or command selection boards — should be removed. The six blocks that reflect an officer’s six core attributes? Gone. Three successive assignments? Gone. Three broadening assignments? Gone. Intermediate rater’s comments? Definitely gone. The form should be condensed to one page and include only what a promotion board or a command select board considers. If the rater’s comments and senior-rater’s comments and block check are the only things that matter, they should be the only items included. 

To improve the subjective narrative block, the new form could have drop-down options that would auto-generate senior rater comments — a sort-of mad-lib but for Army officers. Standardized narratives would insert a level of commonality into evaluations that would eliminate the necessary luck of receiving an evaluation from an officer who knows how to write a strong one. In providing pre-determined responses to evaluators, the Army would ensure homogeneity across all evaluations. Promotion boards would finally be able to compare apples to apples. 

This would also be a good opportunity for the Army to publish formal, widely available regulations on evaluations and board proceedings. The Army can’t publish a directive that claims, “if you receive an evaluation that says this, then you will be promoted.” But it would be helpful if an Army regulation or pamphlet highlighted what a strong evaluation looks like without guaranteeing anything. 

A new system would undoubtedly present unique challenges. What do you do if an officer hasn’t performed duties for the entire quarter? Or was on temporary duty? Or changed duty in the middle of a quarterly rating period? Or what if the senior rater is replaced during the quarter? But the Army can think through these issues and design policies to address non-conventional situations. And the exceptions would make more sense under a quarterly evaluation system — recall that the current system requires exceptions that could have two peers receiving evaluations over vastly different time spans.

Moving Forward

Beyond ongoing reforms to talent management, the Army — with the help of civilian leaders and Congress — has also implemented quality-of-life improvements designed to retain high-performing soldiers and officers. These improvements include a focus on spousal hiring, increased professional licensing reciprocity among states, a 12-week parental leave policy, hikes to housing allowance in high-cost-of-living areas, and a 4.6 percent pay bump. But these efforts don’t address a significant concern among officers considering alternative career paths — does the Army properly evaluate its highest-performing officers and give them the best opportunities for promotion, and then put those officers in leadership positions where they can fulfill a desire to lead soldiers at increasingly higher levels of impact?

Quarterly evaluations would be a monumental reform, but the Army and — as per section 509C — the comptroller general should at least consider the idea. More frequent, formal, and fair feedback can’t be bad for young officers. Yes, evaluators would have to spend more time — perhaps considerably more time — evaluating their subordinates. But if the Army believes that its strategic advantage is its people, this additional time commitment would be a worthwhile investment. Not to mention, the Army could lessen the time burden imposed by a quarterly system by reducing the number of people each leader evaluates and redesigning the form to eliminate unneeded information. And, of course, after it reforms the officer evaluation system, the Army could take those reforms and improve the non-commissioned officer evaluation system, which has essentially adopted the officer block checks and written narratives in recent years.

Whatever the comptroller general recommends, and whatever the Army eventually decides to implement, one thing is clear: The current system is outdated. It should be improved upon, if not upended and replaced with something new altogether.



Brennan Randel is an active-duty Army aviation officer serving as a congressional budget liaison. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Jessica Donnelly, Task Force Marauder