Pentagon CIO Wants Congress to Make it Easier to Bring in Tech Talent

Defense CIO Terry Halvorsen

Defense CIO Terry Halvorsen U.S.Naval Institute

One of the biggest tech challenges facing the department is retaining the IT workforce, says Terry Halvorsen.

The chief information officer of the Defense Department is putting together a wish list of legislative fixes designed to help the Pentagon attract IT and cybersecurity talent.

Defense CIO Terry Halvorsen told Congress last week he would put together some recommendations for new legislation by this summer to make it easier for private sector employees to transition into the Pentagon on short-term rotations.

In addition to a mostly flat Defense IT budget that leaves little room for modernizing DOD networks, one of the biggest tech challenges facing the department is retaining the IT workforce, Halvorsen told members of the House Armed Services Committee during a March 23 hearing.

"If you ask me ... what keeps me up more at night, that's probably the answer,” he said.

It’s largely a matter of basic economics, Halvorsen said, citing the inflated salaries private companies, including the Silicon Valley giants, can pay for top-flight talent.

“I happened to be in the Valley last week and Google announced they’re raising the pay for cybersecurity by another 20 percent,” he told lawmakers. “That’s going to keep impacting our ability to attract talent.”

In last year’s annual Defense authorization bill, lawmakers granted DOD more flexibility in worker exchanges with the private sector. Halvorsen said that measure has helped bring in temporary tech talent, and also allowed civilian Defense employees to embed within companies for short-term rotations.

The goal is a more flexible career path -- “in-and-out, back-and-forth,” Halvorsen said -- for the Defense IT workforce.

But that means a few rule changes are in order.

Current law generally prohibits workers coming into DOD as part of exchanges with the private sector from holding positions where they can make spending decisions.

That can tie the government’s hands. Take cloud computing, for example, Halvorsen said, which is near the top of the Defense Department’s IT playbook. (DOD just issued an updated cloud computing strategy March 25).

"The best cloud engineers today are not in the government,” Halvorsen said. “They're not. We have some really good ones, but the best ones today are in industry. We ought to be able to get some of those in … and give them the authority to make decisions and, with some oversight, spend dollars. Today, under the current authorities, that's hard to do.”