- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

After three years of troubling recruiting shortfalls, the Army National Guard is now signing new recruits in record numbers. On Friday, the Guard announced 6,583 new recruits in February, which brings the five-month total to 26,000 — the Guard’s best numbers in 13 years.

Fewer Iraq deployments are clearly one reason for the good news, as are a near-doubling of the recruiting force and a doubling of signing bonuses for people new to the military. But the Guard engineered much of this turnaround with an innovative program whose core features should be studied and widely emulated across the government, especially by people who want to “transform” the workforce.

The idea behind the Guard’s “Recruiting Assistance Program” is borrowed from corporate America: Current employees make the best ambassadors — especially when they’re rewarded financially. The program has deputized 31,000 current Guardsmen as “recruiting assistants” — that’s nearly 10 percent of the entire force — and it rewards them with $2,000 for each referred enlistee who reaches basic training or completes four months of service. Bonus referral programs have been around since the 1960s in the private sector, but they are rare in government. Here’s an example why they shouldn’t be.

It is far too early for any definitive study of the program, but anecdotally most of the recruits appear to be coworkers and family members of current Guardsmen. News accounts quote Guardsmen pointing to the financial incentives as they discuss the options with neighbors, friends and others they otherwise might not approach.

The program is currently operating in only 22 states, so further gains are likely as it expands. “The goal here is to get as many Americans as possible helping to recruit the Army,” Lt. Col. Mike Jones, a top Guard recruiter, told the Army Times in January.

Other ideas borrowed from corporate America have met considerable resistance in the Pentagon. Notable is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s promising merit-based “pay banding” system, the virtues of which we’ve extolled on this page previously. It would radically alter the way Pentagon civilians are hired, paid and promoted in ways that emphasize accomplishment and de-emphasize seniority. It’s clear enough that sclerotic unions fear those changes. They will do everything in their power to stymie them.

Referral bonuses should be a different story. Everyone should support this common-sense idea. In the National Guard’s case, the program is at least partially responsible for a major turnaround in recruiting in what until recently was a highly problematic situation. The rest of the military should watch carefully as the story unfolds.

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