major-payne4

On August 18th, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and General David Goldfein signed a memorandum on the subject of eliminating additional duties and issued it to the Air Force. [James showed zero interest in this issue over the prior three years and helped create the problems being addressed, so she will henceforth be treated as ornamental and ignored in this discussion].

The memorandum carried legal force and explicitly ordered the service to stop doing certain things in order to preserve manpower, resources, and focus. It discussed the need to rid airmen of unresourced additional duties that had multiplied over the years, feeding a crippling mission/manpower imbalance that had been contributing to declining readiness across the force.

Listed in the fact sheet accompanying the memo was the following relevant snippet:

Functional Area Records Manager (FARM): DUTY ELIMINATED.
The Air Force-wide requirement to designate a Functional Area Records Manager (FARM) to manage records at the unit level will be eliminated. Substantial guidance for the proper management and disposition of records  for units and individuals exists across the Air Force and Department of Defense. We will continue to strengthen this guidance to ensure we satisfy requirements without requiring Airmen to be trained to manage this process for the unit.
On a clarity scale of 1 to 10, this registers an 11. It’s crystalline. The duty is no more. It is not to occur. It is verboten. The Air Force says units don’t need to be doing it, and therefore shall not do it.
Don’t tell that to Major Jon Harmon, United States Air Force. This Comm Squadron commander, clearly possessed of the knowledge of the previous order from the service’s most senior general officer, is issuing orders of his own … including one explicitly overriding his boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.
Read for yourself.

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-12-57-54-am
There’s something hilarious about an O-4 overruling his own service chief’s explicit direction while taking comfort in the existence of vague “guidelines” to supply his rationale. In this case, there is a rich and layered comic structure to the faux pax under review … with the ample application of just about every management vagary under the sun. This guy invokes the inspection system, direction from his various eight bosses, and the possibility of new guidance from a future conference that should probably be canceled in the first place. All of it is, of course, totally irrelevant.

The core gaffe here is one of basic reading comprehension. When the unfortunate Harmon digested the previous memo, he failed to grasp the meaning of “eliminated,” … and is now enslaved to the flawed notion that it really meant “possibly reduced pending the setting of various affairs in order but still in place for now.”

Total belly flop.

But lest we be too difficult on the hapless Major, who is now occupying a rank roughly equivalent to the Staff Sergeant of yesteryear, we should observe just how little help he is getting from the staff goons above his level, who are apparently violating CSAF’s order with typical bureaucratic brazenness. They’re not even trying to hide their disdain for the change. Harmon is following guidance from above, which is usually a safe bet. But given conflicting orders, he chose the wrong one to follow.

That’s the real point here, all comedy aside. CSAF is trying to help airmen by releasing them from the bondage of the unpaid additional work that is sapping their individual and collective vitality. To achieve that objective, he needs subordinate commanders to show some spine and push back when they are misdirected. Jon Harmon is unfortunately a typical Air Force commander. Given a patently unlawful order directing him to expend resources on a duty that has been nullified by a higher authority, he reacts to proximity and inertia rather than exploiting the top cover CSAF has given him to refuse. Or maybe he just doesn’t agree with CSAF, and that’s why he goes diving into the policy couch cushions to scramble for a paltry excuse to do as he prefers. 

No matter what, the immutable truth is that he’s disobeying an order from CSAF on a key policy issue. In a service where you can lose your command and career over far more trivial matters, this is a gutsy call. And a dumb one.

And one I expect will be swiftly reversed in the wake of it being exposed.

Let this be a warning to the rest of you Harmons out there: if you’re trying to scuttle CSAF’s effort to get the service back on track, we’ll gleefully and unapologetically publicize that you’re out of step.