In February, Vice Adm. Robert Sharp became the seventh director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the organization that oversees delivery of geospatial information and analysis to the rest of the intelligence community, as well as policymakers, war fighters and first responders.
During the GEOINT 2019 conference in San Antonio in June, Sharp formally signed onto the strategy laid out by his predecessor, Robert Cardillo, that divided the NGA’s focus into four areas: people, partnerships, mission today and mission tomorrow.
At a United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation event held in St. Louis, Sharp sat down with C4ISRNET to talk about NGA’s strategy and how the agency is changing.
C4ISRNET: What about the previous NGA strategy appealed to you and why did you choose to adopt it?
Vice Adm. Robert Sharp: I’d inherited a pretty good strategy already from Robert Cardillo. It really resonated with me — [not just] the simplicity of it, but the focus on people and partnerships. You hear me say that I’m convinced our strength — not only as an agency, but as an intelligence community and as a nation — is founded in those things. It’s a comparative advantage I think we have over our competitors.
And then it’s hard to argue against focusing on your mission today while realizing that the world is changing, and you need continually to be improving your own processes and how you do business so that you can maintain a competitive comparative advantage. So, I liked the strategy. I redid the front page so it had my stamp of approval and the workforce knew that this wasn’t something from the last director — this was something that we were really going to embrace.
C4ISRNET: Have there been areas that you feel deserve more focus or need to be further tweaked?
Sharp: What we’re focusing our efforts on is looking at what we’re doing day in and day out and making sure it aligns to those strategic goals so that we have more definitive objectives and tasks associated with achieving them. We’re also developing a way we can measure whether we’re being successful in achieving those objectives, supporting those goals, and if not, why not? Is it because we’re either lacking resources, or there’s policy holding us back? Those are the questions or discussions I want to tease up to the senior leadership so that we can make sure that our workforce has the resources that they need to do their mission and we’re making sure there’s no barriers preventing them from being successful in contributing to mission today and transforming for mission tomorrow.
C4ISRNET: Cardillo recently said NGA must overcome its mentality of “recovering monopolists,” essentially claiming that the agency needs to adjust to no longer being the only player in the GEOINT space. Is that a fair characterization of the agency, and how do you think it can move away from that?
Sharp: As I look at it, I’ve experienced people embracing that future of leveraging commercial sources, leveraging international partners. So, I haven’t seen a lot of individuals afraid to embrace that future.
[Cardillo] sometimes can be a little more pessimistic than I am optimistic. But, certainly, in the vision that he had laid out, he had already taken steps to posture us to take advantage of those other sources. In any agency, in any organization, you’re always going to find pockets of people who fear change or are a little hesitant toward that. But my experience has been we’re leaning pretty far forward with commercial industry and with international partners, as well. We don’t care who brings us solutions or who helps us answer questions. At the end of the day, we just want to know what we need to know, when we need to know it so that we can help inform decisions, or provide the products and services our men and women across the department or across Homeland Security or across the interagency needs to do their jobs.
C4ISRNET: How is the agency adapting to the growing GEOINT startup culture that perhaps isn’t used to interacting with the Pentagon?
Sharp: We need to be able to speak to them in English, for one thing. We need to be able to help them to demystify the process they know and look for ways that we can interact with smaller companies so that they can get involved in bringing solutions to bare. We’ve done so successfully in a number of ways where we’ve even leveraged some of the larger companies where they broker for us, making sure that these smaller companies understand some of the challenges that we have and then reward them and those other companies help them through the contracting and some of the bureaucracy associated with U.S. government.
C4ISRNET: In June, the National Reconnaissance Office issued three commercial study contracts to assess the capability of companies to provide the imagery NGA needs. How involved have you been in those studies and what have you learned so far?
Sharp: One thing I’ll tell you is that we have been assessing how good they are or if there was any degradation in service to our customers, and across the board we’ve seen no degradation in being able to go out and purchase the commercial pixels, which is what NRO is doing for us. We still, as the GEOINT functional manager, have duties and responsibilities in making sure the user requirements are all known, that they’re brought in, they’re satisfied by the contracts NRO runs for us. We’re also still very involved in helping to assess the viability of other vendors that are out there, what a lot of these commercial vendors are building designing and how we can best leverage new sources as they come online. So, it’s a pretty strong partnership that we have within NRO. And our main responsibility, too, is still to work with the community to make sure their needs are being met.
C4ISRNET: In September the NRO announced a fourth commercial study contract, this one for hyperspectral imaging. What other future capabilities are you excited to see delivered by commercial?
Sharp: I’m very excited in the broader range outside just the electro-optical sensing ability. And the company Esri just rolled out at their user conference a great slogan, “See what others can’t.” And I told Jack Dangermond, their president, “I’m going to use that phrase all the time, but I’m going to make sure people know it’s yours.” When you start to think beyond just a visual range and you start to look in different spectrums, you can start to see things that you couldn’t see before, and I think that’s an important part of our growth as an agency for what we need to be able to provide the broad range of customers that we have: to see what others can’t.
C4ISRNET: One of the storylines I’ve found interesting about your time as director has been your efforts to bring IC leadership together to address personnel issues. What inspired that and what do you hope comes out of those meetings?
Sharp: We were in the U.K. working with our workforce there and they were talking about some of the challenges they have either from [Permanent Change of Station] tax or assignments with if there are two employees staying together as a couple and being assigned together, et cetera. And [DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert] Ashley was out there in London with me and I said, “You know, we ought to get together and make sure we’re doing our people right.” And he said, “Absolutely.” So, it evolved.
At the action officer level, we’ve held several meetings. We’ve been calling them “people summits,” but they were designed so that we could look at how each of our agencies is taking care of our civilian workforce either here or, quite often and more importantly, overseas, and examine authorities we have and compensation that we provide and can share ideas on best practices for making sure we’re taking care of our people as best we can. And the group that’s been meeting is formulating recommendations to agency heads. We’re supposed to be hearing soon ideas on things that we can do ourselves or things that we might have to go to [U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence] or to [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence] for authorities and [then] change how we’re taking care of our people.
Each of our agencies has interacted with industry at different levels to talk about best practices and how we take care of work, how we try to attract talent, how we invest in their development professionally and as leaders over time. We make sure that they’re being fairly compensated and they’re not being held back from anything that prevents them from concentrating on doing their jobs. You know, anytime you have something that’s weighing on them, either financially or in how they’re being supported, then they’re not optimized in the workforce.
A lot of times our workforces will often be deployed at the same location [as other IC agencies], and they’ll say, “DIA does this” or “NSA does this.” I’m like, “Okay, well, let’s see. Can we do that? And if not, why not? And how do we change these things?” So, that’s the idea behind these people summits and the importance of them, going back to the strategic goals of partnerships, mission today and mission tomorrow, we learned we spend a lot of time as an agency talking about what we’re doing and doing our mission today and evolving for our mission tomorrow. If we’re really going to make people a strategic goal, we need to spend time focusing on do we have the humans optimized to do the mission?
C4ISRNET: Will people summits continue after recommendations are made? Are there other IC-wide issues that these talks can address?
Sharp: I’ll go back to a Sue Gordon quote on the strength of the intel community. At one point, she said, “Our strength is the fact that our humans ... the ingenuity that they have, the creativity that they have, we have individuals who thrive on solving hard problems. That’s what they like to do.” Two, we’re integrated, so the strength of our intelligence community is not any individual agency, it is the combining of our capabilities together. Three, we’re partnered. We not only have good friends; we have friends that are good. And it’s a competitive advantage we have over our competitors. And we’re transparent. We always want to be transparent about the fact that we’re doing the right things and we’re doing them right. We welcome oversight. We also want to be transparent about where we’re good, or sometimes, more importantly, where we’re not so good.
That’s a long way to the answer to your question, which is that interacting to share best practices as an agency and a community is something important for us as an intelligence community and for our nation. So, we are committed to constant interaction.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.