WASHINGTON — Through the first 14 months of his term, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has made the push towards innovation a key part of his agenda.
But a new report says that if Carter wants his innovation push to last, he needs also to also be focusing inside the building the secretary often dismisses as "the five sided box" when talking to audiences.audiance
The report, authored for the Center for a New American Security by Ben FitzGerald and Loren DeJonge Schulman, says that Carter has done a good job of reaching out to communities outside of DC, in particular the tech hub of Silicon Valley. But the problem is bringing in new ideas back into a building where the internal processes and cultural attitudes create roadblocks.
"Since that initial announcement at Stanford University, innovation has hit peak buzzword within the Pentagon," the authors write in the report, formatted to look like a memo for Carter's desk and coming in at a slim 15 pages.
"Your innovation initiatives have caught attention within and outside the Pentagon, but there is a perception of an inverse relationship between the amount of discussion about innovation and actual innovation being accomplished," they later add.
Speaking to Defense News, FitzGerald said the reach out towards communities outside DC was a good start, but Carter now must "pivot and focus internally and really look at how you get to the core of the Pentagon."
In particular, he recommends that Carter work to change the incentives for acquisition and technology officials inside the Pentagon to make them more open to new ideas. That also means finding a real example of the "fail fast" concept, popular in the tech community, which Carter has suggested needs to be accepted inside the Pentagon.
While top Pentagon leadership have verbally embraced that idea, sprinkling it liberally throughout speeches, those who actually work inside the building have yet to see proof that if they fail they will not pay the price, be it in cCongressional hearings or with their jobs. One way to change that would be to present proof that failure, in certain sectors, is OKok.
"The secretary should actually identify something that is not going as well as it should, cancel it, hold it up and then reward the people involved for trying," FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald, the dDirector of the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS, also acknowledged that Carter made some unintentional missteps at the outset of his push.
"He often, especially when he started, used 'Silicon Valley' as shorthand for things outside of the Pentagon," FitzGerald said. "That has led to things like general officers flying out to [California] to take meetings that don't really lead anywhere, which wastes people's time and actually burns bridges before they've been built and leads to frustration. It's also led to the perception from the defense industry, for example, that the secretary doesn't feel they innovate or are still relevant."
"It's not his intention but it's one of the challenges when you try to drive change in the Pentagon. You say this is what you're after and people who aren't that thing feel disenfranchised," FitzGerald added, noting that Carter has recently had publicized meetings with traditional defense organizations to send the signal they remain critically important.
Read the full report:
The full report can be read here.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.