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Defense Innovation Board: The Pentagon should hire remote workers who can handle classified info

The Defense Innovation Board (DIB) today recommended that the Pentagon open its hiring practices up to civilians working from home who can handle classified information. DIB members suggested the change in policy as a way to attract tech talent working remotely in the age of COVID-19.

In a virtual meeting today, DIB members shared five recommendations for Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Pentagon on how to attract and retain civilian workers with specialized skills in digital technologies. Another recommendation: Create a nationwide network of Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, or SCIFs, for remote workers to review classified information near their homes.

“So for remote staff can you access them? Can you have a hotel in them? I think we talked about this idea of a WeWork for SCIFs,” said DIB member Jennifer Pahlka.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, major tech companies like Facebook and Google are telling employees they can work from home until summer 2021, and some chose to become semi-remote or permanently remote businesses. Pahlka said the military must change too in order to remain competitive with private businesses competing for the same talent.

“This is a great example of where this is not just about adapting to a crisis; this is about what the department needs to do anyway, and let’s use the crisis for some good,” she said, adding that the group’s Workforce, behavior, and culture subcommittee believes the DoD is at an inflection point for talent management. “If the DoD can’t quickly adapt to these changes, the reality is we risk running further behind.”

The DIB was created in 2016 and makes recommendations to Congress and the Pentagon on how to modernize and incorporate emerging technology. For example, the DIB is advising the U.S. Space Force and devised AI ethics adopted by the military in February. Board members include academic professors, Big Tech executives, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Other recommendations detailed in a document released today on remote work for civilian workers: Start small with dedicated pilot programs to fill tech talent gaps, identify best practices from groups like the Defense Digital Service who already work remotely, and change military culture to be flexible to remote work needs.

Board members who couauthored the report with Pahlka talked about a range of considerations that must be addressed for remote military workers like a need to reconsider how to evaluate workers when you don’t work in the same office. MIT professor and CSAIL director Daniela Rus cautioned that “If you are too isolated, you are less creative or less likely to have out-of-the-box ideas.” Google VP Milo Medin cautioned that the Pentagon must consider a range of security risks even for workers handling unclassified data or documents. Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant pointed out that the military should assess which jobs are a good fit for remote work and which jobs require physical preference in an office.

In other military and technology news, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) recently suggested the government create a university for training AI talent, a program based in part on public-private partnerships. NSCAI commissioner Jason Matheny last week renewed calls that Congress work more closely with allies and private companies to control the semiconductor pipeline to keep an edge over countries like China. Last month, the Joint AI Center (JAIC), which is structured to act more like a Silicon Valley tech company, signed a $106 million contract to create the Joint Common Foundation, an AI development environment for the military being built with private software.

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