The Defense Department is finally getting workforce development right

The Defense Department is finally getting workforce development right

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The Department of Defense is finally on the right track to improving the acquisition workforce. The DoD is investing in two key scholarship-for-service initiatives — the Defense Civilian Training Corps for multidisciplinary undergraduate students and the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation program for graduate students in the sciences — as well as developmental opportunities such as industry exchanges aimed at retaining and training the next generation of acquisition professionals.

But the DoD can’t do this alone. Development of an innovative workforce requires a combined effort of the entire national security ecosystem — government, industry and academia — to achieve the flow of new ideas and collaborative mindset necessary to outpace near-peer adversaries. To ensure the success of budding workforce initiatives, we must avoid burdening them with well-intentioned but overreaching bureaucracy.

Last week, the DoD released the 2023 National Defense Science and Technology Strategy, which emphasized a commitment to sharpening its competitive edge by cultivating the current workforce and developing the workforce of the future. In particular, the strategy recognized the importance of rotation and exchange assignments between industry, think tanks, and academia, and it acknowledged that without a creative and knowledgeable workforce, the United States will be unable to execute the 2022 National Defense Strategy and create enduring advantages over U.S. competitors.

This is consistent with the finding of a recent report by the Atlantic Council’s Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption, which found that U.S. service members are equipped with technology that lags behind adversaries and commercial peers alike, and identified as a significant challenge to innovation adoption the “hamstrung workforce [for whom c]reative problem-solving and measured risk-taking are not often rewarded, and too few individuals with an industry background agree to take senior leadership roles at the DoD.”

There is interest in post-governmental employment legislative restrictions working its way through the national defense authorization process, threatening to set back efforts to make more robust use of industry exchange programs under the specter of conflicts of interest. Contorting legitimate concerns over post-government employment conflicts to such lengths diminishes workforce improvement efforts. The proposal would add layers of bureaucracy to an already complex ethics system and reinforce anxiety and hesitance among employees seeking developmental assignments.

This is exactly the culture of fear and risk-aversion that must be replaced with one of bold creativity and teamwork.

A 2021 Government Accountability Office report on the DoD’s post-government employment restrictions recognized the DoD already has measures in place to guard against conflicts of interest and ensure public trust in the integrity of decision-making processes. GAO made no recommendations for additional rules, noting that “both DOD and defense contractors benefit from the contractors’ employment of former government officials. For example, contractors benefit from the knowledge and skills that former DOD officials developed at DOD. DOD benefits from improved communication.”

The Partnership for Public Service has observed that talent exchanges are particularly attractive to Generation Z — which values opportunities for collaboration and career development — and urged Congress to enable wide use of the authority as a retention tool.

The Acquisition Innovation Research Center, an academic consortium dedicated to enabling DoD innovation through applied policy, has an opportunity to design a deliberative approach to talent exchange programs, carefully tailored to avoid conflicts of interest. By engaging ethics experts across government, academia and industry to build a set of best practices, AIRC can host candid discussions about the limitations of ethics letters (which cover only joint ethics regulations) and develop firewall best practices that can be implemented as effectively by large corporations as smaller, emerging tech firms.

The AIRC can go even further, using the Defense Civilian Training Corps pilot, which will offer DoD internships and an experiential learning-based curriculum on college campuses, to engage students in real-life national security problem-solving while adhering to the values of public service and integrity.

This commitment to integrity in early professional development can increase public confidence in government and help recruit students to the national security workforce. A more educated public, inculcated with the positive values of national and public service is itself a public good and helps tap into the aspirations of future generations.

The effort to become more adaptive and innovative amounts to nothing short of culture change, demanding both top-down leadership support and bottom-up involvement by the workforce. Most importantly, the workforce must feel a responsibility to change. In this sense, culture change is the greatest demonstration of integrity and commitment to uphold public trust. For junior members of the acquisition workforce, talent exchange programs between the DoD and industry partners are an opportunity to build trust and cohesion across the national security ecosystem.

We should invite Gen Z to join us in turning the “revolving door” narrative on its head and create in its place a portal to building trust across government, industry and academia. If we are to succeed, it will take all of us.

Karen DaPonte Thornton is a professorial lecturer in law at George Washington University. She previously served as a professional staff member with the House Armed Services Committee.

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