Pentagon’s Top Techie Needs Purchasing Power of Closest Allies, Former DOD CIO Says

Terry Halvorsen, former DOD CIO

Terry Halvorsen, former DOD CIO U.S. Naval Institute

The country's closest allies have CIO counterparts who can make small investments promising technology. Not so in the U.S.

Terry Halvorsen, who served as the Pentagon’s top tech official for two and a half years before leaving in February, called on Congress Wednesday to imbue his old role with more authorities to pursue emerging technologies.

Speaking before a House Armed Services subcommittee, Halvorsen lamented that he could not pursue even small investments in promising technologies because of outdated acquisition policies during his tenure at the Defense Department’s tech chief, despite overseeing a nearly $40 billion budget. Halvorsen is now an executive at Samsung.

“There is only one nation that doesn’t have this authority in the Five Eyes and that would be us,” Halvorsen said, referencing the intelligence alliance between the U.S. and New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

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In the U.K. and Australia, Halvorsen said their military CIOs “are permitted to spend up to 10 million pounds” to explore emerging technologies. Were the Pentagon CIO to have the same authority, he or she could purchase promising tech from start-ups or Silicon Valley, “put performance objectives around it and track performance” to determine whether a larger procurement might make sense.

The Pentagon, he said, often misses out on new technologies because procurements take months or years, creating an unattractive market for start-ups low on funding or established companies without government connections. Halvorsen said providing the Pentagon’s top tech official some authority and financial latitude to target these technologies could have huge payoffs.

“That makes them more attractive to new tech,” Halvorsen said. “If you’re a start-up, you’re on a six-month funding cycle. That’s something we could do. We ought to have the flexibility to make those decisions.”

Halvorsen’s comments resonated with some members of the HASC.

“When you have a budget of $37 billion or whatever it is, but you can’t write a check, its idiocracy,” said Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La.

Across civilian agencies, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act imbues CIOs with authorities to pursue promising investments or squash bad ones. Yet the Defense Department is exempt from some of the legislation’s provisions.

Dave Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s director of IT management issues, told Nextgov DOD has a lot of room to improve how it buys technology.

“Clearly, there are things DOD could do when it comes to business systems,” Powner said. “They need to be more nimble.”