Navy officials are kicking off one of the most radical overhauls of performance evaluations and fitness reports in service history and are planning to field the new approach within a year.

The aim is to eliminate the unwritten rules that reward seniority over merit. And the new system will use new information technology to track far more granular details on sailor performance and professional development, data that will help inform Big Navy's future decisions about promotions, retention, assignments and even compensation.

"We believe that it is time to develop a different system to measure sailors' performance," chief of naval personnel, Vice Adm. Robert Burke, told Navy Times in a recent interview. 

"We want to have an objective measure of the sailor's performance and have meaningful and frequent and useful feedback given back to the sailors."

The major changes Burke outlined include:

  • class="MsoNormal _wysihtml5-temp-1494016012859">Ending the practice of "forced distribution" which requires individual commands to "rack and stack" its sailors, ranking them within specific paygrade "peer groups" when divvying up the coveted promotion recommendations.
  • class="MsoNormal _wysihtml5-temp-1494016012859">Individual timelines for reports, rating sailors after they’ve been at a command for one year
  • class="MsoNormal _wysihtml5-temp-1494016012859">Changing the current five-point assessment scale to one that grades sailors using a nine-point scale.
  • class="MsoNormal _wysihtml5-temp-1494016012859">Developing new and objective job grading standards replacing the current trait system
  • class="MsoNormal _wysihtml5-temp-1494016012859">Regular year-round counseling and feedback.

Together, the changes aim to end the unwritten rules that encourage commands to allocate their limited promotion recommendations and best evaluations to the sailors who have been onboard the longest. Regardless of how well they perform, it’s rare that the "new guy" gets that top spot under the current system.

Burke says the changes have been in the works for more than a year and are based on officer and enlisted focus groups and surveys designed to accurately define the biggest complaints across the fleet.

"This takes out bias in a lot of ways and that is really what we’re after," he said, speaking of the institutional bias in favor of seniority that the current system has fostered.

The changes to the performance assessments — the enlisted evaluations called "evals" and officer fitness reports known as "fitreps" — will be a cornerstone to the broader personnel reforms underway in the Navy.

That includes the ratings modernization announced last fall, the push to de-emphasize or even eliminate the written test for enlisted advancements and possibly even changing the pay system to include merit-based compensation. Officials say none of these things can happen without a more accurate system of measuring performance.

The Navy’s plan is to have an initial prototype of the system up and running this fall, and the idea, officials say, is to run it in parallel with the existing performance evaluation system as officials put the new details through a shakedown process.

"Our last overhaul was in 1996," Burke said. "It was designed to get after a lot of things — grade creep, issues on how counseling was working, all sorts of things like that.

"We’re kind of looking at those same sorts of things again, but we’re looking at even more this time around."

Sailors in a run during weekly squadron physical training on Aug. 19, 2011, in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, in preparation for the biannual Navy-wide physical fitness assessment.

Photo Credit: MC2 Stacy D. Laseter/Navy

Nagging problems

Problems with the evaluation and fitness report procedures have been percolating for years. Burke says the system created "unwritten rules" and "grade creep" that have eroded the system's effectiveness.

The Navy has developed an unofficial "code" for writing performance assessments. If you are a supervisor, "you have to be able to write in code," Burke said. "If you are sitting on a [promotion] board, you have to be able to decipher the code. And each of our tribes — for example, surface warfare, submarines, aviators — each one of these individual communities has a slightly different code."

That code was made up of words and phrases that developed over time mainly because the existing evaluation and fitness reports had very limited space. "You got 28 lines of Block 41," Burke said, describing the current remarks block on evaluation forms.

"Space is at a premium and you have so many thoughts you have to convey and so reporting seniors write subtle and aren’t as frank to the boards as they maybe ought to be. That also contributes to the grade creep issue. You have a grading system, which over time has become less useful than it was intended because now the grades are inflated and individual grades are less than a reflection of individual traits than they are a component of the overall number."

That’s because COs have to be aware of their "cumulative average" in grading that they develop over time in writing evaluations, which Burke says has degraded the system.

"We’re not using it the way it was designed in 1996…the only thing that matters right now is the overall report grade relative to the reporting senior’s cumulative average," Burke said.

"So the typical reporting senior reverse engineers that final trait average to make the final number work out, so the trait averages wind up being rather meaningless today."

To make this happen, commands must "rack and stack" those within rank-specific "peer groups" and fit them into that reporting senior’s average.

In addition, the Navy’s current system limits the number of top advancement recommendations — including "early promote" and "must promote" — seniors have to give out, leading to more unwritten rules on who gets them and who doesn’t.

These recommendations are crucial today. For enlisted sailors and officers alike, it makes them eligible for advancement earlier, offering an opportunity "break out" against their peers.

For enlisted sailors E-4 through E-6, it’s the only part of your evaluation that counts in the math towards your final multiple score that determines if you advance or not.

Most sailors and officers are aware that right now the key to getting the best promotion recommendation on your performance appraisal isn’t actually your performance, it’s your timing — how long you’ve been at the command.

"So what we defacto have is a seniority ranking system vice a merit ranking system," Burke said. "Our surveys and our peer groups universally told us that sailors were dissatisfied with that."

New timeline

One key change that officials hope will help eliminate the bias toward seniority will be a new timeline for individual evals and fitreps.

Under the current system, all sailors in the same paygrade get rated at the same time each year, regardless of whether you’ve been there for one month or 11 months.

The new system proposes a rolling calendar that schedules individuals’ annual assessments after sailors have been on board a year. If you report, say, in September 2017, you get your first formal evaluation in September of the following year.

"That does a lot of things," said Rear Adm. Richard Brown, the head of Navy Personnel Command, who is helping to oversee development of the new system.

"It removes tenure from the equation and you set a standard that you are rating sailors and officers against," Brown said

"That’s the core of what we’re looking at — to rate against a standard and not against peers in the small competitive peer group," Brown said. "Provide that fitness report or eval based on your rank so you are really rating and evaluating what you want them to know at their current level.

New point system

The performance review overhaul will likely end the longstanding use of a five-point rating scale and expand to nine points.

"There’s a lot of science out there that says you get a lot better granularity in reporting when you do something closer to a 10-point system," Burke said. "Right now the pilot systems we have drawn up, most of the grading scales are zero through nine."

"In expanding the rating scale to nine points, you can really identify who the real ‘water walkers’ are our in the fleet and who are the ones who are doing better than most," Brown said.

At the same time, the Navy will expand the traits and characteristics it aims to evaluate. Sailors will be rated on factors customized to their paygrade, rating or warfare community.

"The things you ought to be able to do as a seaman are very different from the things you ought to be able to do as a petty officer," Burke said.

"We think there’s going to be a different report for seamen, probably a different one for petty officers, there’s probably a different one for chiefs and for master chiefs — different sets of standards we are grading them by," Burke said.

The Navy’s various communities will have their own individual "standards," or skills that are evaluated.

"For example on surface warfare officer department head screening boards, you are looking for specific surface warfare professional development attributes there," Burke said. "So we would build in the ability for the surface warfare community to define a number of attributes that would get evaluated at different parts of their career path."

Better counseling

While official evaluations occur only once a year, the Navy wants to give sailors more frequent feedback by reinvigorating the less formal mid-year counseling — something the service has historically struggled with, Burke said.

The current rules only require sailors to be counseled at the mid-year point and many aren’t really getting that.

"Some do it well, but for others, it’s just a check in the box," Burke said. "What we really heard from our feedback was that folks want counseling and very frequently — not only want it from their supervisors, but from their subordinates and their peers — they want it all the time."

Burke envisions an online tool for tracking the year-round counseling, offering sailors and their commanders a running picture of what a sailor has accomplished throughout the year. That will make the annual evals and fitreps easier because the supervisers will not have to rely entirely on memory at the end of the year.

"We’re discussing what the right periodicity is to make the minimum, but we’ve had discussions that this might be appropriate after major evolutions or milestones and that it’s quick and easily done," Burke said.

New technology

The new system for performance assessments will end the current practice of using paper-based documents and scanned copies. Instead, the data on individual sailors will live in a massive database online and will be accessible by phones and other wireless devices. And it will likely be analyzed and used in new ways.

The aim is to better track the full spectrum of sailors skills that can be tapped for matching individual sailors to the assignments and compensation packages most suited for them.

"With the IT systems that are out there now that weren’t available 20 years ago we can really start to facilitate talent matching as well as bring in a formalized mentoring and counseling capability to flip the current equation on its head where you will do 80 percent counseling and mentoring verses 20 percent rating and evaluation," Brown said.

"It gets to what the focus groups were telling us they were dissatisfied with, but also it gets the Navy to a place where they can really identify talent and then to match that talent to the jobs that are out there."

Many sailors may see the new system in place by next year.

"We want to be transitioning en mass in 2018," Burke said, adding that he couldn't tell exactly what the new system will look like.

"Our intention is to do this right, we’re going to pilot this rigorously and as with everything going into sailor 2025, we’re going to completely understand this before we transition over."

Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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