NGA’s New Power

NGA Director presents revised strategy focused on openness, innovation


If National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Robert Cardillo could enjoy a cold one with any historical figure, there’s a good chance the self-proclaimed “beer snob” would pick Socrates. Although Socrates is known for drinking hemlock, not hops, the ancient Greek philosopher would understand well what Cardillo touted Tuesday morning during his keynote address at GEOINT 2015: the principles of openness and inquisitiveness.

Like Socrates, who was famous for questioning established beliefs, Cardillo—who noted a staggering increase in the number of NGA personnel attending the GEOINT Symposium this year due to its D.C. location—intends to challenge the status quo during his tenure as NGA’s sixth director.

“For decades intelligence was like a regulated currency. We guarded it jealously; we controlled it tightly,” said Cardillo, quoting a December 2014 Harvard Business Review article by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, who referred to this “currency” as “old power.” “They called [old power] ‘closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads and it captures.’ As a currency, hoarding is a good thing … But in today’s world our enterprise must operate differently. Less like a currency and more like a current.”

Instead of old power, Cardillo said, NGA needs new power.

“New power is made by many,” he continued. “And again I quote [Heimans and Timms]: ‘It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads and it distributes. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.’”

Replacing old power with new—at NGA and across the GEOINT Community—demands not only new ideas, but also new objectives, according to Cardillo, who used his keynote as an opportunity to introduce four new strategic goals for his agency:

  • People: NGA needs to attract, develop, and sustain a more “diverse, agile, self-aware, and expert” workforce, according to Cardillo, who promised to cut through NGA’s “Gordian Knot” like Alexander the Great by creating a “learning organization with a culture of innovation” that rewards risk-taking and collaboration. Specific goals include workflow automation, which will allow analysts to spend more time analyzing; activity resolution and activity-based intelligence, which will facilitate increased GEOINT storytelling; and small satellites, data from which will empower analysts. “While I recognize that there are two sides to the world of growing transparency, I’m energized and enthused about this development,” Cardillo said of the SmallSat revolution. “Frankly, it’s pushed GEOINT to an inflection point … The democratization of GEOINT and the darkening of the skies is the opportunity of our time.”
  • Partners: In Greek mythology, Atlas held the entire world on his shoulders. NGA is no Atlas, according to Cardillo, who said the agency will adapt to an increasingly “chaotic, messy, and dangerous” world by focusing on greater collaboration with open online communities of geographers and technologists, international partners, industry, universities, and think tanks, all of which constitute a partnership Cardillo calls “Team GEOINT.” “Team GEOINT … uses skills and collective power to advance our craft, extend capabilities, and connect with the community of practitioners,” he said. “NGA cannot do it alone. NGA will not do it alone. So we must leverage the collective strength of the team.”
  • Profession: The benefit of increased partnership, according to Cardillo, is enhanced tradecraft. “We must advance excellence in our craft,” he said, promising industry that he would bring increased speed, flexibility, and efficiency to NGA’s acquisition process in order to accelerate GEOINT transformation. “We’re breaking down the barriers to inclusion and innovation in the commercial and academic worlds … to be as effective in the unclassified world as we were and are in the classified world.”
  • Value: Its focus on people, partners, and the profession will drive NGA’s final strategic goal, which is increasing its value by transitioning from a “customer-focused” to a “customer-centric” organization. “We have to understand [our customers] so well that we not only anticipate their needs, but we exceed their expectations,” said Cardillo, who described NGA’s role in the IC going forward as that of a “service provider and data broker” providing its customers a platform for “on-demand, all-domain access” to geospatial information.

Behind NGA’s new strategy—which the agency test-drove during the Nepal earthquakes in spring 2015—is a revised mission statement: “We strengthen the nation through our command of geospatial intelligence.”

Having command of geospatial intelligence shouldn’t be interpreted as having a monopoly over it. Cardillo pledged that under his leadership NGA would succeed not by providing all the answers, but rather by asking all the questions. And most importantly, by being open and accessible enough to receive answers from others.

“On his 10-year odyssey back from the Trojan War, Ulysses faced a number of new threats. His old power—a large military force that was victorious in the Trojan War—was of little use. He needed a new approach to these threats,” concluded Cardillo, adding the source of NGA’s “new power” will be the collective strength of the GEOINT Community. “If we’re honest with ourselves about what we can achieve alone or together, we know we’re better off together. Because that way we’ll be strong enough to help our customers handle the heaviest burden they ever have to bear.”


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