With Hagel leaving, what now for the innovation initiative?

Chuck Hagel

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his resignation on Nov. 24 -- just nine days after unveiling a new innovation initiative for the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's new initiative to drive innovation at the Pentagon will face stiff bureaucratic resistance and only real leadership can save it from joining a crowded graveyard of well intentioned but ineffective ideas, former officials say.

"There are no shortage of innovative ideas that get presented at the Defense Department ... but the disconnect is always in trying to figure out how to operationalize those innovative ideas," said Paul Brubaker, a former deputy DOD CIO, in an interview.

Hagel, who resigned on Nov. 24, rolled out the "defense innovation initiative" in a Nov. 15 speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, invoking historical "offset" strategies like President Dwight D. Eisenhower's pursuit of nuclear deterrence and then-Defense Secretary Harold Brown's long-range R&D program in the 1970s. Part of the new initiative is a program that will focus on breakthroughs in fields like robotics, big data, autonomous systems and 3D printing over the next decade and beyond. Both the innovation initiative and Undersecretary Frank Kendall's latest proposal for acquisition reform are self-described efforts to halt the erosion of America's technological edge over potential adversaries like China and Russia.

"DOD has struggled with taking risk and leveraging commercial technologies" while its adversaries have not, John J. Young Jr., who held Kendall's post of undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics from 2007 to 2009, told FCW. The Pentagon has "steadily constructed barriers to entry" for small and medium firms and in so doing favored big incumbent firms, he said. The new initiative should focus on breaking down these barriers, he added.

Hagel's decision to step down as Defense secretary, which reportedly came at the request of President Barack Obama, poses an immediate complication for the new initiative. Brubaker, who served as director of planning and performance management in the Defense secretary's office from January 2013 to May 2014, described his former boss as a rare personality capable of calling out bureaucratic inefficiencies in DOD's highest ranks.

"I look around [Hagel's] immediate circle and I don't see very many people [who] have the management acumen, the business-process knowledge and, frankly, the guts and the tenacity to take on the bureaucracy," Brubaker said in an interview last week, before news of Hagel's resignation broke. President Obama said on Nov. 24 that Hagel will remain as secretary until a successor is confirmed, but it's unclear how much of Hagel's attention the new initiatives will now get in the interim.

Still, while the Defense secretary's personal involvement in the innovation initiative matters, much of the program will be carried by officials below him.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work will lead a panel that will draw upon the armed forces, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon's acquisition component, among others, to encourage new thinking to how DOD approaches emerging threats.

David Wennergren, who was assistant deputy chief management officer at DOD from 2010 to 2013, called Work the "linchpin" of the innovation initiative. Wennergren said Work has tasked the offices of the DOD CIO and DCMO with studying how the "fourth estate" – a multitude of DOD agencies that includes the secretary's office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff – might better encourage innovation in the department.

Wennergren advised DOD leaders to cast a wide net when looking for innovation. "Where things have not worked out well in the past is where a very small group inside the organization tries to figure things out on their own," he said.

The new initiative will test the Pentagon leadership's ability to listen to voices outside the chain of command. This has not always been a strong suit, according to Brubaker. In January, the private-sector board that advises the Pentagon on business practices made several recommendations, which if implemented properly, Brubaker said, could save the department billions. But implementing those straightforward recommendations has proven difficult because of bureaucratic inertia, he said.

"The existing business processes are all designed and optimized to reinforce status quo," Brubaker said. "And there are just gobs and gobs of people working in these inefficient processes in the department. So if you start reengineering them and you really start [weeding] them out, you wind up challenging people's jobs, people's fiefs. You wind up challenging the culture directly and that is a really hard thing."

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.


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