CIA hits the accelerator pedal for digital innovation

Jason Miller: CIA hits the accelerator pedal for digital innovation

CIA’s newly launched Directorate for Digital Innovation isn’t just putting a new shine on its chief information officer’s office.

Rather, the spy agency designed the organization to integrate mission and enterprise technology in a way that officials hope will spur new tools and techniques much more quickly.

“One of the key aspects of this new directorate is that information technology systems, instead of considering them separately as those enterprise systems that a CIO typically delivers and those specialty mission systems that we use to accomplish our clandestine mission, we know consider those to be in a single organization, betting from each other and integrating faster with the advanced capabilities,” said Sean Roche, the deputy director of the new Directorate of Digital Innovation for the CIA, in an interview with Federal News Radio.

Roache said the CIO’s office will be known as the IT enterprise and will be integrated into the new directorate.

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“It provides the information services across the platforms for the entire agency population,” he said. “The networks that [CIA CIO] Doug [Wolfe] supplies will now be better informed in defense by our teams that conduct cyber operations.”

The Directorate for Digital Innovation (DDI) also will enhance the CIA’s ability to conduct cyber defense and other operations in cyberspace.

The DDI met initial operating capability on Oct. 1 as part of a major agencywide reorganization that also included 10 new mission centers. These new organizations focus on both locations such as the Middle East or Africa, and topics such as counterterrorism or counterintelligence.

“[T]he modernization effort is about much more than changing the way CIA is organized; it is about how we work together every day to bring the best of the agency to the challenges we face. This kind of change will take time,” said CIA Director John Brennan in a statement. “With our agency’s new structure in place, we will follow through in the coming weeks and months by acting on critical feedback from the workforce and focusing on fundamentals.”

In March, Brennan announced his plan to reorganize the CIA. He based this effort on recommendations made by an internal 90-day review team and input from all parts of the agency.

The CIA says the need for a major shuffling of mission and people comes from two main reasons: the marked increase in the range, diversity, complexity and immediacy of issues confronting policymakers today, and the unprecedented pace and impact of technological advancement.

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The CIA modernization blueprint calls for changes along four key lines:

  • Investing in people by enhancing its talent and leadership development:
  • Embracing and leveraging the digital revolution as well as innovate across its missions;
  • Modernizing the way it does business, including making decisions at lower levels;
  • Better integrating its capabilities to bring the best of the agency to all mission areas.

The Digital Innovation Directorate is the first new directorate in 50 years, Brennan said back in March.

“Shortly after Director Brennan arrived at the CIA in March 2013, he recognized the rapidly changing digital domain was an area that needed special attention across many aspects of our roles at the CIA, both in what we do in our business process, and what we do throughout our mission,” Roache said. “Increasingly, as digital technology becomes ubiquitous, more and more aspects of our operational missions are affected by what’s happening in the digital domain.”

He said the internal review determined that the agency wasn’t well prepared to take advantage of new technologies and change had to happen to keep the CIA’s tools and techniques relevant and effective.

“We saw more and more as we brought in even more talented young Americans to work at this agency, the need to clear a path that gave them the widest berth of creativity, and that path was enabled by digital technology,” Roache said.

The hiring of younger workers who grew up in a digital world and the need to ensure their skillsets meet the agency’s needs was another driving factor.

Roache said these CIA officers are innovative already, but they didn’t always have to tools to take advantage of what’s possible.

“We have an obligation to ensure that that creativity is translated into operations and missions as soon as possible, and not waiting for a legacy system to catch up,” he said. “DDI will focus the attention of our leadership team on removing the impediments that prevent the rapid integration of digital solutions, while developing these fantastic officers into the leaders the agency needs for the next generation.”

To that end, Roache said the CIA is creating a digital career service to help keep up with the demand for innovation in the trade craft space.

“I think it will be something that we go to as a first resort and fastest resort in terms of solving the kinds of problems that we are facing across the agency on a daily basis,” he said. “We will give our officers when they come into the agency, with a digital acumen that is already high, the ability to keep it relevant and keep it relevant in the mission trade space so we get the maximum value out of each officer and they are getting the maximum experience while they work here at CIA.”

For the workforce to be successful, the DDI also is taking on the ever-growing challenge that every agency faces of legacy systems.

Roache said part of the directorate will do is “aggressive retire” older systems and reallocate the funding to new data analytics tools.

“We’ll also expand the intelligence community’s use of open source intelligence while enabling it to keep pace with the tremendous growth of social media as one of those sources,” he said. “To be honest with you, an efficiency was never a driving factor in the modernization. The driving factor was always mission. However, when you look at how fast digital is moving and how quickly industry moves off of support for these legacy systems and what it takes to maintain that support and maintain a skillset that increasingly does not take you to the future, then you realize the overall operational inefficiency and the need to get off those legacy systems.”

Roache said the CIA will measure the DDI’s success in several ways.

“One of the biggest things that is going to happen is as the digital acumen grows across these different cultures and innovative solutions are introduced, there will be a corresponding growth in demand for new mechanisms to test and validate the digital signatures and security features of these technologies,” he said. “Additionally, there will be more officers from this directorate deployed in our locations overseas and in our newly formed mission centers. Finally, there will be a significant decrease in the number of in-house contractor workforce devoted to developing and maintain the legacy systems and legacy processes that we must move off of.”