war on the rocks

The Pentagon’s New Chief Innovation Officer Should Tread Lightly

November 2, 2016

Unlike most government boards, the Defense Innovation Advisory Board is a particularly eclectic assembly that includes astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and Instagram Chief Operating Officer Marne Levin. With startling speed, they recently released their first findings, aimed at encouraging a culture of innovation in the Department of Defense. Four of the findings were discrete ideas about developing greater programming expertise across different elements of the Department of Defense. But two were more strategic — appointing a chief innovation officer and providing combatant commands with funds for their own innovation initiatives. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is already moving to implement the first idea.

A chief innovation officer would provide coordination and top-cover to innovation efforts happening across the Pentagon. This suggests that top-down intervention to foster an innovation culture is needed. Providing combatant commands with funding enables those who are closer to the ground to turn ideas from the field into reality. This suggests an opposite impulse to use a bottom-up, user-centric approach to fostering a culture of innovation.

Both ideas have merit only if the values they represent are carefully balanced against each other. This will be a challenge for the Pentagon. It is an enormous bureaucracy. Its existing 2016 annual research and development budget is ten times that of Apple’s. The procurement budget is bigger than the gross domestic product of many countries. With so much money and so many entrenched processes involved, it may be difficult for these disparate ideas to hang together if they are both put into action.

Recent experience with rapid acquisition showed the Pentagon can craft such a balanced ecosystem. In that case, the bottom-up aspect was represented by scores of rapid acquisition processes and organizations. To differing degrees, they enabled troops in the field to articulate needs for new capabilities. Top-down influence was provided by a universal competition for funds, as almost all rapid-acquisition processes relied on transferring money from existing programs. The Department of Defense balanced a flood of rapid-acquisition ideas with the competition for resources that delivered urgently needed weapons and tools during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan: mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, improvised explosive device jammers, radios that double as wireless network nodes, data visualization tools for intelligence analysts, and many other pieces of equipment.

When it comes to innovation, it is unlikely that the benefits of innovation from the bottom (using combatant command funds, for instance) will be balanced successfully with control from the top (represented by the chief innovation officer). A strong centralized innovation office could become its own organizational fiefdom and choke off good ideas that do not originate from it. Combatant command funding will likely be used for priorities that would only loosely be tied to the kinds of innovation efforts envisioned by Secretary Carter. Discrete innovations will emerge even in this case, but it will be in spite of the organization, not because of the innovation culture that that the advisory board is trying to encourage.

Rapid acquisition was successful in part because it avoided direct competition with the existing acquisition system. Other than two contentious and high-cost programs (the $52 billion MRAP program and the Joint IED Defeat Organization’s $19 billion efforts), most rapid acquisition efforts were small compared to conventional procurement efforts. Rapid acquisition’s dispersed organizations, lack of centralized budget line items, and limited wartime scope also kept it from clashing too frequently with the conventional acquisition system.

Defense innovation efforts will not be able to avoid the conventional bureaucracy, though. The scope and ambition of the innovation efforts outlined by Pentagon leaders mean that a conflict with the defense bureaucracy is inevitable.

To give defense innovation its best chance of thriving, the chief innovation officer might want to consider focusing on championing the growing number of innovation organizations within the Department of Defense, such as the expanding Defense Innovation Units-Experimental, the Strategic Capabilities Office, and the services’ individual innovation offices. It should avoid taking direct control, which can make innovation efforts the target of conventional stakeholders. The chief innovation officer may want to have a light touch and let the messy, creative process run its course through the multiple avenues that existing organizations provide.

The innovation efforts taking place in the Department of Defense are exciting and have much potential. The current Pentagon leadership is uniquely qualified to foster these efforts. The Pentagon’s engagement with some of the most capable and creative technical minds in the world today is slowly building steam. All the stars for success are aligned. It would be a shame to spoil it by installing a high-profile chief innovation officer with centralized authority who may become just another bureaucratic player among many.


Jonathan Wong is an assistant policy analyst at RAND and recently earned a doctorate in policy analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School, where his dissertation examined rapid acquisition policy. He served as a Marine Corps infantryman from 2001 to 2011. Twitter: @jonpwong

Image: U.S. Army