The Department of Defense (DoD) is using data to accelerate the Pentagon’s digital transformation, and DoD Chief Data Officer David Spirk said that a focus on people, technology, and culture has spurred that transformation.

Spirk explained how each of those factors has accelerated transformation at DoD, emphasized the importance that the agency’s data decrees have had on the work, and added lessons learned during the ongoing transformation process at NVIDIA’s GTC Conference on March 22.

“While we absolutely want to be able to go faster, we think we are on the right path,” Spirk said. “We’re learning by doing, and that doing is actually accelerating. But it’s a large department. A 747 [airliner] doesn’t look like it’s going fast as it begins to take off, but you really don’t want to get in front of one. What I’d say is the department’s on the move, and I wouldn’t get in front of this data-driven movement, because it’s coming; it’s coming fast.”

Spirk said the transformation was only able to get started in earnest due to early buy-in from generals and leadership, which led to the DoD’s Data Strategy being released in 2020. After creating that mission-focused data strategy, the agency was then able to look at the mission from a data-centric lens, rather than a net-centric view.

“We’ve really been able to start moving the new needle now,” Spirk said. “It’s because of progress across the entire data ecosystem. When I describe the data ecosystem, I think of it in terms of culture, technology, and people [that] all need to exist if we’re going to accelerate.”

In terms of the culture aspect, Spirk pointed to leadership by DoD Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks in issuing the DoD’s data decrees and said it is important to look at ways to maximize data sharing across the DoD enterprise. Additionally, Spirk said the need for “sustained, courageous leadership” is going to be key for the department to continue to develop and accelerate change.

“What a shot in the arm Deputy Secretary defense Hicks gave us when she signed those [decrees] out,” Spirk said. “Data decree number one was that DoD data is an enterprise resource. In the culture of learning by doing, major policy doesn’t precede experimentation.”

“We have a lot of times where we’re really sure that from the office of Secretary of Defense, we know exactly what our men and women in service … need out at the tactical edge. But oftentimes, that’s disconnected from the prioritization,” Spirk added. “So let’s learn by doing; let’s bring surgical policies in to solve the problems that are inhibiting the continued development of their skills and capabilities.”

When adding technology, Spirk said it’s important to have open data standard architectures that are non-proprietary, open, and publicly used if possible. Spirk said that data management and data “run, block, tackle” must be handled first, before you can get to the artificial intelligence aspect of technology advancements.

“We have [commercial] artificial intelligence experts … [and] oftentimes they say artificial intelligence and assume we understand or have made those investments in the data run, block, tackle. So, we’ve got to continue to remind people there’s a lot of that work that goes into being able to do the artificial intelligence-powered future.”

Spirk also said it’s important for the DoD to be honest about the compute environment that the agency exists in, and knowing that may mean that there won’t be one-size-fits-all solutions for the expansive enterprise.

Additionally, Spirk said that DoD needs more budgetary flexibility from congressional appropriators to be able to try projects and pivot quickly if they do not work, rather than being locked into five-year appropriation cycles for projects that may be found to not be the best use of funds.

“One of the things that we do need to work with the Hill on is an increased ability to make bets and take bets,” he said. “When we know nine months in that something’s off, [it’s important] that we’re not locked into a five-year budgetary cycle that we can’t get out of in two. But let’s be able to pivot fast, let’s be able to have that running dialogue with Congress.”

Spirk also spoke of the importance of people in the equation, as well as making sure to put talent before technology as a key factor in driving the DoD’s data-driven transformation.

“I truly believe that the people are what’s going to make this happen,” Spirk said. “It’s [the] modeling of our senior-most leaders. It’s going beyond the days of a static spreadsheet or one slide that shows us what right looks like even though even by the time we print it out and take it to a meeting, that’s probably at a minimum two days old.”

Rather, he said, the agency should be asking “how do we get the people fluent in data? How do we get the people fluent in artificial intelligence?” he said. “Where do we get our men and women in uniform to learn data and our data professionals to learn their domain expertise?”

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.