Messaging is Key to Bringing Top Talent onto Defense Projects

By: Kathryn Long, Columnist

On October 9th, the Government Accountability Office released a report to the Senate Armed Services Committee criticizing the failure of the Department of Defense (DOD) to take seriously cybersecurity concerns relating to weapons systems.[i] The report acknowledged that DOD has taken steps to improve this deficiency but noted “DOD is struggling to hire and retain cybersecurity personnel, who are essential to implementing these changes.”[ii] Recruitment of fresh talent is an issue across the federal government. As of 2017, those under 35 represented only 17% of the federal workforce, despite making up about 40% of the private sector total.[iii] Particularly for agencies concerned with national defense, this pending labor shortage is compounded by inefficiencies in the acquisition system, which is mired in paperwork, regulations, and long lead times, deterring private companies from pursuing defense contracts.[iv] These problems imply that the government is also lagging in engaging top young talent through private sector contracts. Recent news stories would suggest that in addition to bureaucratic reforms, the government should seek to make itself a better customer through clear messaging about the purpose of its initiatives and their significance to national defense. This communication should be both general and initiative-specific, promoting an understanding among young technical talent that working for the US defense apparatus, either through direct government employment or through private contractors, is a means to making the social impact millennials value.[v]

A clear example of a failure to communicate the social value of a DOD initiative came earlier this summer when Google made headlines by citing employee protest in declining to renew a contract for an artificial intelligence and computer vision project known as Project Maven.[vi] Google employees who protested the project feared that it would be weaponized “for lethal purposes.”[vii] A DOD representative was clear that rather than directly selecting combat targets, the artificial intelligence would be used to “compliment the human operator.”[viii] The DOD’s announcements on the project were focused on the need for artificial intelligence to address the overwhelming amount of data the DOD workforce is tasked with evaluating, not the weaponized uses of such technology,[ix] indicating that although lethal use was possible, it was not a primary goal of Project Maven. Google’s decision to leave the project thus implies that the narrative had become dominated by employee fears rather than the actual goals. While this is a single and highly specific example, it is not isolated. On October 4th, the Washington Post presented a similar case where the narrative became dominated by fear over benefit, reporting that a DOD funded project studying the use of insects to genetically modify crops to withstand an agricultural crisis had come under criticism by experts for fears the program could be weaponized.[x] Clear messaging about the potential benefits and intended use of a DOD initiative could serve to build trust between defense agencies and the talent they are trying to recruit, addressing these instances of reticence. Although there will always be security concerns which limit the extent of information that can be communicated about defense initiatives, the DOD should remain cognizant that healthy transparency, communicating the importance of a project for public good, is crucial in gaining experts in the technological workforce as national security partners.

A model for such messaging comes from the tech industry itself. Controversial technology is not new to Google or other top technology firms, which have increasingly come under public and regulatory scrutiny due to concerns about privacy, data security, and openness.[xi] Despite these concerns, firms have managed to market themselves as workplace with a social ethos, Google’s former unofficial motto of “Don’t be Evil” being one such example. The federal government may not be able to compete with the financial incentives the private can offer tech graduates,[xii] but it should not be losing on the marketing front. By its nature, the work of federal employees and contractors is to serve the public interest, not to turn a profit, an idea which could appeal to the desire for a sense of purpose in a career that is common among younger workers.[xiii] This would suggest that the mission of national security can and should be used as tool to bring young, enthusiastic talent into the government workforce. Government agencies should act on this by communicating their mission early through college recruitment and by increasing transparency about the intended use of government funded technologies wherever possible. Early and effective messaging will allow students and new graduates of technical fields to see government service as both a social good and a viable part of a successful career, serving not just to improve the quality of the federal workforce directly, but also of the many private firms that take defense contracts. Ensuring that the top talent is enthusiastically working on the biggest defense challenges both inside and adjacent to the government is key to facing the myriad of technical challenges affecting the nation’s security.












[i]  United States Government Accountability Office, “Weapon Systems Cybersecurity: DOD Just Beginning to Grapple with Scale of Vulnerabilities”, October 2018.

[ii]  bid.

[iii] Danny Vinik, “America’s Government is Getting Old”, Politico, September 27, 2017. Accessed October 15, 2018.

[iv] Section 809 Panel, “Advisory Panel on Streamlining and Codifying Acquisition Requirements: Section 809 Panel Interim Report”, May 2017.

[v] Deloitte, “Deloitte 2018 Millennial Survey”. Accessed October 15, 2018 file:///Users/kathryn2/Downloads/gx-2018-millennial-survey-report%20(1).pdf

[vi]  Daisuke Wakabayashi and Scott Shane, “Google will not Renew Contract that Upset Employees”, The New York Times, June 1, 2018.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Cheryl Pellerin, US Department of Defense, “Project Maven to Deploy Computer Algorithms to War Zone by Year’s End”, July 21, 2017. Accessed October 10, 2018.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Joel Achenbach, “The Pentagon is studying an insect army to defend crops. Critics fear a bioweapon”, The Washington Post, October 4, 2018.

[xi]  Issie Lapowsky, “Congress’ Chief Tech Watchdog is not Happy with Google”, Wired, September 14, 2018.

[xii] Paul Schrodt, “The 50 Best Jobs in America – And How Much They Pay”, Money, January 24, 2018.

[xiii] United States Office of Personnel Management, “Millennials: Finding Opportunity in Federal Service,” 2014. Accessed October 15, 2018.

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