The Future of Work Is Leaving National Security Behind

It’s often said that government work isn’t glamorous.  But pre-pandemic government work in the national security realm was at least one step beyond. Back in the before times, tens of thousands of national security employees — both civil servants and their much more numerous contractor counterparts — would arrive each and every morning to nondescript office buildings scattered across the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Maryland. Many of these workers had to first endure a maddening commute, sometimes lasting an hour or more, and could look forward to an even more maddening time getting home. After searching for a parking spot — heaven help anyone who arrived after 8 am — and making their way through security turnstiles by swiping or scanning various multicolored badges hanging from lanyards around their necks, these intrepid employees would have eventually shuffled into their appointed space — whether a drab cubicle, perhaps artfully appointed with photos of loved ones or with a favorite Dilbert cartoon tacked to the wall; an open bay; or, if they were lucky or relatively senior, an even drabber office outfitted with the type of lowest-bid furniture one might describe as, “mid-century mediocre.” Wherever they sat, they would then log on to several outdated computers, all of which were running slow, virtually obsolete operating systems, just to check their various email accounts to find out which boring meeting was first on that day’s agenda — all while thinking, “This can’t be why I went to all the trouble of getting a security clearance, can it?”

COVID-19 put an end to all of that — at least temporarily. The pandemic forced typically sclerotic and risk-averse federal agencies to stumble — most of them uneasily — into a future they hadn’t expected and had even just weeks before sought to prevent. Forced to reverse course, they swiftly amended their outdated policies and rapidly scaled up their capacity for online collaboration, issuing government-owned devices to a great many employees who were newly required to work from home. It was either give in, after all, or be forced to severely curtail day-to-day operations.

I guess necessity really is the mother of invention. And in this case, the experiment forced by necessity was an enormous success.

It was so successful in the private sector, in fact, that the nation’s largest firms, companies like Microsoft and Facebook, have announced that their staffs will have the option to work remotely permanently, lending credence to the suggestion that the office is dead. Salesforce, a major cloud computing provider for the Department of Defense, has gone so far as to declare that the “9-to-5 workday is dead” as well. Even old-school stalwarts, such as JP Morgan Chase & Co and HSBC agree, one calling the five-day work-week a “relic” and the other scrapping its executive offices in favor of shared, community workspaces. All of these companies — and many more besides — are in the process of expanding their work practices to give employees the ability to create schedules that are most convenient for them.

You might be thinking: “What about the federal government? This was all well and good for tech firms, but it won’t work in national security.” Well, tell that to the Department of Defense.

The DoD has been aptly described by one former senior official as “disconcertingly retrograde,” and there’s no doubt the Pentagon faces enormous challenges as it attempts to transform itself from perhaps the world’s greatest monument to the work culture of the 1950s into something a bit more contemporary. But even there, at the world’s largest bureacracy, many employees discovered during the pandemic that they were both better connected and more productive working from home than they were from their office. The DoD’s remote work experiment was, surprisingly, a huge success.

Even some corners of the notoriously secretive Intelligence Community made remote work… well, work. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), for example, hardly missed a beat as lockdowns began. While parts of the IC practically shut down because they were unprepared to move to an unclassified work environment, INR under the leadership of former Assistant Secretary Ellen McCarthy had already been moving to produce more unclassified work to meet their clients where they were — that is, often driving around town or dispersed all over the world. INR’s analysts continued to produce informative, insightful intelligence during the pandemic, much of which, I’m told, went on to be featured in the President’s Daily Brief, the pinnacle of IC analytic output. What’s more impressive is that INR’s analysts did it all from home, using completely unclassified sources.

Of course, we shouldn’t be cavalier with predictions of the traditional office’s demise — ingrained habits die hard. They change only slowly, even with the occasional forward nudges provoked by exogenous factors like COVID. At the end of the day, it’s not a question of technology — which for telepresence has existed for years, after all — but one of organizational culture.

The past year may have proved that national security work can continue in a remote, distributed fashion. But unfortunately, though, even when agencies did adapt, many of them did so in the government’s typical one step forward, two steps back style.

To be fair, many private sector firms made the same mistake, at least initially. They attempted to simply recreate the structure and routine of the physical office in an online environment. But while private sector firms for the most part quickly adapted, the government has lagged behind.

Agencies built the digital infrastructure that made more flexible work practices possible but used it only insomuch as it allowed federal employees to “take the meetings and PowerPoint presentations typically hosted in conference rooms and conduct them in their homes,” — essentially replicating the same boring routines described in the opening paragraph, with widespread afflictions like “Zoom fatigue” as the result.

This is not the way.

While we should applaud any efforts to modernize the national security enterprise’s antiquated digital infrastructure, we shouldn’t accept an outcome that sees federal employees stuck attending the same pointless meetings and suffering through the same tired PowerPoint presentations as if nothing has changed.

The point is that national security work can be done remotely, but doing so requires a commensurate modernization of our agencies’ administrative and organizational technologies along with the ongoing modernization of the ones they use for communications — fixing one without the other will leave agencies with the equivalent of horse-drawn carriages driving down freeways.

The purpose of digital transformation isn’t to replicate the same analog procedures that we’ve been doing all along. It’s to allow for the creation of entirely new procedures — new ways of doing things that take advantage of the speed, scale, and reach that digital communications capabilities provide. The problem with simply digitizing broken or redundant work processes is that at the end of the modernization effort, they’re still broken and redundant — just much faster. The point is that national security work can be done remotely, but doing so requires a commensurate modernization of our agencies’ administrative and organizational technologies along with the ongoing modernization of the ones they use for communications — fixing one without the other will leave agencies with the equivalent of horse-drawn carriages driving down freeways.

In any case, as vaccination rates climb and infection rates fall, federal facilities are once again teeming with life. Nature, as the kids say, is healing. Agencies are calling their people back to…

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