A group of Republican lawmakers is pressing Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell Jr. to expand on comments he made in August suggesting that removing photos from promotion and selection boards has harmed diversity.

As a result, the lawmakers, spearheaded by Marine Corps veteran Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said they were worried about recent policy changes regarding photos in the promotion process.

“Our understanding is that promotion selection boards are supposed to be devoid of bias and by their very nature, represent meritocratic values that ensure the most qualified officers are selected to lead our Navy,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter in August to Nowell.

The Navy has gone back and forth on including photos in the promotion process. For example, they were previously omitted from the promotion process for officers between 2016 to 2018, and then once again in 2020, following the Defense Department decision to eliminate them from the information presented to promotion and selection boards.

Gallagher and other lawmakers wrote that they understood the decision to include promotion photos again after 2018 was based on Navy selection board feedback that said photos helped determine which candidates would best support Title 10 requirements upon promotion.

“We are concerned that the back and forth on this issue may be causing officers in the ranks to question whether the Navy’s true goal aspires to meritocratic values or whether these values may be juxtaposed against the political vicissitudes of the day,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “We were also not sure if you were thinking out loud when you made your statements at the symposium or were signaling future intent as a senior Navy leader.”

As a result, the lawmakers requested that Nowell provide them with clarification on the policy and its ramifications. A spokesperson for Nowell did not respond to a media inquiry from Navy Times by deadline.

In addition to Gallagher, the letter was also signed by Reps. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, Lisa McLain of Michigan, Ronny Jackson of Texas, Jerry Carl of Alabama and Pat Fallon of Texas.

The letter stems from comments Nowell made last month suggesting that the photos be included once more.

“I think we should consider reinstating photos in selection boards,” Nowell said at The Navy League’s 2021 Sea-Air-Space Exposition in August. “We look at, for instance, the one-star board over the last five years, and we can show you where, as you look at diversity, it went down with photos removed.”

“It’s a meritocracy. We’re only going to pick the best of the best, but we’re very clear with our language … that we want them to consider diversity across all areas. Right?” Nowell said. “And therefore … I think having a clear picture on this just makes it easier. So, actually, our data show that it would support adding photos back in.”

The initial findings of Task Force One Navy, established in June 2020 to address systemic racism within the service, included several recommendations concerning promotion boards, such as evaluating the structure currently in place for promotions, detailing and milestone job opportunities.

Likewise, the task force also advised the Navy to expand the diversity data included in selection board proceedings and the like in an attempt to bolster transparency and “reduce perceptions of favoritism or bias.”

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