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By Don Branum
Vermont National Guard Public Affairs
Maj. Gen. Greg Knight sometimes says that as Vermont’s adjutant general, he knows a little about a lot, but he knows a lot more now about organizational assessments than he did when he first took over the role two years ago.
“I didn’t even know this thing existed as an option until I was speaking with my counterparts at National Guard Bureau and going through some of the things I wanted to get done in my role as adjutant general,” Knight said during a media roundtable with local reporters Aug. 6. “One of the Vermont Guard officers who was on orders at NGB said, ‘Have you considered asking for us to come up and do an organizational assessment?’”
To learn more about what makes up an organizational assessment, Knight spoke with Lt. Col. Gonzalo Pinacho, who was the judge advocate general at the time. As part of an assessment, NGB sends a team from the Office of Complex Investigations to thoroughly examine the state of an organization, including its climate and culture.
“He told me, ‘You understand this is going to be released to the public? You understand this is going to be the warts-and-all version of it? You understand they may find things that we have to take action on?’” Knight recalled. “I’m good with it. That’s why I asked for it. I just don’t know any other approach to get at that.”
So Knight requested the assessment, the first conducted for the Vermont National Guard.
“Either a governor can ask, or an adjutant general can ask,” he said. “If the governor’s asking, then the adjutant general probably doesn’t have a job. I’m not going to allow it to get to that point. I think it’s a good metric for us, and a good place to start.”
Knight asked for the report in 2019, and the OCI Team gathered information between January and April of 2020. The national COVID-19 response, leadership turnover at NGB, and Operation Capitol Response all slowed the publication of the report, but by late May 2021, Knight had a draft copy.
“I found it to be sufficient in draft form,” Knight said. While the report contained a couple of inaccuracies, he said they weren’t significant enough to delay publication of the final report.
“Having this, at long last ... it’s a positive development for us,” he said. “We’re going to follow the recommendations in the report, conduct interim progress reviews, and continue to communicate with the assessment team and the public on the progress that we’re making. I think I own that.”
The report outlined 35 recommendations along five lines of effort. Those recommendations, along with summarized findings and the Vermont National Guard’s response, can be found at www.vtguard.com/org-assessment.
“There are some things we can do pretty quickly: making policy changes, aligning with regulations. Those are easy,” Knight said. “The bigger challenge will be to look at staffing deficiencies at JAG, full-time employment deficiencies within the State Equal Employment Manager’s office or within the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator’s office. Those take resources, which take funding, and in the end are certainly going to take time.”
One of the challenges in addressing the assessment is the joint nature of the Vermont Guard, Knight said.
“We have one chain of command in the Vermont National Guard ... or do we? If we look at our Sexual Assault Response Program, every service does it differently,” he said. “It’s two different services, so I have to rely on my subordinate commanders and my subordinate staff to make sure that communication is as seamless as we can make it.”
Communication within the organization is one of the adjutant general’s major focuses, in part because the organizational assessment identified it as an area needing improvement. Among the OCI Team’s recommendations is for the Vermont Guard to “develop solutions that create transparency across the organization and establish regular communications and conversations with Airmen and Soldiers about the overall state of the VTNG.”
“I think we’ve seen some inroads there,” Knight said. “We’ve gotten folks who are a little more comfortable coming forward. I’ve tried to be more visible, as have other senior leaders.
“We have to get people more comfortable helping us make the organization better,” he continued. “We have to get out of the mindset that there’s going to be some kind of retribution if you share information with me. My only goal here is to make the organization better.”
Brig. Gen. David Manfredi, the director of joint staff, said transparency also plays a role both in establishing trust and eliminating perceptions of a “good old boy network.” The Vermont Army National Guard has established an Officer Career Management Plan with annual boards held in August, has taken steps to communicate promotions to NCOs and Soldiers, and has established competency-based hiring for civilian positions in accordance with Office of Personnel Management requirements.
“If people know how things are working, and people understand through communication and consistent execution, that will get after some of the perceptions of a good old boy network,” Manfredi said. “We’ll gain trust in both the processes and the leaders.”
Knight said he’s also looking into improving professional development within the Guard.
“We’ll embark soon on what I call the next generation of professional development. That doesn’t need to be in a schoolhouse; it doesn’t need to be a large, one-off, time-consuming event,” Knight said. Instead, it will be focused on specific tools, such as issuing letters of reprimand, pulling rank, or forfeiting pay, that commanders can use in place of commander directed investigations.
In addition, Knight said he will charge the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, which has undergone changes to its command and team makeup since the report was compiled, to focus on “production recruiting,” or getting new Soldiers and Airmen into the Guard. Knight added that he would like to see the Vermont Guard marketed toward service members who still have a service commitment and who could be enticed into moving to the Green Mountain State.
Knight didn’t comment on whether other Guard units should undertake similar assessments, but he said he plans to share the report with other adjutants general.
“I’m not going to sit on this. I’m going to send this to my counterparts to take a look at it,” he said. “If we’re deficient in areas, then in all likelihood, they’re going to have some similar areas to focus on. We’ve got nothing to hide. I think we’re just going to make the Guard better overall.