This past week I spent several days in Northern California attending a conference sponsored by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. It was my second time attending this annual research conference, and while much of it was beyond my technical competence, it is always fun to stretch one’s mind by learning about new topics.

As I drove south to Monterey, I passed through Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Atherton and many more places that, in the aggregate, make up much of what is called “Silicon Valley.” The names on the sides of the buildings attest to the entrepreneurial energy that has been centered in this technology-driven business environment – one founded on innovation and creativity and more than a few scientific breakthroughs, resulting in the creation of economic opportunities almost beyond imagination.

The modern-day Internet may have been a creature of DARPA, in Northern Virginia, but the commercial and scientific promise that high-speed communications and advanced computing power has spun out has, in almost every case, been touched by activity that started and, in many cases, continues in this Valley of Possibilities. The technological energy generated here is almost palpable, yet next-to-impossible to describe.

So I can understand the pull “Silicon Valley” has on people from the federal government. Unlike the common perception about Washington, DC, here there is a lightning-quick business climate that works, or that fails so fast that other potential ideas can be given a chance to compete for success. It almost feels as if there are no hierarchical organizational charts that limit upward mobility.

While it is likely untrue, I nevertheless get the sense there are no “swim lanes” into which people and processes are shunted, unlike the rigid structure of federal institutions and bureaucratic culture. Creativity and risk go hand-in-hand in the Valley. The opposite often occurs along the Potomac, and when it does, GAO, an Inspector General or some well-meaning Member of Congress is there to offer post-mortem, and generally non-substantive, recommendations.

Those thoughts kept floating through my mind all week as I tried to 1) reconcile the vast cultural differences that are so prevalent on opposite sides of the coast with 2) the April 21 announcement by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson that DHS was opening a satellite office in Silicon Valley. Speaking at the 2015 RSA Conference, Johnson said:

“Today I am pleased to announce that the Department of Homeland Security is also finalizing plans to open up a satellite office in Silicon Valley, to serve as another point of contact with our friends here. We want to strengthen critical relationships in Silicon Valley and ensure that the government and the private sector benefit from each other’s research and development. …And we want to convince some of the talented workforce here in Silicon Valley to come to Washington.”

Well, that seems awfully vague to me since it was all he said about it.

What did the Secretary mean when he said DHS wanted to “strengthen critical relationships?” Relationships with whom? And exactly what did he mean when he said the purpose of the office was to allow government and private sector businesses to “benefit from each other’s research and development?” Who says that the existing businesses and business owners even want to be associated with agencies of the U.S. government? Why wouldn’t they want to, you might ask?

If my conversations this past week are indicative of broader thinking, the Valley doesn’t want more of a government presence inside its house. As best I can tell, most of the “real” Silicon Valley entrepreneurs want the government to leave them alone. Government is perceived as moving too slowly for the pace of innovation and change the Valley represents. And the government is not trusted, especially among the immigrant communities that have populated the technology communities throughout Northern California.

DHS needs to be more transparent in explaining what its new office would do to build credibility in Silicon Valley. They have not made the business case to their owners, stakeholders and financers, the American taxpayers, much less the audience in the Valley they likely want to reach. Because there is no clearly articulated rationale by DHS for wanting an R&D office in the heart of nerd-land, it causes me to wonder where that physical presence will be located and why there instead of elsewhere.

Putting aside for the moment that there are already offices of other federal agencies in the Bay area, DHS itself has a number of existing offices nearby, including CBP facilities at the ports and Coast Guard operations up and down the coastline. FEMA has a long history and a favorable reputation in this land of earthquakes and forest fires. Why should DHS go to the expense of creating another physical office and incur the costs associated with staffing it, when many facilities already exist in the vast expanse in or near Silicon Valley.

Moreover, where do you put an office without offending a competing technology company whose own office may be miles away? An office in Mountain View would be perceived as being close to Google and LinkedIn, whereas an office in Menlo Park would be seen as currying favor with the venture capital community. The Valley is a competitive place, physically and virtually, where perceptions often drive far more decisions than intentions.

These, of course, lead to ultimately tougher questions:

  • Who will staff the satellite office?
  • What skillsets will be critical to the proper operation of a DHS R&D office?
  • How will “success” be defined? Is it the number of meetings held, the number of grants/contracts provided, the number of CRADAs signed, or the number of people DHS can poach from the private sector to feed its need for cybersecurity analysts?)
  • At a time of shrinking DHS budgets, from whose money will the operation and maintenance of the Silicon Valley office be taken and what projects or people will be scuttled because of it?
  • How will this office promote Secretary Johnson’s “Unity of Effort” philosophy across DHS agencies?

Frankly, there are far more questions than there are answers – and if I were a congressional oversight or appropriations committee, I’d be asking a lot more questions than appears to be the case thus far.

We get a small glimpse into some of these questions, thanks to an announcement on May 4 in DHS Under Secretary Dr. Reggie Brothers’ “Weekly Chat” communication with S&T employees and support staff. In it, Dr. Brothers noted that then-current HSARPA head, Dr. Jennifer Ricklin, would be leaving S&T to standup the DHS office in the Valley.

Ricklin has had something of a meteoric rise at DHS S&T. She joined HSARPA in September 2014, after having been at the Army Research Lab, DARPA, the Air Force Research Lab and as a Principal Engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. She also has private sector experience at Lockheed Martin and SAGE Solutions Group. While that is certainly an impressive history of being in the vortex of R&D activities for federal agencies, Ricklin is being asked to standup an office for DHS, where she has been for only a few months. It seems like an unusual pick, and I want to believe that I’m missing something, but it is hard to see what it might be.

I suppose the answers to those questions might be found in the answer to another one – what is the real purpose of the DHS office?

If it is to serve as nothing more than a venue for DHS meetings with Valley businesses, then it might seem that Dr. Ricklin is exceedingly over-qualified for what would be a “glorified meeting planner” role.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of the office is to explore ways the Valley can provide technological answers to some of the hard questions DHS needs answering, then Dr. Ricklin, while academically bright and possessing deep DOD experience, would seem to lack the experience and institutional knowledge of what makes DHS such a different place than the Pentagon and the defense industrial base which supports it, something Secretary Johnson has acknowledged many times.

Until such time as DHS can provide further clarity to why it wants to open a new office in Silicon Valley, and answer the “who, what, when and where” questions that remain unaddressed, speculation will fill the gaps – and that is not a good thing.

As I said, DHS needs to be more transparent to build credibility in Silicon Valley. They have not made the business case to their owners, stakeholders and financers, the American taxpayers. It is past time for DHS to do so.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More