What's Brewin: DISA — No longer the agency everyone loves to hate

In an end-of-tour interview, Director Lt. Gen. Charles Croom talks about keeping employees, managing bandwidth and his future.

I recently asked a Washington insider to sum up the changes in the Defense Information Systems Agency since Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom took command in July 2005. He came up with what is the headline for this week's column, a testament to the real sea change in the perception of the agency by the people it serves. That would be everyone in the Defense Department who has a phone or Internet connection.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Croom, this insider said, had much to do with the change, making the agency more agile and responsive to its customers. In an end-of-tour interview on Thursday, Croom, who retires on July 22, did not take credit for the changes; instead he praised DISA's motivated, mostly civilian workforce, which is "dedicated to their mission and who butt their heads up against the bureaucracy of D.C." The workforce, more than 4,000 in the Washington area, "educated me every day," Croom said.

Like a good leader, he took care of them, with maybe the most important part of his legacy being planning for the agency's 2011 move from its current headquarters on Courthouse Road in Arlington, Va., including leased space scattered around Washington, to new digs at Fort Meade in Maryland.

Preserving Intellectual Capital

Croom started planning for the Fort Meade move as soon as he took command. He had no choice. Most of DISA's Washington workforce live in Virginia and were not thrilled with the thought of an extended commute on the traffic-snarled roads in the metropolitan area. Croom said he could not afford to lose the agency's intellectual capital.

Three years ago, he started a telecommuting program, which today looks like a really smart move as gas tops $4 a gallon. In 2005, DISA had 200 employees signed on to the three-day-a-week telecommuting program. Today, it has 2,200, Croom told me.

These employees can work from home only on the agency's unclassified network, he said, but DISA also has established secure remote telecommuting facilities throughout the Washington area, which enable teleworkers to do classified work without making a trip into the office.

By 2011, some 14,000 Defense employees in the Washington area are slated to move to Fort Meade and another 23,000 are scheduled to move to Fort Belvoir, locations poorly served by public transportation. The DISA telecommuting program sure looks like something other agencies -- such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Army Program Executive Office-Enterprise Information Systems -- might want to emulate. Either that or everyone will go broke buying gas - or go to work for DISA.

DISA has worked with local governments in Maryland to educate employees about the benefits of Maryland, and the sessions have done a lot to alleviate concerns about the move across the Potomac, Croom said. One key point that came out of the sessions is the quality of school systems in Maryland compared to Fairfax County, Va., where many DISA employees live: average SAT test scores in Howard County, Md., are higher than those in Fairfax. That's important information for parents of a high school student contemplating the move, Croom said.

Because of the outreach and the telecommuting options, the number of DISA employees willing to continue their work with the agency has grown from 28 percent in 2005 to 40 percent today, Croom told me. About 20 percent don't plan to make the move, with the remaining 40 percent still on the fence, he said.

A Healthy Workforce

Croom, a fitness buff who runs miles a day, started a voluntary physical fitness program when he took command of DISA. Three years ago the program numbered a mere 80 civilian employees and today it has 2,700, Croom said.

The numbers don't tell the entire story, he added. "I get e-mails from people who tell me they have lost 40 or 50 pounds," because of the program, which lets employees take time off work to exercise, Croom said.

One man with one good idea is better than Weight Watchers.

Stop the Madness

Croom wears two hats. The other is the commander of Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations. In this job he has to take some truly unpopular, but necessary, measures to protect Defense's global networks.

Last year, Croom banned access over Defense networks to popular social networking sites such as YouTube, MySpace and 11 other sites to conserve bandwidth. He told me the policy did not go far enough, and he would like to see a Defense rule that bars the use of streaming media from Internet Web sites such as the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament.

During a popular event like March Madness, he sees a spike on the DISA networks and wants to put a stop to it not only to conserve bandwidth but also to prevent malicious code that can ride along with those streams and possibly infect Defense systems.

Croom said he also wondered why folks who wanted to watch basketball needed to do it on their computers. "Why don't they turn on the TV?" he asked.

He might have some empathy with deployed troops who want to use their Defense computers to watch basketball, but Croom said network scans show more than 80 percent of the streaming media comes from users in the United States.

You Can't Win Them All

When Croom took over DISA, he decided the agency should take a collaborative approach to developing and fielding systems and tap already existing military service systems for use departmentwide.

This included developing a Defense Web portal based on the Army Knowledge Online portal to be known as Defense Knowledge Online, or DKO. The portal has more than 2 million users today, Croom said, but the Navy and the Air Fore have been reluctant to sign on because DKO offers a smorgasbord of services that the Navy and Air Force would like offered on an a la carte basis.

To meet the requirements, he said DISA plans to develop a new DKO contract, adding that because he wears an Air Force blue uniform, Croom took the lack of interest by the Air Force in the original DKO a bit personally.

What's Next?

Croom said he doesn't plan to start looking for a job until he leaves DISA, but added he would like to work in the information technology field -- not necessarily serving Defense customers.

"I want to see what it's like in the competitive, commercial world," Croom said.