The Case for an Intelligence Community Innovation Unit


OPINION — In the face of a world-altering pandemic, we must take this opportunity to create space for innovation within the Intelligence Community.

I left my role as an intelligence analyst at NGA at the start of 2016, when my husband began a new job in Boston. Although I attempted to secure a joint duty assignment in Boston–which is required to make senior executive rank–ultimately, NGA was unable to hammer out the billet logistics and so I made the choice to leave rather than be in a long-distance relationship for an indeterminate amount of time.  After working for two years in a cybersecurity startup, I entered the Mid-Career Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program at Harvard Kennedy School so I could better understand IC policy with the hope that I could someday eventually improve it.

The world has undergone seismic changes since I left the Intelligence Community. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced grave economic, public health, and social challenges. The Intelligence Community is grappling with how to conduct operations and analysis amid this crisis, and it’s one that magnifies just how outdated our national security infrastructure is.  But it’s also one that demonstrates how critical our expert civil servants are to functioning institutions. We must ensure our government not only retains career experts, but also develops leaders that can think and operate across the ecosystem, especially in political environments in which it’s difficult to communicate national security issues. In doing so, the IC must become responsive to evolving global and cultural conditions by focusing on its people–by developing analysts who are empowered to solve problems.  This will in turn spur innovation within the Community–but an overarching body to create these conditions is necessary.

An Intelligence Community Innovation Unit (ICIU), echoing the disruptive successes of the Defense Digital Service and Defense Innovation Unit, would act to identify and disrupt status-quo policies and mindsets that push top talent out and prevent necessary evolution. With a startup mindset, the ICIU would bring human-centered principles to the Intelligence Community, oriented toward the future. Specifically, such an organization must focus on creating or amplifying policies to empower its officers–through revitalizing personnel management, modernizing analysis and encouraging collaboration, incentivizing analysts to learn and use technology, and now, innovating ways in which its workforce can operate in difficult conditions like the one we find ourselves in today.

Revitalizing Personnel Management

One of the principles of the ODNI’s Human Capital Vision 2020 (which was written in 2014) is to shape an effective workforce by advocating for policies and processes to better attract, retain, and recognize personnel. Unfortunately, the IC lacks a mechanism to understand what its officers need. The DNI’s Employee Climate Survey (ECS) is the only institutionalized tool for community-wide information gathering, but the survey is a poor instrument for identifying critical issues, and no community-wide body exists to study problems and work to solve them. In my experience, ECS results were turned back to individual agencies and lower-level officers to identify solutions–hardly a way to create meaningful change across the ecosystem. To illustrate, when I spoke with ODNI human capital officers last year during my research, I discovered there were no policies in the works related to parental leave, as they were unaware of any such issue among federal workers, despite its proven ability to cut attrition among women in mid-career ranks (an ongoing critical issue).

The ICIU would flip this process on its head and instead its personnel would go out to the intelligence workforce to identify issues and bright spots across the community.  In doing so, the ICIU might identify and institutionalize best practices, such as the manner in which personnel in my office were managed during my tenure: our performance was based on analytical outcomes rather than arbitrary production numbers. A key performance metric included our ability to form operational relationships across agencies as intelligence issues arose–in essence, taking the initiative to work across the community. My leadership created the environment for cross-functional teams and for analysis of hard problems instead of writing reports for the sake of production.

Modernizing Analysis and Operational Collaboration

The ability to flex skill sets and create teams to meet the mission is a principle that must be embraced across the IC. Deep expertise and encouragement by leadership to collaborate through sustained communications and connections across government transforms a public servant from rule-bound to problem-solving. This is what happened in my office in the mid-2000s, resulting in a new intelligence methodology called Activity Based Intelligence.

Analytic modernization must be supported by an ecosystem that rewards outcomes and problem-solving, but this requires deliberate, sustained, and coordinated evolution. Point-to-point relationships, for example, do not scale.  Here, the ICIU could work to identify and pull the appropriate policy and organizational levers to adjust organizations.  Additionally, the ICIU would help to promote knowledge and skill sets, acting as a hub for innovation and information. Furthermore, the ICIU would act as an arbiter between the IC and Congress on these issues and help Congress to understand and accept innovation as a positive, rather than a threat to traditional lines of funding.

Partnering Analysts with Technology          

To continue to evolve analysis, the community must understand how analysts can best partner with technology and make sense of data. Analysts still must grapple with the lack of interoperable systems across different agencies and inefficient data processing. Although organizations like the DoD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center are exploring how to use machine learning and AI from an institutional perspective, without an ecosystem which rewards problem solving over production, and one that brings analysts together to identify and coordinate technological requirements, the community will be slow to evolve.

Analysts must be incentivized and given opportunities to learn and use technology instead of reverting to traditional (slow and inefficient) methods for fear of doing something wrong or because the technology solution takes time to learn. They must also be the end users that technologists work with–not high-level leadership and contracting representatives. Many private sector technologies are accessible via the open internet, but analysts are concerned about using the internet safely. This can be addressed through comprehensive cybersecurity skills training and tools. The ICIU must foster a culture in which a learning mindset is encouraged and rewarded. This could entail providing middle managers with new performance rating paradigms as well as using behavioral science principles to nudge workers to embrace technology.

Operating in non-ideal environments

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people into their homes as a means to reduce community spread of the virus. This event is a wakeup call for us all and we must be prepared to meet the next national or global crisis with a plan for continued operations that acknowledge potential tradeoffs. The ICIU must consider this issue carefully alongside ODNI leadership. Is working remotely an option?  What risks and rewards must be balanced to achieve our objectives?  It’s clear that the current situation is untenable–and there must be a coordinated plan to avoid its repeat.


The IC stands at an inflection point amid a global pandemic. A former IC leader recently remarked that IC leaders need to know how to innovate within existing institutions–and that we must take this opportunity to make the IC what it needs to be. It must transform its policies and create an ecosystem which fosters employee empowerment and development, which will in turn spur innovation in analysis and technology. The Intelligence Community Innovation Unit is a solution that will provide that disruption and seek to create and implement policies that will bring about this change to serve those who serve our nation. Our national security depends on hiring and retaining motivated and bright people and allowing them to figure out solutions to our most complex intelligence problems.

Have an idea that could move this concept forward?  Drop us a note:  [email protected]

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