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News | Feb. 4, 2021

Intellectual Overmatch Is Impossible If We Teach Only Half the Team: A Call for Professional Civilian Education

By Laura Junor Pulzone and Justin Lynch Strategic Insights

System Security Specialist Working at System Control Center.
System Security Specialist Working at System Control Center.
System Security Specialist Working at System Control Center.
Photo By: Gorodenkoff, Shutterstock
VIRIN: 210204-D-BD104-001

The recent cyber attack on Federal agencies is yet another example of how Great Power competition is evolving to favor rapid advancements in disruptive technology and challengers that are skilled in whole-of-nation contests that simultaneously use multiple instruments of power to “win without fighting.” Last May, the Joint Chiefs of Staff published a combined vision for military education and talent management that correctly emphasized the need for both technical and intellectual overmatch to successfully compete in the modern warfare environment. It argues for rigorous education, reinforcing broadening assignments, and measured talent management processes that provide for deliberate practice as an essential element of intellectual skill development. This vision, on the heels of recent NDAA provisions, goes a long way toward supporting a talented, competitive, viable all-volunteer military force. However, without a parallel emphasis in developing the intellectual skills of the civilian workforce (in DOD and across the Federal national security enterprise), we will not achieve the overmatch we need.

It will not be uniquely military personnel who investigate these recent hacks and (hopefully) build a stronger defense and a deterrent offense. Instead of relying on expensive and exquisite hardware, we need an exquisitely talented Total Force.

That Total Force is more than uniformed personnel, since DOD’s civilian workforce plays a critical and underappreciated role. Far more than administrative continuity, civilians embody much of the Department’s long-term bench strength and expertise. That expertise guides strategy formulation, key intelligence community efforts, readiness activities, and combat development work, especially in the acquisition cycle. This is particularly true for the STEM expertise required by the Department. Only a civilian workforce trained and educated to develop, buy, contract, implement, and deploy technology can enable essential modernization. Unfortunately, DOD does not sufficiently invest in its civilian workforce, and it competes at a disadvantage.

There are two major issues with the way the DOD develops its civilian workforce. First, leaders undervalue the civilian workforce’s professional development, especially when compared to uniformed military personnel. Military officers and noncommissioned officers spend significant time attending continuing education courses, often in residential programs, and most attend a number of shorter courses focused on specific skills related to their jobs. Most senior officers spend years in schools. Relatively few civilians are afforded such opportunities. Those wishing to add to their intellectual capital typically have to pursue opportunities on their own. Broadening rotations (either within DOD or to external departments or the private sector) that build skills and promote interoperability are prohibitively difficult to arrange. The more common expectation is that civilians will grow through experience in the same agency, even the same job, for decades. This practice promotes skill stagnation and parochial problem-solving, both being antithetical to the intellectual overmatch the Department seeks. Leadership must value rigorous civilian professional development and work with the Office of Personnel Management and Congress to implement those changes.

Second, the U.S. Government struggles to recruit the civilian talent it needs, especially digital talent. One reason for this struggle is the national shortage of digital talent. In the United States fully 59% of the Roundtable CEOs report having a hard time finding students with fundamental math skills. Three-quarters stated they could not find workers for specific STEM-related fields ranging from cyber security to data analytics. While most organizations struggle to overcome this shortage, the government is further handicapped by slow hiring processes, human resource offices that often hesitate to use the hiring authorities they have, and a personnel system built for those seeking a 30-year career and with spouses who do not have their own careers.

These two trends mean the Department struggles to hire the talent it needs, even as it fails to prioritize increasing the skill levels of its existing personnel. The end result is slow, inefficient acquisition, ineffective implementation, and poor support to warfighters that is much less effective than it should be. The problem will worsen over time as new disruptive technologies are introduced and commercial enterprise out-recruits the national security enterprise for the next generation of technical talent.

DOD’s incoming leaders need to take three steps to begin overcoming these problems. First, they should reframe civilian service as an important contribution to American security and as a viable career. Our political elites could help here. Rhetoric that devalues the civilian workforce by characterizing its people as lazy, ineffective, or unable to compete in the private sector makes the civilian workforce a less attractive option.

Second, DOD’s leaders need to invest in continuous development of the civilian workforce, especially the skills needed to achieve and maintain technical and intellectual superiority. These investments should reflect the objectives in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education & Talent Management, but oriented toward the civilian workforce. DOD civilians should have opportunities and be incentivized to become more proficient in critical topics identified in the National Defense Strategy, such as artificial intelligence, data science, and knowledge management. Personnel should be offered broadening opportunities to exercise critical skills outside of their home agencies and be rewarded for taking those assignments. At more senior levels, programs should maintain technical currency as well as introducing and expanding on their critical thinking skills.

Opportunities alone will not be enough. To ensure the civilian workforce’s readiness improves, DOD should also establish metrics relating to the civilian workforce’s intellectual development and STEM proficiency and track them over the next 10 years. At a minimum, these should include the number of civilians proficient in STEM topics, as demonstrated by education, experience, or recognition in their field; programming language proficiency; the percentage of the civilian workforce participating in continuing education opportunities; the maintenance of perishable skills; and the percentage of the civilian workforce that participates in broadening assignments. And when these metrics indicate mission-degrading deficiencies, leadership must develop remedies.

DOD’s new leaders will have plenty to do, and even more to think about as they take charge of one of the world’s largest bureaucracies. This requires them to think strategically not just tactically about the Department’s human resources. Continuing to neglect the civilian workforce, especially in the face of modern threats, makes the Nation less secure. Increasing investments in the developments of this vital workforce is essential to the Department’s success in rapidly evolving Great Power competition.

Dr. Laura Junor Pulzone is the Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Prior to that she was the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, U.S. Department of Defense. Dr. Justin Lynch serves in the Army National Guard. As a civilian, he has served in multiple roles in the national security enterprise, including as a Director of Research and Analysis at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

The views expressed in this op-ed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.