In his year overseeing personnel policy at the Pentagon, Brad Carson helped open all combat jobs to women, expanded maternity leave to 12 weeks and pushed to open the door for transgender troops — and he had grander ambitions to make the military’s culture more “compatible with the ambitions of the millennial generation.”
But the former Democratic congressman and Iraq War veteran ran into a buzz saw of opposition, both inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. He stepped down this month as the Pentagon’s acting personnel chief following a combative confirmation hearing, in which Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe — a former Oklahoma political rival — stunned him with anonymous and unsubstantiated allegations that he fostered a “hostile work environment.”
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Inhofe has not publicly provided any evidence to back up his accusations against Carson, who clashed with the senator when both represented Oklahoma in Congress.
Carson’s rise and fall highlight the difficulties of trying to reform a bureaucracy that has powerful allies on the Hill and is notoriously resistant to change —especially the far-reaching overhaul Carson wanted to accomplish in the military’s recruiting and retention policies.
“Brad Carson did what he was asked to do by the secretary, but I think a lot of folks underestimated the pushback in the building,” said Arnold Punaro, a defense consultant and former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has close ties to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he believes the military’s personnel system is now “so broke that it can’t fix itself — it has to come from the outside.”
He put part of the blame on the Pentagon’s Office of Personnel and Readiness, which has had at least six confirmed or acting leaders under President Barack Obama.
“This office has been broken and been chewing through leaders for a good decade now,” said Harrison, who’s advocated for reforms to the military’s personnel policies.
Supporters of Carson’s efforts, however, praised the innovations he pushed for in the military’s personnel policies, including better accommodating the participation of women.
“Carson understood that our military is stronger when it provides service women with equal opportunities to compete for all combat jobs, and provides career flexibility and personnel benefits — like freezing eggs, expanding maternity leave and increasing mandatory hours for childcare facilities — to encourage service women to pursue longer military careers,” said Judy Patterson, CEO of the Service Women’s Action Network. “We will miss Carson’s sincere dedication to creating solutions for service women.”
In an interview, Carson insisted he left office “more confident in the ability of people to reform the Pentagon than ever before — that you can defeat the bureaucracy and get things done.”
“I do believe, as I promised Ash Carter when he asked me to do this job, that this has been the most significant year for personnel in the department’s history, and it’s time to find a new challenge,” Carson told POLITICO in his Pentagon office just before his departure.
A year ago, in one of his first speeches as defense secretary, Carter returned to his old high school in Pennsylvaniato call for reforms that would make the Defense Department a more attractive employer to tech-savvy millennials. He tapped Carson, then undersecretary of the Army, to lead the effort, dubbed “Force of the Future.”
Carson pushed through a number of major proposals, such as permitting women to serve in all combat position despite opposition from the Marine Corps, expanding maternity leave over the objections of some of the top brass, and, he says, getting buy-in from all the military branches to integrate transgender troops into the force. One of his last accomplishments as under secretary of defense was to deliver for Carter’s approval an implementation plan for allowing transgender troops to serve openly.
But several analysts told POLITICO that the effort has done little to get to the root of the problem — a personnel system designed after World War II that assigns service members to rigid career paths with pay based on tenure rather than skills or performance.
At the heart of this system is the “up-or-out” rule that forces service members to leave the military if they fail to secure promotions at certain points in their careers. An internal draft plan put forward by Carson would have ended “up-or-out,” saying it results in an “unnecessary loss of talent due to the arbitrary nature of career timing.” But the draft proposal didn’t make it into the first two iterations of Force of the Future that have been released so far — largely because of resistance from the military service branches, according to defense analysts.
Carter is expected to approve a third version of Force of the Future soon.
Carter spokesman Peter Cook disputed the notion that Carson’s departure is bad news for the reform effort, saying the secretary remains “full speed ahead on Force of the Future.”
Carter “very much appreciates Brad Carson’s substantial contributions to this effort, but this has always been about more than any one individual,” Cook said in an email. “This is about making sure the secretary’s successors have the same access to great talent that he does currently. The changes already being implemented by the services, and the significant initiatives still to come will bolster that effort.”
But analysts said there’s little chance Carter will succeed in overhauling “up-or-out” or other personnel policies they view as ill-suited for the modern workforce.
One of the reasons the Pentagon has struggled to put in place meaningful reforms, Harrison said, is that the Office of Personnel and Readiness, dubbed P&R, has lacked stable leadership. In the Obama administration, three people have been confirmed to run the office, which oversees pay and benefits for millions of troops and civilian workers, and at least three others have led the office on an acting basis.
Carson, a Democrat, appeared poised to finally bring some stability. Then came his run-in with the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The spat began during Carson’s confirmation hearing in February and continues to this day — with Carson now taking heat over an informal survey his office conducted in an attempt to clear his name.
During the hearing, Inhofe told a stunned Carson that whistleblowers had complained to the Armed Services panel that Carson had fostered a “hostile work environment.” The Republican senator demanded a “command climate assessment” into Carson’s leadership.
Inhofe has declined requests to provide further details about the allegations, citing whistleblower confidentiality, but that was far from the first clash between him and Carson, who had represented Oklahoma’s 2nd District from 2001 to 2005 and ran against then-Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn in 2004.
One major fight was over Tar Creek, where lead dust and other toxins left over by mining companies contaminated the water and were blamed for harming people’s health, mostly in children. Carson, whose district included Tar Creek, fought bitterly with Inhofe over environmental cleanup.
People with direct knowledge of the source of Inhofe’s latest allegations told POLITICO that multiple senior leaders at the Pentagon had complained to Armed Services that Carson had used “demeaning language toward individuals” and was excluding longtime P&R officials from his Force of the Future effort. Instead, the leaders said, Carson relied on a small inner circle of advisers he had brought in.
Carson was never accused of doing “anything that was in the nature of sexual harassment, assault or anything of that nature,” the people with knowledge of the complaints said.
Carson denied the allegations, telling POLITICO: “I have no doubt that we argued our points vocally, but that’s a far cry from using demeaning language.” And Morgan Plummer, who was Carson’s top deputy at the personnel office, said he “sat through virtually every meeting of substance both for Force of the Future and P&R and never once have I heard him use any kind of demeaning language or choke off ideas from anyone in P&R.”
But the unsubstantiated allegations were only the most stunning of efforts to stymie him.
Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who has described Force of the Future as an “outrageous waste of official time,” was angry with him for serving as personnel chief in an acting capacity. The Arizona Republican said the move presumed that the Senate would confirm Carson and violated the Vacancies Act, which governs how to temporarily fill posts that require confirmation.
Soon after the hearing, Carter called McCain to inform him Carson was withdrawing his nomination and stepping down, the senator said. The nomination had been languishing in McCain’s committee for months.
Carson’s office, though, didn’t want to leave the “hostile workplace” allegations hanging. So it went ahead with a survey through the commercial firm SurveyMonkey.
The results of the 22-person survey were mostly glowing, with all of the participants saying Carson treated them either “extremely respectfully” or “very respectfully.” And in comments at the end of the survey, participants described him as an inspiring leader, with one calling Carson “the most caring and most effective boss I have served with in my career.”
Another said Carson’s “deep intellectual curiosity, passion for the issues, and unmatched vision make him a perfect senior leader for DoD.”
Several survey participants also alluded to the inherent tension in trying to reform a bureaucracy that’s notoriously resistant to change.
“It may be the case that Mr. Carson’s push to generate reforms for Force of the Future were too disruptive for an organization that has undergone several tumultuous leadership changes in this administration,” said one participant in an informal survey of Carson’s tenure. “The secretary is a visionary for wanting to get ahead of the problem, but maybe did not anticipate the level of pushback.”
Pentagon Deputy Chief Management Officer Peter Levine, a former Senate Armed Services staff director who has a strong relationship with the committee, is taking over for Carson as acting personnel chief.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said Carson’s push for more sweeping reforms was ultimately doomed when it became clear Carter was willing to take only so much heat from the military brass.”
Carson is getting an unnecessarily bad rap when the real rub is between the secretary’s office and the chiefs,” she said in an email. “Secretary Carter did not want to take them on or this fight right now.”
Punaro, who worked on major personnel changes when he was an Armed Services aide, said the proposed reforms were significant enough that the debate was always going to extend beyond the Obama administration.
“The notion that was created that somehow this was all going to happen overnight — a big guillotine would come down and … everything that people had grown up with and knew would have been chopped off and start anew, that was never going to be the case,” Punaro said. “So I think it made people in the building more nervous than it should have.”