In an attempt to avoid conflicts of interests, the new director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sent a full list of her financial assets to all of the agency’s employees.
Arati Prabhakar, who took over as DARPA’s director in July, has set up an extra layer of procedures to make sure she is not involved in decisions where there is any inkling of a conflict of interest.
Moreover, Prabhakar wants to institute a new culture at DARPA that encourages employees to speak up if they have conflict of interest concerns, particularly involving the agency’s awarding of contracts.
DARPA, the arm of the Pentagon that develops new technologies for the military, on Dec. 7 distributed Prabhakar’s “disqualification list” of companies that she cannot be involved with during her tenure as director.
“The practical thing that needs to be done in a case like this is for everyone in the agency who might encounter these kinds of entities that are in my financial disclosure, they need to be aware of it so they can take the appropriate action,” she said in an interview.
If program managers find that one of the companies is involved in a particular DARPA effort, they are advised to notify their office director “so we’ll just be double sure that I’m not in a direct decision-making role,” she said. “That’s unlikely to happen anyway, but we just need to make sure we catch it.”
Conflict of interest questions swirled around DARPA’s prior director, Regina Dugan. The alarm was sounded when it was revealed the agency awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to a company that she co-founded and partially owned. The issue, first reported by Wired magazine, spurred a Defense Department Inspector General investigation.
In a move unrelated to that investigation, Dugan stepped down as the DARPA director in the spring to take a job with Internet giant Google.
All political appointees must publicly disclose their financial holdings before assuming office.
The DARPA director is not subject to the Senate confirmation process, which has more rigorous restrictions for political appointees. The DARPA director is vetted through DoD and the Office of Government and Ethics.
Prabhakar, who worked at DARPA earlier in her career, said she is looking to position the agency for the future by exploring technology that might be essential to national security decades from now.
She said she is focusing on three main objectives. One involves creating what Prabhakar calls “breakthrough national security capabilities” or “the kind of capabilities that create decisive surprise,” and the second aims to create “differentiated U.S. technology capabilities.”
The third objective focuses on the agency’s culture. Prabhakar said she wants to build “a foundation that in my opinion is to deal professionally with conflicts of interests, to get all the issues out on the table, to make sure that we deal fairly with the world because we need access to a really broad technical community if we’re going to do our jobs and deliver on our missions.”
With combat operations in Iraq complete and missions in Afghanistan expected to conclude by the end of 2014, DARPA will shift to focus more on forward-looking technology. During the last decade of heavy conflict, the agency focused on some near-term projects that were quickly sent to the battlefield.
“I think we made some impact,” Prabhakar said. “I know we learned a tremendous amount by getting technology in the hands of real users.”
The “really the big question for DARPA is … what are the programs we need to be investing in that really change the cost equation in that future,” she said.