Commentary | The Essential Revolution of the NRO

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It is time for a revolution.  

Organizations, from companies to entire civilizations, go through the same predictable cycle of evolution. The key attribute is always the culture.

The rise and fall of many civilizations, such as the Roman Empire, follow a remarkably similar cycle of evolution, as do those of corporations, such as General Motors. Understanding these culture stages is a key to the long-term success of any organization. Organizations need to periodically reinvent themselves, and revolutions can be an essential force for continued success.

In Lawrence M. Miller’s book “Barbarians to Bureaucrats,” the evolutions of 21 civilizations and many corporations are used to demonstrate that they all share the same stages of culture, initially are driven by vision and eventually are overcome by bureaucracies. The cycle begins with a strong leader in charge with loyal followers who have a shared belief, and as it grows it passes through a period of shared principles and processes, and it declines as rules are imposed from the top, without a shared vision or loyal connection with the workers.  

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and its culture may fit the same pattern of evolution. If Miller is right, it may be time to reinvent the organization. It is time for a dedicated workforce to help restore the esprit de corps and loyalty around the mission, and a return of the authority and control of the mission to the NRO and its director.

The NRO’s cycle began more than 50 years ago, driven by the need to understand developments in restricted regions of the world; a vision laid the groundwork for a revolution in technical capabilities to satisfy this need. This was the “Prophet” stage. The development of satellites, using technologies that did not exist at the time, was led by teams from the CIA, the Air Force and the Navy. With few rules, and empowered with authority and access to sufficient resources, talented people accomplished things that most of us today only dream about, and they did it in ways that make us wish we had been part of. These people were the “Barbarians,” very much in charge and committed to the mission.  

The Air Force and the CIA both established special personnel systems to develop the human resources (knowledge and experience) demanded by these complex systems. As success accumulated, the organizations captured the lessons learned and taught the incoming people what they knew. Success begot success, people stood on the shoulders of those before them, and a brilliant organization with visionary leadership emerged. This was the “Builder and Explorer” stage.

After decades of technical marvels, the chaos needed to be tamed. The competition from the Air Force, the CIA and the Navy was not perceived as particularly beneficial, so they, along with their responsibilities, commitment and loyalties, were merged into a single organization. The NRO entered its “Administrator” stage.

The authority to effectively manage programs (both programmatic authority and financial resources) was removed from the program managers. Elements outside the organization were established to take over parts of the responsibilities of the organization, such as holding reviews, approving milestone gates and conducting independent cost estimates. Rules and regulations expanded. Streamlined acquisition practices were replaced with standard Defense Department acquisition processes. Contracting officers increased their intrusiveness in many aspects of the mission, further weakening the authority and control of the program managers. The NRO entered the “Bureaucrat” stage.

The organization is now at the final phase, the “Aristocrat” stage. This stage is characterized by leadership from both executive agencies and legislative staffs, who exert control but are far removed from the workers and mission. They do not share a common vision with the workers and do not enjoy their loyalty, yet are able to direct the organization through absolute power. This comes in the form of making programmatic decisions even to the low level of research and development, directing design guidelines, selecting preferred contractors or excluding others. The organization itself is disconnected from this kind of leadership. Its members do not share a vision and loyalty has been lost.

It is time for a revolution.

But before we get to that, there is an important aspect to fix. A leader cannot move the spirit and soul of an organization until it shares a vision, develops loyalty and jointly commits its energy with the people. This cannot be accomplished with mercenaries where people are temporarily assigned and rotate frequently.

One aspect of the history of the NRO that probably contributed to the change of culture more negatively than any other thing is the elimination of the personnel systems from the parent agencies.  

First, the Air Force eliminated the unique personnel system that allowed people to be assigned to the NRO for an entire career. Despite the fact that developing systems took many years, and sound judgment from experienced program managers took decades to develop, a restriction was put in place that limited duty to a single assignment of a few years. The Air Force would no longer produce the legends with end-to-end, cradle-to-grave experience who are steeped in mission knowledge.  

The CIA followed suit. The CIA’s Office of Development and Engineering, which was responsible for recruiting and caring for the NRO workforce, was eliminated. Officers were told that if they wished to be promoted they could not make a career at the NRO. Even worse, the agency refused to be responsive to the unique needs of the organization. For example, new hires were sent to fill senior program manager positions, which required years of experience.  

The environment that developed the culture of intelligence professionals, loyal and committed to the mission, is gone. The unique commitment from the secretary of defense and the director of central intelligence to form a joint venture for the conduct of the NRO mission is in serious decline. In its place is an organization that people are sent to in order to check a box along a career path that values diverse experience above subject matter expertise and mission success.

Back to the revolution.

The current NRO director has a vision for a vibrant and exciting future and has laid the groundwork to modernize the technical architecture. Virtually every system is being re-engineered to provide important new capabilities and improve efficiency and effectiveness against very complex targets. However, in order to effectively and successfully pursue these sweeping changes, she should address the limitations of the current dependency on other organizations for her specialized staffing. An NRO career service would create the environment and allow her the time to develop a cadre of experienced professionals with a professional acquisition culture to serve our nation’s reconnaissance needs.

The responsibility for the conduct of the NRO must be done with its mission partners; anything less is not a sustainable and relevant exercise. For example, there has been some success with establishing “new Barbarians,” but it has been in isolated activities that have not scaled and do not provide the enterprise performance that the director of national intelligence has mandated. In these cases, individuals have been given authority, less bureaucratic interference and resources, but these experiences lack the broader connection to the users and integration with the mission. It is time to recognize that the mission-driven acquisition culture and authorities are keys to success.

An NRO career service would permit the NRO director to develop and control the most critical resource to the mission: the people. In the absence of the commitments of its parent organizations — or perhaps in the presence of blatant disregard to appropriately staff the NRO — the organization should be granted this authority. However, such a career service should not replace the established relationships with the parent organizations; it should strengthen and complement them. The nation’s reconnaissance programs are complex and will always be critically dependent on the continued commitment from the CIA, the Air Force and other services and agencies.   

Once the director re-establishes the environment to develop the next generation of program managers, the control of their resources and the authority to make decisions must also be returned. The responsibility and the authority for the mission’s success should be aligned; otherwise we will remain mired in the Bureaucrat and Aristocrat stages.

Congress should act decisively to authorize the NRO director to establish an NRO career service and to rebuild the environment that made it all possible — talented people who are free to dedicate their professional lives to the mission.  


John P. Stopher is founder and president of 377 Omega Inc., a consulting firm that serves government and industry clients in the intelligence community.