Economy & Business Future of Work United States and Canada
Econographics May 1, 2024

How to improve the technical skill of the US national security workforce

By Lesley Chavkin, Eitan Danon, and Sigal Mandelker

In the United States, we rely on our government to craft and execute policies that foster economic competitiveness and protect vital national security interests. Underpinning this approach is an engaged, capable civil service that brings to bear its collective expertise and judgment. But in recent years, we’ve hampered our public servants by failing to provide opportunities for hands-on experience with new and emerging technologies. This both slows the government’s ability to adapt to and capitalize on new technologies, and makes it harder to recruit top technical talent into government.

Without proactive changes to how we invest in and develop our current staff and attract new talent, we are undercutting our country’s ability to cultivate the innovation that drives our economy and defends our national security. We cannot expect to compete on the world stage without equipping the US civil service with the skills and experience needed to understand and harness the technological trends that will define the future.

The first problem is we do not create enough opportunities for current national security officials to become more proficient in novel technologies. Rotations and educational opportunities away from headquarters—while broadening and essential experiences for well-rounded officers—often delay promotions. As a result, the incentive structure dissuades current government officials from taking time off to learn. But there are steps that can shift this dynamic:

  • Institutionalize knowledge exchange between the US government and the private sector in critical industries. Create career-enhancing formal externships, rotational opportunities, and other short-term learning experiences that give civil servants the ability to work directly in private industry and develop practical experience with innovative technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. The national security community’s venture and innovation arms, like In-Q-Tel, DIU, and AFWERX, can play a key role in this effort, identifying promising US companies in which to embed government employees. These opportunities could also help fight attrition within the civil service by allowing more fluidity between the public and private sectors, rather than forcing people to “go private” if they want outside experience.
  • Establish advisory councils and encourage working-level staff to consult with these councils regularly on policy matters. Give agencies and departments the ability to convene advisory councils made up of industry stakeholders and empower both senior officials and career staff to engage with these councils to inform and develop policy on new technologies.
  • Create more connectivity between agencies and departments centered around defense and national security on the one hand (the intelligence community and Department of Defense), and economics and trade (the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Treasury, etc.) on the other. Although the Office of the National Cyber Director advises the President specifically on US cybersecurity policy and strategy, expertise on a broader set of emerging technology issues is distributed across a constellation of federal departments and agencies in different disciplines. Standing up informal and formal channels, such as working groups or even a centralized umbrella organization, would encourage more cross-pollination among interagency players. The last thing the government needs is more bureaucracy, but other countries, including Israel, Singapore, Ukraine, and the United Arab Emirates, have created dedicated entities to coordinate policy on specific emerging technology trends—a strategy that has paid dividends in different ways.

The second impediment is that we are not proactive enough in attracting the right talent to government service. The problem set is complex. In some instances, there aren’t enough open spots. In other cases, it takes far too long to select and onboard the best candidates. Yet a series of targeted recruitment and hiring measures—some of which Congress could incorporate into legislation—would have a profound impact on human capital development in the civil service:

  • Require a minimum level of technical expertise on staff. Obligate entities with examination, rulemaking, and supervisory authorities to ensure that at least 10 percent of full-time staff have a background in a relevant technical field, such as engineering, computer science, or software development.
  • Expedite the hiring process. Allow US government agencies and departments to use excepted service hiring authority—which allows them to bypass traditional hiring processes—to accelerate hiring of individuals with technical skills and backgrounds.
  • Modernize ethics restrictions. Existing ethics rules prevent civil servants from directly engaging with some innovative technologies. For example, current ethics guidance at many regulatory agencies categorically prohibits employees who own cryptocurrency from working on issues related to digital assets. Just as career staff with bank accounts and stock market investments are not precluded from working on financial policy and regulation, nor should individuals who own cryptocurrency be restricted from working in this space.
  • Expand short-term opportunities for tech talent. Develop new fellowship programs and enhance existing ones, like those that came out of the Biden Administration’s National Cyber Workforce and Education Strategy, to give experts at big tech companies, startups, and academia the ability to work in the US government for a limited period—six to 24 months. This approach would institutionalize a pipeline of tech talent to send into government to gain first-hand exposure to the policymaking process and bring their experience in-house to drive product development. The CIA in 2022 announced a program that does just this: it allows those in the tech sector to take on short-term roles in public service. And if the CIA can make this program work, there’s no reason the rest of the US government can’t follow suit.

Our final point is philosophical. The mission of government is a powerful pull. But that alone is not always enough. As many of us have seen, there are ways to serve the public interest that don’t require a .gov email address. If we want our best and brightest—our most ambitious and innovative—women and men to pursue federal service, we have to do a better job of proactively making the case why. And one way is showing that the US government is a place where creativity and dynamism can thrive, and where cutting-edge talent isn’t just sought after, it’s celebrated.

Lesley Chavkin is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. She is currently Global Head of Public Policy at Paxos, and previously served in senior roles within the US Department of the Treasury, including financial attaché to Qatar and Kuwait

Eitan Danon is Manager of International Investigations and Special Programs, and previously served as Senior Policy Advisor in the US Department of the Treasury

Sigal Mandelker is Co-Chair of the CNAS Task Force on FinTech, Crypto, and National Security, and joined Ribbit Capital in 2020. She previously served as Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and as Acting Deputy Secretary at the US Department of the Treasury

At the intersection of economics, finance, and foreign policy, the GeoEconomics Center is a translation hub with the goal of helping shape a better global economic future.

Further reading

Related Experts: Lesley Chavkin

Image: System engineer working with graphical user interface (GUI), September 14, 2020/iStock