The Pentagon’s Lead Intelligence Agency Has an HR Problem
Too few human-resources staffers means a constant struggle to keep up with basic personnel record-keeping and more.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has a longstanding HR problem: too few human-resources workers to help the rest of its growing workforce. Now the agency is aiming to boost recruiting and retention of HR staff by updating its record-keeping and telework systems.
The DIA has “chronically under-invested in our human resources capabilities” since 2008, when it absorbed intelligence personnel from military departments in combatant commands, agency chief of staff John Kirchhofer said Tuesday.
“We never grew our HR capacity to support that. And that was part of the logic at the time: ‘we can do this cheaply,’” Kirchhofer said Tuesday. “But when you're faced with a crisis, you realize that doing it cheaply is not serving the workforce well.”
For example, he said, “We struggle on some of the basics like making sure that awards are done in a timely fashion, that pay and compensation is taken care of, and personnel actions are up to date.”
So DIA has been working with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the defense undersecretary for intelligence and security to boost its HR to a healthy level that can support DIA’s 16,500 employees in more than 100 countries. Kirchhofer also said the agency plans to hire 1,000 employees a year.
The effort includes updating the cumbersome systems used to keep track of the agency’s people.
“We are still largely analog, paper-based. And that's a lost opportunity,” Kirchhofer said. “The reality is: We can't take advantage of anything that big data brings to the fight—machine learning, how we might use those types of tools—to tell us more about where we have gaps in talent in our workforce” until the system is digitized.
Meanwhile, DIA, like the rest of the U.S. military, has been working to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
“We are looking to move more personnel forward around the Pacific Rim,” Kirchhofer said. “This will help us with resiliency” and advantage during a crisis.
DIA has started to shift people and gear to the region, while working with partners.
“I think that is putting our money where our mouth is. And it really shows our long-term commitment to U.S. INDOPACOM,” he said.
Yet amid that shift is a bubbling personnel crisis: a potential exodus of talent in key support areas like human resources, IT, and contracting over lack of telework options, Kirchhofer said.
“If you are operating in the mission space in DIA, you're gonna have to be in a [sensitive compartmented information facility, or] SCIF, and I don't see us putting SCIFs at home for the vast majority of our workforce. So the reality is that at least some of the time, if not the vast majority of the time, our folks are going to have to come in,” Kirchhofer said.
That will have to change for DIA to be a competitive employer, particularly for jobs that are often completely remote in other parts of government and the private sector. Kirchhofer said business systems, like for HR or finance, are on the “high side” and can’t be accessed remotely from personal devices, but some capabilities can likely be “pushed down” to lower classification levels.
“I think we're probably going to have to do some level of that to compete for personnel in that space. So if you take a contracting officer or human resources specialist, they can go anywhere in the federal government, and most of our non-[intelligence community] partners are allowing those folks to work from home full time,” he said.
DIA is “seeing increased attrition” in those areas, he said, and to keep it from worsening, the agency will need to adopt more work-from-home solutions.
“Otherwise, I just don't think we can compete for talent and our retention will struggle.”
Kirchhofer said he really wants to push for secure telework capabilities, like letting people work from SCIFs anywhere the DIA has connectivity. It’s “eminently doable” and can allow personnel to move around as their life requires.
“I can take care of an eldercare situation that I have while still performing my job completely because I have full access to the communication suite. So I would like to see us embrace that as one of the ways to mitigate what's potentially going to be a flight of personnel,” he said.
“If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we can do amazing things through this type of medium…We can have amazingly effective meetings and get the job done.”