Former congressman and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry observed in a recent Defense News op-ed that the Pentagon needs a culture change to pursue creative initiatives and gain advantage over our adversaries. “[A] culture of innovation is fundamental to acquiring, adopting and scaling new technologies,” he wrote. His assessment is correct, but the passive construction hides the real challenge — or opportunity.

While stakeholders focus on policy and process reforms, the needed change requires an investment in the professionals who do the acquiring, adopting and scaling. A pipeline to attract motivated, mission-focused individuals with the promise of an enriching workplace where they can develop their talents as creative, thinking beings is the first step toward building an adaptive, collaborative community of acquisition professionals.

Congress provided just such a solution when it authorized the Defense Civilian Training Corps, or DCTC, to target critical skill gaps and prepare college students for public service in Department of Defense occupations relating to acquisition, digital technologies, critical technologies, science, engineering, finance and others as determined by the secretary of defense.

The fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act encouraged the DoD to leverage the interdisciplinary network of universities in a partnership known as the Acquisition Innovation Research Center, or AIRC, to develop and deploy a civilian leadership curriculum with internship opportunities. DCTC is comparable to the Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps, but is focused on creating a digitally literate acquisition workforce capable of collaborating across disciplines and with industry on emerging technology initiatives.

Congress further encouraged AIRC to partner with the National Security Innovation Network and the head of the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, which run popular hackathons and AI competitions at colleges nationwide.

After decades of failing to act systematically on workforce recommendations from acquisition reform commissions, the DoD has reached an inflection point in talent and trust. As of FY21, over 17% of the acquisition workforce was eligible to retire, with another 27% eligible within 10 years. Now, following COVID-19, federal workforce attrition rates are rising, especially for workers over 60 years old. Meanwhile, the workforce is at the center of concentric circles of mistrust — inflexible management structures stifle innovative thinking, industry perceives acquisition professionals as bureaucratic automatons, and effective communication is lacking between the DoD and Congress.

Despite the general mistrust of government, most Americans have a positive view of government employees’ commitment to serving others. Herein lies the opportunity.

A DCTC that meets its full potential will provide a sustainable pipeline for a curious, interdisciplinary workforce to replace retiring federal acquisition professionals and permeate the defense ecosystem. The DCTC curriculum will develop professionals with portable skills and a holistic approach to career development across organizations. Internships and post-graduation employment will encourage DCTC students to follow developmental opportunities in government, industry and nonprofits, bringing their skills to each role as a strategic asset and leader. As they transition from each opportunity, they will also share their dedication to national security, innovation and service. Each DCTC cohort will build trust from the inside, out.

As a talent solution for both government and industry, DCTC can restore confidence across the defense ecosystem and the American public. The current crisis of confidence arises from a culture that gives DoD contractors and prospective vendors every impression of an adversarial rather than supportive relationship.

The complex bureaucracy, opaque process, fear of noncompliance and ambiguous requirements statements make the DoD a very difficult client.

In 2017, Uber sought the guidance of Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei to heal its toxic culture. Professor Frei diagnosed that the leadership had lost its focus on people and offered a road map to restore humanity to the organizational culture, starting with trust. According to Professor Frei and Anne Morriss, the executive founder of the Leadership Consortium: “People tend to trust you when they believe they are interacting with the real you (authenticity), when they have faith in your judgment and competence (logic), and when they feel that you care about them (empathy).”

Viewed through their triangle of trust:

  • The DCTC curriculum provides the competence.
  • The internships and portability build the empathy.
  • And the graduating cohorts form a community of authentic professionals working together to promote a more open and innovative culture across the defense ecosystem.

DCTC’s success as a pipeline will depend on retention results. The DoD must build partnerships with universities, professional associations (such as the National Contract Management Association and the National Defense Industrial Association), civilian and uniformed alumni, and the industrial base to shore up the triangle of trust. A community where graduates can learn, improve and serve throughout their careers will reflect to the public the possibility of a government career that provides hope, promise and meaning.

The workforce crisis is an opportunity for radical creativity. DCTC is the change movement that the DoD needs to meet today’s complex range of adversarial threats.

Karen DaPonte Thornton is a member of the adjunct faculty at George Washington University’s law school, where she previously served as director of the Government Procurement Law Program. She was also a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee from 2020 to 2022.

More In Commentary