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CIA cracks half century of institutional build-up

Jason Miller, tech and management news reporter, Federal News Radio

The CIA is slowly detaching from 50 years of business as usual.

Throughout the last nine months, the spy agency underwent a major modernization effort that focused on people, processes and integration.

Kimberly Ofobike, the deputy chief of the CIA’s modernization team, said the changes, however, run deeper than just the 10 new mission centers that are at the heart of this major transformation.

“This isn’t just about reorganization. This isn’t just about the lines and boxes. This is about fundamentally shifting the way we work. It’s really about a culture change,” Ofobike said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “Success for us has been to be able to continue to be agile and continue to adapt to changing circumstances. So what we are through now is what we are calling the design phase where things have been designed. Now we are really getting things up and running, and figuring out where we can go from here and how we can best leverage our new and more modern approach.”

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Ofobike said each of the 10 mission centers have leaders in place and have begun operations. The mission centers cover four functional areas, such as counterintelligence and counterterrorism, and six geographic regions such as Europe, Eurasia and Africa.

While the reorganization shifts around how analysts and collectors focus on longtime mission areas, the biggest change for the CIA is around how it now and in the future supports, trains and hires the people who do the work.

Ofobike said the CIA launched a talent center of excellence that focuses on how they recruit and train, and retention of all their officers, especially intelligence officers.

“They are truly experts in their field, but also understand what the entire organization can bring to bear on different problem sets,” she said. “We are really looking at the training, looking at the evaluation, the accountability and how we can move our people across the organization and how our people can grow.”

Ofobike said the center of excellence is trying to ensure CIA employees are well-rounded, meaning they understand both a specific topic or area of the world, and how that expertise relates to other mission areas of the agency.

The modernization and reorganization effort started back in 2014 and became public in March when CIA Director John Brennan announced his plan to change the spy agency. He based this effort on recommendations made by an internal 90-day review team and input from all parts of the agency.

“[T]he modernization effort is about much more than changing the way CIA is organized; it is about how we work together every day to bring the best of the agency to the challenges we face. This kind of change will take time,” Brennan said in a statement back in October. “With our agency’s new structure in place, we will follow through in the coming weeks and months by acting on critical feedback from the workforce and focusing on fundamentals.”

The CIA says the need for a major shuffling of mission and people comes from two developments: The marked increase in the range, diversity, complexity and immediacy of issues confronting policymakers today, and the unprecedented pace and impact of technological advancement.

The CIA modernization blueprint calls for changes along four key lines:

  • Investing in people by enhancing its talent and leadership development
  • Embracing and leveraging the digital revolution as well as innovate across its missions
  • Modernizing the way it does business, including making decisions at lower levels
  • Better integrating its capabilities to bring the best of the agency to all mission areas

A second major area of transformation is around digital innovation. Brennan announced in October a new Directorate for Digital Innovation. The new organization will integrate disparate IT systems and processes, and enhance the CIA’s ability to conduct cyber operations.

Ofobike said the CIA set up two new governance structures to help manage all of these changes. She said the newly created executive secretariat works mostly with intelligence agencies and other federal entities. The CIA also created a new corporate governance board to work on internal decision making.

“The executive secretariat is not a decision-making body but the actual sort of process of giving and receiving questions, and being able to answer those and give those out,” she said. “We’ve had these before, and what I think we’ve done is really shored these up and really made sure that we put a lot of effort into those and elevated the stature.”

Ofobike said now that the mission centers are up and running, the goal is keep them moving forward.

“The biggest challenge that we probably face right now is we actually have a few things that we are working to step up. We want to intensify our workforce engagement and buy-in for this because change can be hard,” she said. “We also want to implement and refine the new structures and processes we put in place. This really is a new way of thinking and doing business and we really need to institutionalize those and to make sure we have all that rock solid going forward. We also want to make sure that we are holding ourselves accountable and that we really have those good metrics in place for how this effort is going.”

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