Last year’s defense authorization bill contained new authorities that allowed the Defense Department to hire information technology talent for a short term basis, but lawmakers may need to expand that law to empower those employees to make real changes at the Pentagon, a key department official said March 22. 

The department’s IT and cyber enterprises are benefiting from changes in statute that make it easier to hire tech professionals and send their own employees to learn best practices from commercial companies, said Terry Halvorsen, Department of Defense Chief Information Officer. But current law prohibits the Defense Department from giving certain decision-making authorities to those temporary workers, which can stymie innovation.

“The best cloud engineers today are not in the government. We have some really good ones, but the best ones today are in industry,” he said during a House Armed Services emerging threats and capabilities hearing. “We should be able to get some of those [people] in…and give them the authorities and with some oversight, spend dollars. Today, under the current authorities, that’s hard to do.”

He told lawmakers he was not ready to give a recommendation about how best to expand the role of temporary IT hires while also maintaining proper oversight, but would be willing to present ideas this summer. There also may be additional legislative “tweaks” necessary so that companies and the Defense Department can exchange employees more often.

The Pentagon is trying to strengthen its ties to the commercial IT and cyber industry, said Halvorsen, who noted that several members of his staff originally worked in the private sector. However, retaining a core IT force has been a persistent challenge for the department, which finds it difficult sometimes to compete with commercial firms that can offer larger salaries to professionals, he said.

“I happened to be in the valley last week and Google announced they are raising the pay for cybersecurity by another 20 percent,” he said. “That’s going to keep impacting our ability to attract talent.”

When asked about budgetary challenges, both Halvorsen and Peter Levine, the Pentagon’s deputy chief management officer, indicated there was “not enough money” in the department’s IT budget. It’s protecting cybersecurity spending but taking risks in modernization, particularly with computing technologies where an off-the-shelf solution can meet most requirements.

“Within the DoD, I want to focus our S&T (science and technology) dollars around the area that industry isn’t going to focus on, and that’s going to be on the weapons systems and top-level security systems where there is not yet much play in the commercial sector,” Halvorsen said. “I think our budget reflects that that’s where our emphasis is.”