IT professionals in the Department of Defense have always faced unique challenges. They serve missions of global importance, in the face of full spectrum threats (with many in war zones and all facing hostile cyber threats), and have always had to operate under a burdensome regulatory environment that can slow most actions. And they have always operated in an environment that has far more requirements than resources could ever hope to meet.
Both military and civilian IT professionals in DoD are doing things that have me at awe. They field technology into an enterprise of incredible scale. For comparison relatively small DoD components can be larger than an entire cabinet department (Department of Education, for example, has about 5000 people, DoD has ships that carry more people than that). I mention this to underscore the scale of DoD IT. The IT professionals of DoD must design, field, secure and operate IT systems that really define the meaning of the word scale.
Now things are even harder on the technical team at DoD. The long looming stress of sequestration and constant lack of leadership by has already been causing huge issues. The most recent kicking of the can down the road is especially bad on federal IT professionals, including those at DoD who had already been suffering major cuts. The deal to avert the fiscal cliff did not avoid the tough decisions, it just pushed them out a bit (in early March the same battles will arise). In the meantime, there is no real way to plan for improvements or modernization (no “new starts”). Uncertainty will continue. If there is an agreement, CIOs and IT professionals will get budgets but will be 5 months into the fiscal year and will have to rapidly take action before the fiscal year ends. That forced rapid spending causes a new kind of stress. And if there is no agreement and if sequestration kicks in (which is a very real possibility) the issues and stresses faced will be unlike any seen by any IT professional in any organization.
“Nothing you have ever experienced will prepare you for the absolute carnage you are about to witness.” – Louis Winthorpe III on the manmade fiscal issues in Trading Places.
New evidence of how devastating sequestration will be to DoD technologists includes a 14 Jan 2013 letter to Congress on the budget crisis signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Service Chiefs (GEneral Dempsey, Admiral Winnefild, General Odierno, General Amos, General Welsh, Admiral Greenert and General Grass).
This hard hitting letter (see: JCS Jan 14 Letter to Congress on Budget Crisis) opens with warnings that sound like lines from Barry McQuire’s Eve of Destruction. “We are on the brink” they say, of “creating a hollow force”. They put the blame for this on a convergence of budget conditions and legislation and I believe they are right. But they for some reason decide to leave their bosses and themselves out of any blame for this mess. In fact, one thing all signatories of this letter seem to agree on is that they are not to blame at all.
But back to the IT folks. They have always been undermanned, always had to work at huge scale to support critically important missions, and now we learn from this letter that they must do so in a new environment that adds a new stress, something called furlough. Furlough means, by the way, no pay. Government civilians especially in the IT world, do not make enough already. Especially if you live and work in the beltway where the cost of living is just nuts. Now these great champions of people are being told they might be forced into taking non-paid time off.
Some views on what we technical folks should do about this:
- I think we should all feel for these heros of IT in DoD. Where we can we should help them in any way.
- If you are in the contracting world supporting DoD you may face challenges yourself I know. You also have the increased challenge of a software that is eating your world. While you deal with your own problems it may be hard to ask that you think of others but innovation from you may be the just the thing that is needed now. Please keep thinking of the mission and ways to turn disruptive IT into solutions for the mission.
- If you are in a leadership position in DoD I think you should understand that the technology professionals face great challenges and both they and the technology they field and maintain are critical to the warfighting capabilities of DoD. Do what you can to take care of these people in times of fiscal challenges.
- If you are in Congress (either a member or staff supporting them) please track this issue closely and do what you can to give appropriate support to the technologists in DoD. They are needed in ways some of their bosses might not understand.
- If you are a vendor of IT capability that has previously been sold into DoD, consider ways you can help optimize your deployment. If DoD has already paid for your software, be sure you are helping them configure it appropriately. You owe them that don’t you?
- If you are a vendor if IT capability that you want DoD to buy, understand that they only way the department is going to consider a purchase of IT is if it shows dramatic returns in terms of cost. In fact, you would be well advised to think of ways DoD can use your software with a very minimal investment (perhaps via cloud service or a model that has them only paying for what is used?).
- If you are a technologist in DoD, one thing I recommend is that you keep thinking innovation. This is going to be an especially stressful time. Clearly the importance of your mission is not going away, it is the resources to support that mission that are under pressure. Innovation might be part of the answer.