Bonus Q&A from NGA Senior Panel

NGA leadership discuss transparency, IC ITE, R&D, and more


In June, senior leadership from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) participated in a first-of-its-kind panel discussion on the main stage at USGIF’s GEOINT 2015 Symposium in Washington, D.C. The in-person audience had an overflow of questions for the panelists, so trajectory reached out to have some answered in writing. Below, NGA leadership share more thoughts on transparency, small business, integration, research, and culture.

Q. What is driving the need to be open and transparent? What’s the timeline for implementation? Will NGA be hiring uncleared employees?

A. From NGA Director Robert Cardillo:

There is a more vibrant debate in the public and legislative communities about the role of the Intelligence Community in the digital age. At NGA, we have embraced this dialogue in general as intelligence professionals and in particular as stewards of geospatial intelligence. The fact that our source material is less invasive and more transparent affords us an opportunity to be particularly helpful here—and we will.

The driving forces are the commercialization and commoditization of GEOINT and the blurring between modern knowledge work and intelligence analysis. Historic government imaging monopolies have broken down. NGA will derive more insights from the ever-growing amount of unclassified data. This opens the door to working more transparently because the methods, software, tools, etc. are now more similar to the uncleared world.

NGA is growing the concept of who’s on the team to include more academic and international partners as well as geographic communities because of the increases in unclassified source material.

NGA will re-examine the pros and cons of classification as we seek to succeed in the open. That review will include the potential benefits of acquiring the services (government or contractor) of those without clearances. That does not mean that we will not continue to provide a world-class classified geospatial intelligence service—we will. And that service will ride on top of a growing foundation of information that is openly available.

In fact, NGA just modified a major support contract to hire uncleared personnel for the Pathfinder project. This is a big step. Pathfinder started in mid-August and will run into November. The new methodologies, suggested policy changes, data, and insights will be used to see how we might be more transparent and more open—and more supportive of our customers’ needs.

Q. How are you adapting your acquisition model to incorporate new potential partners, and how are you lowering entry barriers for small businesses?

A. From NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon:

NGA is pursuing a multi-faceted approach to maximize our number of potential industry partners. Transparency and communication make up the foundational layer. As you may have noticed, NGA has developed a robust approach to industry interaction, ensuring through multiple fora that all potential partners have the most up-to-date information possible on future acquisition strategy as well as immediate and near-term business opportunities. Our GEOINT Solutions Marketplace (GSM) was established and will serve as a cornerstone of our outreach efforts. GSM is available to all via the Internet and provides an opportunity for partners to review NGA portfolio areas of interest and to submit capabilities for review, evaluation, and potential adoption.

Our Small Business Office proactively informs the small business community about future acquisition strategies through its engagement at numerous targeted, industry-wide events and strives to ensure our small business partners are on a level playing field when it comes to access to information.

It is important to note that while NGA reviews every acquisition for small business set-aside opportunities, our larger transparency and communication efforts are designed, in part, to provide small business partners with the information they need for effective teaming. Finally, with the explosion of GEOINT tools and capabilities across the commercial market, I am confident that NGA will benefit from incorporating those capabilities into our architecture. We are fostering venues that allow greater flexibility, more agility, and shortened acquisition cycles to exploit those new capabilities.

Senior leaders throughout the agency meet regularly with members of industry to discuss opportunities and explore industry capabilities. The Component Acquisition Executive, the Senior Procurement Executive, and the Industry Innovation Advocate also conduct small group sessions each month with our industry teammates. If a company is interested in attending one of those sessions, they should reach out to Daniel Takane at 571-557-2041.

Q. What is the status and what are the next steps for the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE)? In what ways do you interact with peers from other IC agencies and drive end-to-end enterprise solutions?

A. From NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon:

We are on track to have all NGA and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) users on the Intelligence Community Desktop Environment (IC DTE) by the end of this calendar year. Now that the DTE Phase II contract has been awarded, we will continue to migrate users until all 250,000 IC members are on DTE by the end of 2018. We continue to coordinate with DIA to mature enterprise management services, including back-end IT management and help desk support.

We’re aggressively pursuing ways to add, manage, and secure content in cloud environments. We need to ensure that we are taking advantage of the cloud to achieve our true goal of improving analytics, effectively securing our geospatial data, and allowing for fast discovery of content. Using a cloud operating model allows NGA and the rest of the IC to share data storage space, applications, and other resources in one virtual location. Constantly improving cloud technology allows the system to scale automatically based on demand.

We have established a framework and concept for using cloud computing on all three security networks to accelerate intelligence integration and potentially decrease IT costs and security risks. Implementing our vision requires NGA to use—and in some cases build—cloud environments on all three security domains. This will allow mission users to access and work with information where it is discovered and stored. We’re exploring opportunities to build or adopt cloud services in the unclassified domain. We’re driving to increase NGA’s use of non-traditional data alongside that collected from traditional sources.

Q. What changes are you making to NGA business practices to facilitate a culture change?

A. From NGA Chief of Staff Ed Mornston:

As Director Cardillo has cautioned, “What got us here, won’t get us there.” Future innovation in GEOINT will come from everywhere: from partners with whom we have not previously teamed, from small businesses partners, and from new partners who are standing up or may not even exist today.

The world’s national security threats are constantly evolving and we need to embrace change to stay ahead of the curve to ensure precise and applicable intelligence reporting. We have to change our mindset at NGA and throughout the Intelligence Community to embrace agility.

We have implemented a number of new programs and initiatives to facilitate a cultural shift inside and outside our walls. Within NGA, we are relooking at our business processes with an eye toward improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and agility of our organization. Earlier this year, we asked each of our business units to provide a list of inefficient and ineffective business processes. We are working hard to eliminate these processes from our daily operations.

Additionally, we’ve implemented what we call “Mission-Talent Alignment,” one of our top agency priorities. We are conducting an assessment of our people and our mission priorities, and ensuring we have aligned the right people to the right job. We’re also taking a close look at workforce development—career development, education, training, and assignment. Aligning our workforce to mission priorities and providing the training necessary to excel at these positions is critical to our success.

Externally we are strengthening our relationships with industry and constantly looking for new ways to be transparent. We have appointed an Industry Innovation Advocate to work closely with industry to improve our existing relationships and to find new, exciting opportunities to meet our current and future mission needs. We’re also shifting to an agile acquisition model that will enable us to streamline the process of creating industry and academic partnerships to meet our fluid mission requirements.

As we all know, cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. It is going to take a sustained and coordinated effort to “get us there.” We believe that the pieces we are putting in place today will help us do just that.

Q. What are your current research and development (R&D) goals internally, and how do you plan to engage with industry to overcome challenges?

A. From NGA Director of Plans and Programs Misty Tullar:

The GEOINT R&D challenges we face today represent the fruition of projections made at the turn of the 21st century. We predicted and called for measures to deal differently with the volume, variety, and also the velocity of information. We are nearing—if not at—the tipping point where the primary sources for GEOINT will flow from open-source information that we do not task in the classic sense of our tradecraft.

The pivot to unclassified data sources has a democratizing effect, expanding the GEOINT Community to new contributors, analytics, and problem sets. Geospatial data and analytics are increasingly available and used by journalists, activists, and science communities alike to characterize situations or issues, and to predict, forecast, or produce trending information for action.

We’ve been prescient in planning for this new balance, working on cloud risk reduction efforts, graph analytics and spectral exploitation, and pioneering advances in tool sets that incorporate motion. Still, our execution has been somewhat risk averse. Assuming that what worked for us in the past will work for us in the future simply will not get us to where we need to be.

There is so much GEOINT relevant to R&D innovation happening outside the government that we must shift our mindset on how to capture value from the outside and not just focus on what is happening inside our insulated classified environment. That means more disciplined engagement with the industry—seeing what’s trending, and staying engaged in conversations on ideation of the GEOINT business. That helps us predict how the business may evolve and what tools we need to do our jobs more efficiently now and in the future, and act quickly to get those capabilities to our analysts.

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