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Carter's Outreach to Silicon Valley Hits Rough Patch


Defense Secretary Ashton Carter agreed with the feedback from the high-tech gurus of Silicon Valley that the Pentagon's hidebound bureaucracy made it difficult to do business.

"The biggest complaint I think is that the Department of Defense too frequently insists on doing things the way it does things and has always done things," Carter said Wednesday of his struggling attempt at outreach to the high-tech community by setting up a Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) in Silicon Valley last August.

"And so they want us to change and to find different, innovative ways of doing things," Carter said of his interaction with such firms as Google, Intel, Apple and Microsoft.

In his view, it was the Pentagon that would have to change, and not the firms, if the outreach was to work -- "not everything we do, but some different mechanisms for dealing with people," he said.

Change would also mean more money in the mix.

Carter said he was in discussions with the firm  on "some different ways of dealing with funding so that we can take more risk, be more experimental, be more rapid in funding."

The secretary made the statements in a question-and-answer session with reporters in Palo Alto, California, after a speech in which he announced an overhaul of the leadership of DIUx and an expansion of the high-tech outreach program to Boston.

It was his fourth visit to Silicon Valley, according to Carter, who frequently notes that he is the first Defense Secretary in 20 years to come to the area.

In a sign of the importance he attaches to the program, he said that DIUx would now be reporting directly to him, rather than going through Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics -- a position, coincidentally, Sen. John McCain and others have targeted for elimination in the proposed defense authorization bill.

Carter's DIUx effort has often been compared to the much-criticized "best and brightest" program of the late Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, to bring so-called "whiz kids" from Ivy League schools to the Pentagon to change the culture.

The Pentagon would have to learn to be more "agile" to keep up with the 21st Century whiz kids of high-tech, Carter said.

"When I hear something from a CEO who says 'I'd like my company to work with you, but you guys make it really difficult for us' -- that's an important lesson for me," he said.

"And so I actually welcome that. I welcome that feedback. And, see, I wouldn't have that feedback without DIUx. That's the whole point of being out here," Carter said.

"Agility is critical in today's world. It's a competitive world. And so DIUx in this transition or phase and in every other one we undergo in the future, you'll see us constantly learning, constantly being agile. That's what it's all about," he said.

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