The Intelligence Community’s Retread Problem

Air Force by on April 20, 2007 at 7:25 pm

I spent close to a week out in DC with my Reserve Unit (sorry for the blogging - hiatus). I continue to be amazed by the inefficient nature of government spending - particularly in software and related services. My exposure has primarily been to the systems within the Intelligence Community (IC), however I’m sure that other agencies suffer from similar problems.

The process begins in an awful place. The gov’t becomes convinced that their need requires custom requirements… because, no other organization in the world is like the US government. Government contractors reinforce this belief and set off building a custom application on the most expensive software and hardware available. In several years, the government gets a multi-million dollar system that could have been replaced by a $30K system in a month that meets 95% of the business needs.

On top of this, the IC suffers from a severe lack of people that know better. It isn’t that IC personnel aren’t smart (many are brilliant), it is just they’ve only known the ‘government way’ their entire careers. The IC personnel come from one of three channels:

  • Government employees
  • Military members
  • Contractors

Government employees and military members are typically lifers. It is very rare that you see someone mid-career move into these positions. It can take up to two years to get a security clearance. This barrier to entry prevents people from joining mid-career. Government employees typically begin their careers in the government (often getting their clearance while in school).

But what about the contractors? They’re outside the system right? Well, no. It’s that pesky security clearance again. Most of the big contracting firms hire from within the system, pulling in govies and ex-mils that are already cleared. They then sell them back to the government at far higher rates. Hence the term ‘retread’. The system feeds on itself, rarely introducing fresh thoughts into the system.

What’s the solution?

Clearly barriers need to be lowered to get new people into the system. A few approaches:

  • Carve out unclassified work. Unnecessarily classified projects significantly limits the talent pool that can contribute. There are plenty of projects or components of projects that don’t need to be classified.
  • Overhaul acquisition laws. Navigating the federal acquisition process is extraordinarily challenging. Companies that contract to the government often have dedicated personnel to navigate the process. The goal is to get “new to the government” people helping think about our projects. I’ve commented before on the backwards nature of the FAR.
  • Expedite clearances. I know that background investigations are important and take time, but we simply have to be able to clear people faster. Two years is too long…

1 Comment

  1. J.S. — April 22, 2007 @ 10:45 am

    As a former civil servant in the U.S. Intelligence Community, I found your observations of the USIC extremely insightful and accurate. What the USIC needs most — besides information technology solutions that are affordable and operational, especially after hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs are squandered on systems that never go on-line (i.e. the FBI’s Trilogy) — are fresh, new minds who welcome change and reject group-think. Security Clearance reform is a key issue as well. Interested observers can finally track reforms and interact on the clearance process at a new website,

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License. | Dave Naffziger's BlogDave & Iva Naffziger