The CIA Technology Revolution

February 22, 2012

Interesting article from Reuters, a unit of the deeply troubled Thomson Reuters organization. The “real news” story’s headline caught my attention: “CIA to Software Vendors: A Revolution Is Coming.” I thought link bait, but when I read the story I realized there was another factor in play.

The write up reports:

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency told software vendors on Tuesday that it plans to revolutionize the way it does business with them as part of a race to keep up with the blazing pace of technology advances.

So this is a contracting shift, not a fundamental adjustment of the outfit which purchases systems which all to often may not play well with others. Some folks call this characteristic of government information technology “silos” or “chimneys.” The idea, which may not apply to the folks looking to shift procurement focus, is that systems and content are “walled” off or “sealed” off from other systems which want to tap into data or information. The result is the mad scramble for information, which often involves late nights, pizza, and manual work.

According to Reuters:

Rather than stick with traditional all-you-can-eat deals known as “enterprise licensing agreements,” the CIA wants to buy software services on a “metered,” pay-as-you-go basis, Ira “Gus” Hunt, the agency’s top technology officer, told an industry conference.

The article included a quote to note:

“The big data problem is the analysis of it,” he [a government official] said. Existing tools “do not aid users … in the mission timelines.”

The headline suggested to me that the technology would shift. Nope, the story makes clear that the CIA will buy stuff on the taxi meter model. Wow. That’s a lot of vendors.

Several observations:

  • Taxi meter pricing induces anxiety in budget officers. The reason is that sometimes the driver gets lost and runs up the tab floundering around. Instead of capping costs, taxi meters open the door to pricing surprises.
  • Shifts in the government, not just the intelligence community, take time. When I worked in Washington for Halliburton NUS, one elected official to whom I was detailed for a year, told me, “A new president arrives and issues an order. By the time the order makes it way from the top of an agency to the bottom and back up, the president is running for another term.” Speed is not part of the bureaucratic process no matter what some assert.
  • A number of agencies, maybe not the CIA, have long term relationships in place. Think in terms of a five year contract. How does one shift an existing agreement with contractual terms regarding payments to the taxi meter model. In my experience, carefully.

Worth watching this development and the Reuters’ headlines for that matter.

Stephen E Arnold, February 22, 2012

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