Thinking Small: How the Intelligence Community Can Catalyze Digital Transformation

Strategists in Washington, London, and other allied capitals continue to paint a bleak picture of the future. The Biden administration took the rare step of issuing its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance in March, which reflected the White House’s initial outlook on how to meet an increasingly complex and contested world. The tremendous challenges ahead are echoed in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) quadrennial Global Trends report as well as in the United Kingdom’s capstone, whole-of-government strategy document, the 2021 Integrated Review. As the Biden administration zeroes in on a final National Security Strategy in the coming months, there are serious questions about the U.S. Intelligence Community’s (IC) ability to provide timely, accurate, and meaningful warning and analysis on China, Russia, and an increasingly diverse range of state and non-state competitors.

The IC is not blind to the urgency of transformation. As recently highlighted during the public hearing on the ODNI’s 2021 Annual Threat Assessment, there is broad recognition that strategic competition and disruptive adversarial behavior in the information space will require the IC to modernize its technology, human capital, and culture. Over the past several years, components across the intelligence enterprise have issued strategic roadmaps that seek to transform how intelligence professionals integrate technology into their work.

This long-term planning is well-informed and essential; however, the promises of large-scale, disruptive technological change are years, if not decades, away. Meanwhile, the intelligence mission grows more complex by the day. Intelligence officers are already overwhelmed with data. The signal-to-noise ratio is unmanageable, and adversaries are using increasingly sophisticated methods to conceal those signals and to introduce more noise and uncertainty into the system.

To put some perspective on the data challenge facing the IC, the general public can browse more than 321 gigabytes of data the CIA has declassified since the 2010 operation targeting Osama bin Laden. This cache includes more than 18,000 text documents, 6,600 audio files, 10,000 videos, and 72,000 images in varying formats and multiple languages. While that one operation was large, it was hardly unique in scale. And in the decade since, global data generation has increased nearly 65 times over.

Intelligence success in this environment requires imagination, flexibility, resilience, and risk tolerance. These are not characteristics of today’s IC, as the CSIS Technology and Intelligence Task Force recently examined. Promoting the cultural transformation necessary to realize the promises of emerging technology will be a generational effort. However, as Washington crafts new strategies and budgets over the next year, the executive branch and Congress should use the cost-effective tools at their disposal to nurture a culture of innovation in the IC. Counterintuitively, given the magnitude of the challenge, to promote IC innovation policymakers should think small.

Thinking small does not mean compromising on the vision for long-term transformation. It instead means that leaders should decentralize innovation and empower it at the lowest organizational level. In the intelligence business, the best mission outcomes often emerge when small teams with the right talent, tools, and leadership are allowed to take risks and solve problems.

In 2021, there are any number of simple scripts, open-source software tools, and commercial off-the-shelf products that enable teams and organizations to automate, prioritize, and focus their data exploitation efforts. Despite long-standing awareness of the issue, and any number of commercial capabilities that may help, the IC has struggled to deliver enterprise data analysis tools to its broader workforce. As former CIA official Stephen Slick put it, intelligence agencies are legendary for their technical triumphs, but this prowess is “rarely translated to the individual officer’s workstation.”

Today, just about every intelligence officer is dealing with their equivalent of the bin Laden data challenge, only on an exponentially greater scale. Often their priorities for what to extract from that data are tactical and mission specific. For example, maybe they need to quickly find everything in the dataset that looks like a phone number or email address. Or maybe they need to rapidly prioritize the order in which to review files based on certain, defined criteria. Or maybe they are searching for a very specific signal in all of the noise. The requirements are as diverse as the missions across the IC’s 18 agencies, and there are few one-size-fits-all solutions. Frequently, small teams will devise unique solutions that achieve remarkable outcomes. When these successes happen, they are briefed to senior leaders and discussions begin immediately about scaling this new capability to the enterprise. Why, then, are such wide swaths of the workforce still doing things the old (manual) way?

The answer is that this success is not necessarily about the tool or the technology. It is about the culture, process, and leadership that enabled a group with the right skills to solve a hard problem. This is what needs to be scaled to the enterprise, and it can be accomplished when leaders promote the conditions where these successes happen. This includes rewarding those willing to seek new solutions to old problems, even when they fail, and ensuring that the organization is unleashing the right mix of talent against specific problems. While it is often noted that the IC has long struggled to recruit, clear, and onboard science and technology talent, these small data, mission-specific problems do not require the world’s leading computer scientists and mathematicians. Often what they need are eager, technically inclined people with “hobby-grade” coding skills and a basic understanding of data analysis. If leaders look close enough, they may find that there is more latent technical talent in their organizations than they realize.

Armed with basic tools and talent, and small-scale projects, the broader understanding of how emerging technology will benefit the intelligence mission can take root in IC culture. As time progresses, the IC’s long-term technology planning will bear fruit. The promises of the transformation enabled by investments in core infrastructure—storage, computing, analytics, and talent—will be met by a workforce with a much clearer understanding of how technology directly benefits their work on the ground.

Moreover, in an era of flat or declining budgets in Washington, efforts to empower ground-level innovation in the IC are cost effective. The biggest investments will not be financial; they will be in the time that senior leaders take to understand how to empower this near-term, small-scale innovation and synchronize it with longer-term strategy.

Thankfully, on the technical side, the IC’s challenges are, for the most part, no different than any other organization trying to extract meaning from bulk data. Analytic tools are widely available and, in many cases, free and open source. To enable the small innovations so essential to the day-to-day work of analysts, collectors, and warfighters, technologists do not necessarily need bespoke, classified intelligence tools. They often just need access to basic cloud computing services, some free and open-source software, and encouragement from all levels of leadership to seek innovative solutions.

There have been recent, positive signs that leaders are beginning to recognize how thinking small can enable digital transformation. During a recent event, the CIA chief information officer (CIO) Juliane Gallina promoted the importance of rapid innovation on the ground by enabling integrated teams of data analysts and operational personnel. This effort, known in Langley as “Citizen IT,” is one of the CIA CIO’s top four strategic priorities. It is intended to lower the bar to innovation by pushing basic tools to teams that are empowered and staffed with the right people. Policymakers would be well-advised to study the extent to which this initiative is driving near-term operational outcomes and laying the groundwork for CIA’s broader digital modernization strategy.

Similarly, in the Department of Defense (DoD), technologists have begun developing and sharing resources to accelerate decentralized innovation. One example, the “Data Science Cookbook,” is specifically designed to help novice and advanced data analysts develop tactical-level solutions, which the designers have touted as an important complement to larger-scale, top-down initiatives like DoD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC).

Also within DoD, the Air Force’s Computer Language Self-Assessment program, which seeks to identify technically savvy airmen within the Air Force Reserve, is another promising model for how the IC could canvass its own workforce in search of latent technical talent and match those personnel to missions where their unique skills could be helpful. Similarly, the Air Force has studied ways to treat computer language ability on par with the incentives it provides to personnel who maintain mission-critical foreign language skills. This is another promising approach that the IC should partner with Congress to replicate and expand.

Intelligence leaders also need to ensure they are recognizing and rewarding the personnel and teams who are developing new methods to solve hard problems. Innovation is already integrated into many annual awards programs across the IC, but leaders should find regular opportunities to recognize success stories in their internal and external communications. Congress should also establish small “innovation funds” within all IC components that can be used to kickstart new efforts or provide small cash awards to recognize exceptional work.

Ultimately, successful implementation of a “small ideas” approach to innovation will require organizations to identify the right talent to embed in the right missions. Some situations may benefit from someone with basic coding skills; others may lend themselves to more sophisticated talent or tools. Some pilots may be successful; others may fail. Regardless, the entire exercise, if encouraged and incentivized by leadership, fosters a culture willing to experiment, fail fast, and keep trying.

It also builds an important bridge between the operational and the technical components of the IC, which will be essential to driving the longer-term cultural change central to the IC’s technology transformation. In the near term, small-scale innovation projects will arm non-technical personnel with the increasingly important skill of translating mission needs into technical requirements and actual capabilities. On the other side, the technologists who will be instrumental in building the IC’s future capabilities will gain direct insight into how technology is applied in the context of an ongoing operation.

The pursuit of advanced technologies is a cornerstone of the era of strategic competition. However, if the workforce is going to be prepared to adopt those emerging capabilities, thinking small is the IC’s best way to start building a culture of innovation today.

Jake Harrington is an intelligence fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.