It’s often said that government work isn’t glamorous. But pre-pandemic government work in the national security realm was at least one step beyond. Back in the before times, tens of thousands of national security employees — both civil servants and their much more numerous contractor counterparts — would arrive each and every morning to nondescript office buildings scattered across the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Maryland. Many of these workers had to first endure a maddening commute, sometimes lasting an hour or more, and could look forward to an even more maddening time getting home. After searching for a parking spot — heaven help anyone who arrived after 8 am — and making their way through security turnstiles by swiping or scanning various multicolored badges hanging from lanyards around their necks, these intrepid employees would have eventually shuffled into their appointed space — whether a drab cubicle, perhaps artfully appointed with photos of loved ones or with a favorite Dilbert cartoon tacked to the wall; an open bay; or, if they were lucky or relatively senior, an even drabber office outfitted with the type of lowest-bid furniture one might describe as, “mid-century mediocre.” Wherever they sat, they would then log on to several outdated computers, all of which were running slow, virtually obsolete operating systems, just to check their various email accounts to find out which boring meeting was first on that day’s agenda — all while thinking, “This can’t be why I went to all the trouble of getting a security clearance, can it?”
COVID-19 put an end to all of that — at least temporarily. The pandemic forced typically sclerotic and risk-averse federal agencies to stumble — most of them uneasily — into a future they hadn’t expected and had even just weeks before sought to prevent. Forced to reverse course, they swiftly amended their outdated policies and rapidly scaled up their capacity for online collaboration, issuing government-owned devices to a great many employees who were newly required to work from home. It was either give in, after all, or be forced to severely curtail day-to-day operations.
I guess necessity really is the mother of invention. And in this case, the experiment forced by necessity was an enormous success.
It was so successful in the private sector, in fact, that the nation’s largest firms, companies like Microsoft and Facebook, have announced that their staffs will have the option to work remotely permanently, lending credence to the suggestion that the office is dead. Salesforce, a major cloud computing provider for the Department of Defense, has gone so far as to declare that the “9-to-5 workday is dead” as well. Even old-school stalwarts, such as JP Morgan Chase & Co and HSBC agree, one calling the five-day work-week a “relic” and the other scrapping its executive offices in favor of shared, community workspaces. All of these companies — and many more besides — are in the process of expanding their work practices to give employees the ability to create schedules that are most convenient for them.
You might be thinking: “What about the federal government? This was all well and good for tech firms, but it won’t work in national security.” Well, tell that to the Department of Defense.
The DoD has been aptly described by one former senior official as “disconcertingly retrograde,” and there’s no doubt the Pentagon faces enormous challenges as it attempts to transform itself from perhaps the world’s greatest monument to the work culture of the 1950s into something a bit more contemporary. But even there, at the world’s largest bureacracy, many employees discovered during the pandemic that they were both better connected and more productive working from home than they were from their office. The DoD’s remote work experiment was, surprisingly, a huge success.
Even some corners of the notoriously secretive Intelligence Community made remote work… well, work. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), for example, hardly missed a beat as lockdowns began. While parts of the IC practically shut down because they were unprepared to move to an unclassified work environment, INR under the leadership of former Assistant Secretary Ellen McCarthy had already been moving to produce more unclassified work to meet their clients where they were — that is, often driving around town or dispersed all over the world. INR’s analysts continued to produce informative, insightful intelligence during the pandemic, much of which, I’m told, went on to be featured in the President’s Daily Brief, the pinnacle of IC analytic output. What’s more impressive is that INR’s analysts did it all from home, using completely unclassified sources.
Of course, we shouldn’t be cavalier with predictions of the traditional office’s demise — ingrained habits die hard. They change only slowly, even with the occasional forward nudges provoked by exogenous factors like COVID. At the end of the day, it’s not a question of technology — which for telepresence has existed for years, after all — but one of organizational culture.
The past year may have proved that national security work can continue in a remote, distributed fashion. But unfortunately, though, even when agencies did adapt, many of them did so in the government’s typical one step forward, two steps back style.
To be fair, many private sector firms made the same mistake, at least initially. They attempted to simply recreate the structure and routine of the physical office in an online environment. But while private sector firms for the most part quickly adapted, the government has lagged behind.
Agencies built the digital infrastructure that made more flexible work practices possible but used it only insomuch as it allowed federal employees to “take the meetings and PowerPoint presentations typically hosted in conference rooms and conduct them in their homes,” — essentially replicating the same boring routines described in the opening paragraph, with widespread afflictions like “Zoom fatigue” as the result.
This is not the way.
While we should applaud any efforts to modernize the national security enterprise’s antiquated digital infrastructure, we shouldn’t accept an outcome that sees federal employees stuck attending the same pointless meetings and suffering through the same tired PowerPoint presentations as if nothing has changed.
The point is that national security work can be done remotely, but doing so requires a commensurate modernization of our agencies’ administrative and organizational technologies along with the ongoing modernization of the ones they use for communications — fixing one without the other will leave agencies with the equivalent of horse-drawn carriages driving down freeways.
The purpose of digital transformation isn’t to replicate the same analog procedures that we’ve been doing all along. It’s to allow for the creation of entirely new procedures — new ways of doing things that take advantage of the speed, scale, and reach that digital communications capabilities provide. The problem with simply digitizing broken or redundant work processes is that at the end of the modernization effort, they’re still broken and redundant — just much faster. The point is that national security work can be done remotely, but doing so requires a commensurate modernization of our agencies’ administrative and organizational technologies along with the ongoing modernization of the ones they use for communications — fixing one without the other will leave agencies with the equivalent of horse-drawn carriages driving down freeways.
In any case, as vaccination rates climb and infection rates fall, federal facilities are once again teeming with life. Nature, as the kids say, is healing. Agencies are calling their people back to their cubicles, restricting telework authorizations, and even cutting back on some of the programs developed to bolster connectivity during the pandemic.
Some federal employees have returned to their old workplaces eagerly, having truly missed face-to-face interactions with their coworkers and having longed for the psychological comfort that a clear division between ‘work’ and ‘not work’ provides. Others, however, have done so reluctantly, realizing that absent office politics and routine distractions, they had more time to, you know, actually do the work they were hired to do. For these employees, the work-from-home experience was a refreshing taste of independence and self-determination. It should come as no surprise that they want more.
Most civil servants, I suspect, fall somewhere between. While they enjoy seeing their teammates, they also want to be able to do meaningful work more conveniently and to have more control over how and where they spend their time. Some days, they’ll want to be crowded around a whiteboard with their colleagues, solving a particularly thorny policy problem or brainstorming about how to apply limited resources against some new threat. Others, they’ll prefer to work from a laptop in a sunlit park, perhaps drafting a new white paper while listening to their favorite music. The future of national security work should accommodate both.
That last sentence might sound like a fantasy to anyone who’s worked at one of our defense or intelligence agencies, but the policies and the technology required to do so — securely — already exist. The only thing preventing this fantasy from becoming reality is our institutional cultures, and it is those we need to change — or else.
The truth is that the successful enterprises of the future — whether public or private — will be those that give their employees more agency to work in the ways they prefer. The institutions that don’t, those who cling to outdated doctrines of rigid managerialism and use presenteeism to measure success, will find themselves increasingly challenged to recruit and retain the sort of world-class creative talent needed to succeed in the digital era.
The choice before national security agencies is not a binary one, between chaining employees to cubicles on the one hand or leaving them to slowly lose their minds to cabin fever on the other. It is about choosing to give employees more control over their professional lives and more freedom to create their own schedules that align with priorities from their personal ones — or not.
If agencies choose to unlearn the lessons from the past year and prematurely scale back or discard altogether the capabilities that they developed during the pandemic, that will be extremely unfortunate. These agencies will risk alienating many of their current employees who have had a taste of freedom and don’t want to give it up — not to mention the vast majority of the next generation who expect nothing less than self-determination and greater autonomy over their career paths. If agencies instead decide to sustain and improve the innovations that got them through the last year successfully, they’ll be better positioned to retain current employees and to attract future ones. Agencies can do this in several ways.
One is by making long-overdue upgrades to unclassified networks. As anyone who’s worked in DoD or the Intelligence Community more broadly knows, it’s simply much easier to do anything on classified systems, which in practice means that a lot of people choose to do everything on them — a fact that tacitly encourages employees to over-classify everything from routine emails to mundane administrative presentations, despite laws on the books meant to explicitly prohibit it. A faster and more accessible unclassified network would help foster a culture that facilitates multiple parties engaging with one another dynamically from anywhere — for the entire workforce.
But we need to broaden the availability of classified mobile networks and devices as well. The DoD’s Mobility Classified Capabilities (DMCC) program, for instance, has long been available to senior government officials and staffers, equipping a select few with NSA-approved tablets and smartphones that –provide access to the Secret — and as of 2017, even Top-Secret — networks, wherever they are. It’s not a question of technology, it’s a deliberate policy choice—either we trust the trusted workforce, or we don’t. For those with security concerns, the government’s transition to so-called ‘continuous evaluation’ of employees with access to classified information — as opposed to its current reliance on periodic investigations every five or seven years—should help to mitigate them.
Lastly, agencies need to take advantage of secure digital communications and the buyer’s market in office spaces available for lease to disaggregate secure facilities much more broadly — think WeWork for national security employees. Currently, every agency is required to allot a certain amount of secure workspace for visitors who don’t belong to that agency. Most of these, however, are centrally located on federal installations such as military bases, and largely defeat the purpose of ad-hoc office space for federal employees who are traveling. As the national security workforce interfaces more and more with the private sector as the nature of international competition changes, we’ll need secure work sites around the country.
This would have several benefits. For one, it would make the national security network more resilient and less prone to outages at key sites — resulting from natural disasters, for instance, a growing concern as the effects of climate change accelerate. For another, it would open national security work in general up to a much broader swath of the public who do not live near military facilities or especially in Washington, DC. It would take advantage of the burgeoning movement to get federal agencies out into the country and provide secure, comfortable facilities to work from wherever one might be.
The future of national security work, I suspect, will be the same as the future of work in general — that is, it will be increasingly digital, distributed, and appropriately — democratic. Which is to say that it will be tailored to the preferences of workers, not managers. It will be disaggregated physically and will also be more decentralized administratively, allowing for the coordination of numerous activities distributed across both time and space at several overlapping scales of interaction. It will hinge on the effective, asynchronous collaboration of high-performing teams composed of talented, creative individuals who are scattered across the world.
Whether this future arrives in three years or twenty is up to us.
Zachery Tyson Brown is a former intelligence officer and a graduate of the United States National Intelligence University. He is a national security fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a board member of the Military Writers Guild.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.