Pentagon chieftains deploy a new data-driven tool to ‘take the Pulse’ of their enterprise
Pentagon leaders have a new approach and underlying digital tool — called Pulse — to modernize their performance measurement processes and create sharper accountability to accelerate progress across the vast enterprise they steer.
Under a recent direction from Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, a team within the nascent Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO) developed the platform in four-and-a-half months.
“With the data that Pulse feeds to the executive analytic dashboard, the secretary and I will gain a far better view into the implementation of the [National Defense Strategy] than our predecessors were ever afforded. This dashboard approach will give us data-driven insights into what’s working, and what’s stuck, and what we can do about it,” Hicks said at a recent event.
In her view, Pulse should “set the pace for defense reform moving forward” to ultimately enable the department to build enduring advantages.
“We’ve already seen some progress, and it is being used more and more to actually be a pretty valuable management tool,” said Greg Little, deputy CDAO for enterprise platforms and business optimization.
During a recent interview, Little and Hillary Jett, who manages the CDAO’s Pulse executive performance analytics portfolio, briefed DefenseScoop on the intent via this platform to help officials apply data to better understand how they are making progress against the department’s strategic priorities, and the broad vision for its future.
‘The world has changed’
For decades now, federal agencies have been mandated through the Government Performance and Results Act to conduct tasks like evaluating their functions, setting goals, measuring results and reporting progress.
The Defense Department has observed some successes over the years, as well as certain areas for improvement that persist — “so this concept is really not new,” Little noted. Now though, he said multiple drivers could make this year the one in which the agency can drive some radical, technology-enabled reform.
“One, we really have a leadership commitment — you heard it from Deputy Secretary Hicks,” Little said. He pointed to several of her recent moves to modernize the Pentagon, including the establishment of the CDAO, in which he now serves.
Secondly, Little noted, “we’re in a really interesting technology time for this.”
With Pulse in its current form, his team is essentially “looking at a couple hundred metrics from a couple hundred data sources” to generate fresh performance insights. And to be able to bring that data together in a really automated way, and display it all in a very visually simple view that allows people to make decisions quickly, more modern technologies — which are now really coming into fruition — are needed.
“And the third point is, as we think about what’s occurred over the last three years with COVID-19, with the Afghan [withdrawal], with the Russia-Ukraine war and with our near-peer adversaries — the world has changed. And so I think there’s an understanding [in the Pentagon] that we need to change how we manage the department, and we want to do that in a much more data-driven way,” Little explained.
He and his team built the new performance-gauging mechanism, but they consider Pulse to be much more than just a digital capability.
“It’s a cultural shift to look at data and metrics in a more outcome-based way” on a regular basis — as well as an application to visualize and display data to make sense of various Pentagon components’ maturation, according to Little. “It’s also a way for our teams to come together and look at how we’re doing on the performance of not only the strategic priorities laid out in the National Defense Strategy, but how do we understand just the overall health of the” DOD, he said.
The tool is meant to hone in on a wide range of metrics across the department’s portfolios, like customer wait times at military depots, audit-aligned progress to be made, or contract acquisition assessments.
Beyond the CDAO, other Defense Department components, including the policy hub and performance improvement office, supported the making of Pulse as both a platform and concept.
Jett, who helps lead the Pulse project within the CDAO, noted that officials leveraged established DOD governance structures in the development of the novel tool.
“We’re not trying to create new processes or new workflows in the department. We’re leveraging those that already exist and introducing data analytics into those conversations to derive better outcomes from those meetings that are already taking place,” Jett said.
Creating a common schema
The CDAO officials each described a number of elements to help evoke what Pulse looks like to end users.
“We have the different categories of priorities that the secretary and we’re working on,” which involves wireframes that can be iterated to visualize what officials would like to see, Little noted.
Areas where there has been progress, and those where there’s room for more, are color-coded. Officials can then drill down into deeper metrics and data layers to observe potentially helpful nuances. “So you might see that this area is red, and then you can click down into the actual metrics and the data itself to be able to see where we’re having the issue,” Little noted.
Information is also displayed in pie charts, heat maps and via other visualization options, and data comes from logistics, personnel, maintenance supply and financial systems, as well as other sources that span the Pentagon and military.
DOD’s Advana tool is recognized as an enabler for Pulse, in that it is the channel through which officials conduct underpinning data modeling.
“Let’s use the metric ‘time-to-hire,” Little said. Officials will set a definition and standards for the metric and pinpoint all the data sources associated with it. “We then go to those databases, and we automatically pull the data into Advana,” Little said, to facilitate modeling and visualization techniques.
To Jett, “there are so many different” metrics for Pulse, currently. Many are related to DOD’s installations for climate change, supply chain resiliency and around cultivating a talented workforce.
“From a Pulse perspective, and what we’re doing within the CDAO is we’re creating that sort of that common schema for metrics, so that it doesn’t matter what level the metrics are elevating to. We have the flexibility as those priorities change, or as the audience changes, to all reach from the same pool of data and analytics to be able to customize what exactly it is and what level of importance of analytics, depending on the audience,” she said.
Historically, Pentagon officials would have to resort to spending “many, many man-hours” in Powerpoint to review different elements of the department’s performance, Little also said. Now, though, in his view the CDAO is helping components harness technology and data “in a way of scale and automation that just wasn’t there before.”
At the beginning of producing Pulse, “almost about 70% of our metrics were more activity-based,” he added, noting, “we’ve actually shifted that to be 70% output-based metrics. So, we were really trying to shift from looking at this only from a compliance lens, more to an outcome lens.”
Where it’s headed
“Now that we’ve provided performance goals and measures, we’re setting up the capabilities, such as Pulse. Our next step is to implement all those tools across the department,” Hicks confirmed during her recent speech.
In the interview, both Little and Jett referred to growing momentum within and beyond the walls of the Pentagon that could accelerate that.
“There’s a lot of excitement at varying echelons of leadership” at DOD, according to Jett.
“I get calls from the chief data officers and the performance leaders in the military. They’re like, ‘We want to support this, and we want to integrate.’ So it’s something that I think people have been looking forward to for a long time, and we’re kind of now beginning to provide that foundation to have cross-functional and cross-department conversations about big, hard, complex issues that we haven’t been able to have before,” she said.
Next, she and the CDAO’s Pulse team will focus on the operationalization of their evolving tool, and pushing the broader cultural movement to revamp metrics. While much of the work so far has concentrated on efforts in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, near-term engagements could include what officials deemed “data-lucrative” organizations, like the Defense Logistics Agency.
“We’re creating a picture that right now the use case has been around OSD — but it’s expanding into the [military departments], the [combatant commands] and the Joint Staff over the next year or so. I would say that is probably where we’re headed,” Jett said.
Looking to the future, Little also noted that the overarching goal for the CDAO and Hicks, is to institutionalize Pulse as a capability. The notion is that DOD’s strategic priorities may change and adjust down the line, but the guiding structure of Pulse will remain.
“No one’s going to argue with wanting to have a capability that allows them to see how we’re doing in terms of priorities and operational health. Our job is to be able to make the tools available to make this as easy as possible,” Little said.