The Science of Certification

Developing performance standards for the GEOINT community


EDITOR’S NOTE: In the fall of 2011, spurred by language in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence issued a directive requiring each Intelligence Community Functional Manager to develop a certification program for individual professionals in their discipline.

Responding to this requirement, USGIF is working with NGA and stakeholders throughout the GEOINT Community to ensure that professional GEOINT certification is developed in accordance with evidence-based best practices and delivers measurable value throughout the Community.

Dr. James Ellsworth, USGIF’s chief performance officer, leads this effort for the Foundation. In this article, he outlines the case for GEOINT certification and the process through which it will be developed.

There are many reasons why GEOINT Community leaders are turning toward certification as an integral part of their human capital strategy. It is part of the natural evolution of the GEOINT tradecraft, and there is strong interest across government, industry, and academia to take this important next step toward professionalization of the workforce. Despite substantial and ongoing investment in training and education, learning does not always equal competence—and despite universal appreciation for the importance of the résumé, having held a job in the past is less conclusive than a recent, objective demonstration of the ability to perform to a measurable, recognized standard.

A valid certification program can fill that gap, through some combination of “the four Es”—education, experience, examination, and ethics (in this case, the demonstrated ability to consistently add value to society through the exercise of one’s profession). Certification ensures that those hired, assigned, or promoted into positions of organizational or even national importance have demonstrated the competencies those jobs require.

For all the value that certification can offer—in government (at all levels), business, and academia—those seeking to reap its benefits often have little idea of how to go about putting a program in place. Many organizations, not wanting to reinvent the wheel, assume the best they can do is to adapt concepts from student assessment and human resource management and hope they get them where they want to go.

However, there is a specific, well-understood process for developing legally defensible, performance-based certification standards. What’s more, this process is scientific—that is, it has been demonstrated to reliably produce the desired results and is backed by decades of valid evidence.

Lay the Groundwork

Why certify? From the classic writings of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian soldier and military strategist, to the contemporary wisdom of business gurus like Dr. Stephen R. Covey, history teaches that effective planning begins with understanding the objective—and certification is no different. Even if a certification effort has been mandated, as is the case for GEOINT certification, more can be accomplished if the planning team first steps back to explore the context around that directive. Who are the major stakeholders? What are they trying to accomplish? What will be their roles in the process?

Next comes the business case. Although the business case is obvious for a private sector certification program, it applies equally in government—especially in a time of declining budgets. Developing a business case is like a financial Intelligence Preparation of the Operating Environment: it involves taking stock of the workforce performance factors, challenges, and opportunities surrounding the organization, then exploring alternative courses of action for achieving the organization’s objectives, to demonstrate whether a credentialing program is the best use of the organization’s resources.

For GEOINT certification, the need for agility to respond to budget cuts on the one hand and the next national security crisis on the other, makes a strong financial argument for facilitating movement throughout the profession. Likewise, the availability of a broad base of technical geospatial associations coupled with a unifying GEOINT professional organization—the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF)—offers opportunities to minimize the taxpayer’s burden through public-private partnership with the broader professional community.

Design the Program

Once the goals and financing of the certification program are understood, the next step is to define the credential’s standards and requirements. Typically, standards are defined through a job and task analysis—a detailed examination of each professional role and its component tasks. For GEOINT certification, a wide range of government and corporate schoolhouses (NGA College, the military services, industry) and professional organizations already have competencies and standards in place based on job and task analyses conducted using the same process.

Together, these can be used to define the essential body of knowledge—the competencies one requires to be a professional in a given domain—for an entry-level GEOINT credential without duplicating those efforts. Such sources continue to be useful for certifications at higher levels too, although there is some evidence suggesting that an advanced process called a cognitive task analysis, used to elicit more sophisticated forms of expertise from accomplished professionals, should also be conducted to identify competencies that may not have been thoroughly captured using traditional methods.

After the standards are defined, it becomes possible to select the most appropriate means for assessing each competency—that is, the requirements for a candidate to achieve certification. Attaining a certain level of education most reliably represents some competencies. Others require some degree of experience working in the environment and under the conditions that the job demands. Still others may require objective, third-party validation through an examination, and some may require consistent demonstration of the ability to add value through the exercise of the profession—a practical definition of ethics. The requirements for GEOINT certification will almost certainly include some mix of “the four Es.” However, the weight of each cannot validly be assigned before the standards they must measure have been identified.

Develop the Elements

One of the most time-consuming aspects of a strong certification program is development of a valid, legally defensible examination. Consequently, it is critical to begin this process as soon as the competencies and standards are defined. Another approach is to design the strategy around initial launch of the program without an examination component, with one being added later. This latter approach may be especially useful when—as for GEOINT certification—there is likely to be some disagreement among significant stakeholders on what belongs in the profession’s unifying essential body of knowledge.

In such cases, expert panels can be formed to judge early candidate materials and build toward consensus on the body of knowledge. Panelists will increasingly gain a sense of what they are focusing on when evaluating each portfolio, and an exam component can be deployed in a subsequent year. Such an approach has been met with notable success in GIS professions, such as the GIS Certification Institute’s GIS Professional credential. However, when considering this option, it is important to keep in mind that some societal or organizational cultures place extreme value on the presence of a solid exam when judging a certification’s credibility.

Also critical to remember when developing a certification program is that specific, objective, and credibly independent procedures must be thought out and formally specified in advance for the credential to be legally defensible, as well as externally accredited under national or international standards. This includes organizational design, like setting up an autonomous governing body representative of the major stakeholders, including, for GEOINT certification, government at all levels, industry, academia, allies, and even intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. It is also important to craft procedures for matters like right of incumbency—if certification is required for employment—appeals, suspension, and reinstatement of the credential.

Another critical procedure to address during certification program development is future recertification and renewal. Few fields are sufficiently static to certify professionals for life, and highly technical disciplines like GEOINT are certainly no exception. Sound, performance-based requirements for periodic renewal ensure the credential remains valid and respected as the profession evolves. Well-planned criteria for recertification can address extreme cases, such as when disruptive change has so altered the profession that its practitioners must be recertified on fundamentally altered competencies. The Defense Security Service’s Security Professional Education Development (SPe-D) program offers a good example of recertification and renewal criteria.

One more consideration too often overlooked is one near and dear to the hearts of GEOINTers: geography. Modern professions are almost never restricted by geography. They have practitioners worldwide, who could also benefit from a shared credential—as could collaboration among them. Yet it is highly unlikely that a program will be successful outside the cultural or national context in which it is developed without explicit, deliberate attention throughout program development and implementation to issues like cross-cultural validity, divergent legal or regulatory frameworks, information exchange, and communication.

Deploy the Program

After designing the program and developing the elements, many would consider the hard work complete, yet most innovations that fail do so in or after the deployment phase. In part, this is because an organization that waits to consider deployment until its program is ready for prime time is likely to find its opposition entrenched. Information abhors a vacuum. If an organization isn’t strategizing the implementation of its program and engaging in regular planned communications with its stakeholders from the very beginning, then those harboring concerns will surely fill that vacuum with less favorable communications.

USGIF has begun to address these necessary communication elements for GEOINT certification through informative articles such as this, panel discussions about the impact to the GEOINT Community and the IC and DoD at-large, interviews like those on, and informational webcasts.


The final major phase in the creation of a solid certification system is measuring its impact. Here, it is again crucial that planning for measurement begin at the outset of development. Without a firm grasp of how success will be defined and evaluated, not only by the credentialing organization but also by its stakeholders, the certification is almost certain to go astray, and find its outcomes ill-suited to a convincing demonstration of the value it adds.

This is being addressed in the GEOINT certification development process through proactive conversations with both evaluation experts and the profession’s many stakeholders, focused on forging a consensus as to how impact will be measured.

Development of a valid and effective certification—like any change—is a process rather than a point in time. While there are many technical and political pitfalls that could snare an unwary traveler, there is also a scientific process backed by a wealth of evidence-based practice available to guide the wise.

As it pursues the creation of a rigorous, third-party accredited system for professional GEOINT certification, USGIF stands ready to assist the Community in consolidating stakeholder feedback, preparing to take advantage of what certification has to offer, and developing or evolving complementary, technical (geospatial discipline-specific) certifications.

What is Certification?

A certification is a credential awarded to individuals who have successfully demonstrated possession of specified competencies through some combination of education, experience, examination, and ethics—and is often provided by an objective third party organization that was not itself the source of the competencies.

This is distinct from a certificate, which is a credential awarded to those who have successfully completed a program of instruction; certificates attest to learning whereas certifications attest to performance.

Certification is important because it protects the public interest by helping decision makers distinguish proven professionals current in their fields from charlatans or practitioners who have allowed their competencies to atrophy. Consider the emerging field of cybersecurity. As leaders grow more aware of the threats facing their computer systems, cybersecurity is proving a lucrative opportunity for those who talk a good game but have few real skills. The presence of certifications, such as ISC2’s Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), help decision makers hire and promote competent performers.

Certification can also allow leaders in highly mobile professions to be confident that new employees transferring in from another region actually possess the same skills as the individual they’re replacing. For example, ASMC’s Certified Defense Financial Manager (CDFM) credential enables supervisors to hire a certified individual from anywhere else in the DoD knowing that they possess the skills the job requires.

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