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Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson interview

Friday, June 8th, 2001 - 20:00
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Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson
Radio show date: 
Sat, 06/09/2001
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Leadership ...

Leadership

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Arlington, Virginia

May 2, 2001

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the co-chair of The Endowment for The Business of Government. We created the Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more about the Endowment by visiting us on the web at endowment.pwcglobal.com.

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our conversation today is with Vice Admiral Tom Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Welcome, Admiral.

Adm. Wilson: Good evening.

Mr. Lawrence: Let's start by finding out about the Defense Intelligence Agency. I'd like to say a lot of people know of it but I don't think that's true. Perhaps you could describe its mission and its history?

Adm. Wilson: Well, the Defense Intelligence Agency was established in 1961, so we're having our 40th anniversary this fall in October. And it's designed to provide intelligence support for our military and our military policy makers and the people in the Department of Defense who acquire our weapons systems and combat systems of the future. So it's designed to provide a joint intelligence focus for those three primary groups of customers: the war fighters, the defense policy makers, and the defense acquisition community.

Mr. Lawrence: What type of people work at DIA?

Adm. Wilson: We have about 7,000 slots or billets at DIA, and it's a combination of both civilians and military. We're about 60 percent civilian, about 40 percent military, both officers and enlisted, so we have civilian intelligence professionals, we have military intelligence specialists, and we have, of course, people in information technology, acquisition, lawyers, about anything that you could imagine to support a large organization.

Mr. Lawrence: How does the DIA's mission compare to that of, say, the Central Intelligence Agency?

Adm. Wilson: Well, we are focused first and foremost on the military or defense customer. We do all-source intelligence analysis. We do also human intelligence collection, but we do it in a way, which is focused on the customer sets that I was talking about.

You cannot separate military intelligence from the political and the economic sectors, for example. We very much focus on foreign militaries and their capabilities and their intentions and focus on our defense customers. CIA, of course, is focused on a national set of customers, including the president and cabinet members and a very wide spectrum of political and economic analysis.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, tell us about your career in the Navy. And I'm particularly interested, how does one become director of the DIA?

Adm. Wilson: Well, I don't think too many have followed in my footsteps exactly. I graduated, of course, with a degree in agriculture in 1968 from Ohio State, and I went into the Navy. It was during the height of Vietnam. I wanted to serve after I got out of college.

I went to Navy OCS and it was just by chance that I was assigned to an intelligence billet in Taipei, Taiwan, of all places, in 1969 and I liked the intelligence work that I was exposed to.

I did a tour after that in DIA back in Washington, decided to stay in for a longer period of time, which eventually became a career. And so it was more or less by happenstance I got into a field of work that I enjoyed and I liked and stayed in it.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, what drew you to public service and I guess perhaps equally important is what kept you there?

Adm. Wilson: Well, as I said before, it was during Vietnam. The nation was certainly stressed with that war. I felt a strong sense of obligation to serve, so I chose to serve in the Navy. I didn't really intend for it to be a career when I got in the Navy, but I liked both the Navy and I liked the intelligence work.

And as I got through my first couple of tours, I recognized that I was involved in something that was important to our national security. It was a challenging environment. It gave me the opportunity to serve the country in a variety of postings, both at sea and ashore and around the world.

I have had four overseas assignments. I should say that my wife and family are both adventuresome and supportive. They have liked the travel associated with the military career, and so it's essentially a mission and a service that I liked to do, I found challenging, and still do to this day.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, tell me about some of those challenges. Which of the positions you have held gave you the best training in terms of being a leader and a manager?

Adm. Wilson: I certainly think that your entire career, you know, molds together to prepare you for leadership positions at the national level. But strangely enough I would say a division officer on an aircraft carrier -- when the carrier was in the shipyard -- was a real challenge in terms of leading and managing people because the kind of work that we were doing was not what they were necessarily trained to do.

It was not fun work. It exposed me to managing the overhaul of an intelligence center on a carrier with a group of sailors and was a challenge and an interesting one for management and leadership.

And then, certainly then after that, going to sea in the operational environment, leading petty officers, sailors, junior officers, at the air wing level or the command ship level -- for where I operated was all building experience and the overseas assignments as well -- dealing with our foreign counterparts in an environment which is not completely familiar. It all molds together to prepare you for more higher leadership positions which come later in your career.

Mr. Lawrence: When you say it all molds together I'm particularly interested. What skills were you developing at these times?

Adm. Wilson: Well, I think that the most important thing for leaders is to be able to communicate clearly to their organization what the goals and objectives are, to be able to establish a strong team in working toward those goals and objectives, and having buy in with the goals is certainly important, as well as a set of business values.

And then really unleashing the people to work towards those objectives, I think, is critically important, and the best way to accomplish things in this day and age and probably forever. So being able to communicate, being able to convey a sense of enthusiasm, to inspire people to go the direction that the leader has charted, I think, are all important leadership skills to develop.

Mr. Lawrence: Given your present position where you work with a great deal of civilians as well as military, how does that play into how a leader acts and what he or she does?

Adm. Wilson: Well, all of our people are very valued at DIA, and the military usually do two- or three- or maybe four-year tours. They provide that constantly rotating workforce that brings in ideas from the field and from their operational assignments.

The civilians provide a sense of continuity and maybe long-term specialists that compliment very well what the military brings in. A very high percentage of our civilians have had military experience. We have certainly tried to educate them and train them about the military if they haven't.

And I find that they are all very accepting of each other, willing to work together, form strong team work. We have certainly cultural differences to work through on occasion, but in the large sense it all works very well together, I think.

Mr. Lawrence: Has the introduction of technology changed the challenges for leaders?

Adm. Wilson: Well, it certainly has changed the very nature of our work in the intelligence community. Just reviewing regularly the last ten years, the post-Desert Storm environment and the way we are now connected with high bandwidth communications, computer-to-computer interfaces at secure levels, video teleconferencing, and things like that drastically changes the way we can operate and do operate.

And I think the flow of information, the rapid flow of information, can be both an enhancement to a leader and also create challenges. It is certainly easy to get your word out rapidly to a large number of people and directly from the leader, but it also makes it sometimes more challenging for the chain of command to be used effectively and sometimes for disinformation or misinformation to be rapidly disseminated as well.

Mr. Lawrence: I'm talking with Vice Admiral Tom Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. This is The Business of Government Hour. We'll rejoin our conversation in just a few minutes. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and our conversation today is with Vice Admiral Tom Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Well, Admiral, we know the DIA is responsible for managing large amounts of information and creating useful and targeted analysis. Given your experience with what some might call knowledge management, what lessons can you pass on to others about dealing with large databases and knowledge management issues?

Adm. Wilson: Well, clearly, the information age that we're in right now leads to enormous challenges and opportunities for intelligence. One of the real important things in our business is to separate the difference between raw data, which might just be electronic intercepts or something like that, information which may have a little bit of value-added flavor to it, and intelligence, which is trying to blend a lot of information and raw data together to give a focused, predictive, analysis.

Our customers -- especially the warfighting customer -- needs all of those things. They need intelligence, they need raw data if they're in the fight, and they need information. And the challenge for us is to manage all of that so that they know what the differences are, what is unevaluated raw data, versus evaluated information versus analyzed intelligence, and to be able to deliver it to them in a format that they can use it, a timeframe that's relevant to their operations, and that it's the information that they really need to support their operations without a lot of superfluous information.

So the challenges in the information world have gone to an inability in the past to move large amounts of information to the challenges of being able to move it, but how do you manage it so that you don't overwhelm the customer with too much information?

Mr. Lawrence: And how much of a challenge is that? Because as you described it, I began to think you probably can get it there quick, but there is so much of it; how do you know what to do with it?

Adm. Wilson: Well, it's a big challenge. And certainly, we are trying to use technology to allow us to move information and manage it better. And to some extent we're trying to use technology to allow us to analyze it better, but it still always comes down to good, well-trained people that are fusing the information together and trying to understand their customer's requirements to produce the kind of predictive analysis that they need.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, let me ask about successful partnerships. After Operation Desert Storm, DIA changed the composition of its frontline intelligence teams to include members from the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agencies. How successful has this collaboration been?

Adm. Wilson: These teams are called National Intelligence Support Teams. The acronym we use is NIST. And, actually, all of the agencies had support teams in the 1980s and often each sent a team out to augment a ship or a division, something like that, that was engaged in an operation.

So what we really did after Desert Storm was to tailor a national team that consisted of all of the agencies, CIA, NSA, DIA, into a single team under a single leadership with a smaller footprint, shared kind of communications and things like that to be more specifically tailored to the commander's mission, and to provide that information and that support without a large footprint for him to support.

And I think it has largely been a very successful exercise in providing national support to the warfighter. Now the warfighters can come back via classified Internet and our push-pull intelligence system to be able to do a lot on their own that used to be done with specialists. We are always examining the composition of national intelligence support teams to make sure that we're putting the right kind of capability forward.

Mr. Lawrence: Other organizations recognize that others have common mission and that collaboration makes sense, and yet they can't execute it. How have you been able to execute this collaboration?

Adm. Wilson: Well, this is one collaboration that's occurred. It's a matter of actually trying to give a coordinated product to war fighters as opposed to three or four products from three or four national agencies. But there is a larger collaboration, which occurs, and that is the collaboration in the defense intelligence community among the national agency, DIA, the military service intelligence centers, and the joint intelligence centers of the unified commands.

They are very well connected now with high bandwidth communications, with computer technology that allows us to work together more effectively than ever. And because we're about 35 percent smaller than we were ten years ago collectively, it's more imperative that we actually collaborate, work together in providing support up and down the chain of command.

Mr. Lawrence: We also know that DIA is responsible for the Joint Military Intelligence College. Could you tell us a little bit about the history of this institution, and what it's like to manage a college?

Adm. Wilson: Well, the Joint Military Intelligence College was actually established in 1962, I think as the Defense Intelligence School, about a year after DIA was established. We have about 450 students on an annual basis, about one-third of which are full-time. The others are part-time, weekend students.

We're fully accredited by the Eastern States Universities and Colleges Association to offer a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence and a Bachelor of Science in Strategic Intelligence. The latter program is really designed to give people who have gotten three years of college on their own a fourth year. And this BSSI, Bachelor of Science in Strategic Intelligence degree, and we use that often as a tool to maybe give upper mobility to a staff support assistant, a secretary. Many of our enlisted personnel take advantage of this opportunity.

And then for the masters program we bring in military personnel and civilians. They have a very rigorous academic program. They can write classified or unclassified thesis. It's fully accredited.

And then we find that we have a very much more powerful combination of talent that comes out of the school and that can get into the work force. So it's a good mid-career training opportunity or educational opportunity and we find a lot of advantages to the college.

Mr. Lawrence: You talked about the challenges of managing sources of information and fusing it all together and we've heard that DIA is taking a novel approach to blend these together by having them feed into a large computer database program called JIVA or the Joint Intelligent Virtual Architecture. Could you tell us about the JIVA program?

Adm. Wilson: Well, the JIVA program is not really a single database. What this concept is is to take technology, high bandwidth communications, collaborative tools, software and hardware, field it throughout the enterprise, along with doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures that will allow analysts and people at different levels of command to collaborate and virtually work problems together to produce the best analysis or the best product that the system can offer -- as opposed to what one command or one analyst could put together.

It's a program, which is still building. We put in infrastructure first. In the last several years, we're fielding software tools, analysis of support tools in the entire network, which is a worldwide architecture, and the most dramatic use was during allied force in Desert Fox -- the most recent bombing campaigns we had in Yugoslavia and Iraq -- to do federated targeting support and federated battle damage assessment.

So it's really a combination of hardware, software, and tactics, techniques, and procedures to allow us to collaborate in the intelligence analysis and production community more than we ever could before the technology was available.

Mr. Lawrence: Interesting. It's time for a break. We're back in a few minutes with more of The Business of Government Hour and our conversation with Vice Admiral Tom Wilson. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and our conversation today is with Vice Admiral Tom Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

We know that DIA has described priority management areas as the four thrusts. Could you tell us more about this?

Adm. Wilson: Well, the four thrusts are really more than just DIA. The four thrusts are goals and objectives, which have been chosen by the military intelligence board. I chair the board, but it's representation is from the four services, and the unified commands as well as some other intelligence agencies.

We sat down in 1999, shortly after I took the job, and decided that we wanted to focus our energy on four important areas to really make progress. One is shaping ourselves for the asymmetric threat. We're a defense intelligence community, which is built primarily to do force-on-force military intelligence, yet the only real threat to the homeland at this time is an asymmetric threat, whether it's terrorism, information warfare, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, drugs, or whatever.

We can't ditch our job to do regular military intelligence, but we also have to be able to do asymmetric threat work better. So we're trying to reshape our methodologies, our indications and warning procedures, our analytical techniques to address these asymmetric threats in the future.

The second area was attacking the problems we have with databases. It's very, very difficult to maintain an up-to-date worldwide database, especially when you're consumed by current crises and challenges. This is certainly illustrated in the Chinese Embassy bombing, for example, where our database did not allow us to pick up a targeting error, which had occurred.

So we're really trying very hard to update the quality of our databases, the currency of the databases, even as we move ourselves into a web-enabled knowledge base for the future.

The third area is enhancing interoperability with the operating forces for the common operating picture. Really a short bumper sticker is "how do we make our intelligence products and services plug and play on the operational systems?" Dissemination and interoperability have always been challenges, and it's vitally important that we make great strides in this interoperability area for the future.

The fourth thrust, probably the most important, is revitalizing and reshaping our work force for the future. We are first and foremost a people program. Most of our resources are tied up in our personnel resources and assets, and we have to replenish that work force. We have to be able to recruit, train, retain, and reward top quality people to do this important security work for the country.

So these are collectively the four thrusts and under the military intelligence board and working with our four services, five services, actually, counting the Coast Guard, and all of our unified commands and sister agencies, we are trying our best to move, make important progress in all four of these areas, and I am pleased to report that we're doing so.

Mr. Lawrence: Funding levels fluctuate as the intelligence mission has broadened. How do you prioritize given limited resources?

Adm. Wilson: Well, we think that it's most important to understand what the customer needs. Now, our customers are a pretty diverse set. As I said before, it's the warfighters, the defense policy makers, and the defense acquisition or modernization community.

We have a very aggressive interaction with customers. For example, the unified commanders and chiefs, the CINCS, to find out what their top priorities for military intelligence are, which of their op plans, operational plans, or contingency plans are most important to support; and then we try to structure our collection, analysis, and support programs so that those customers get what they need.

And so I think the way we prioritize is first and foremost an aggressive interaction with customers regardless of what level they're at.

Mr. Lawrence: And what happens when things change? World events happen very quickly. Can they change the prioritization?

Adm. Wilson: Well, certainly they can change prioritization, and we have emerging hot topics, for example, in a noncombatant evacuation in some third world country or a military contingency that arises. And so we can shift our current focus, our current collection, our current analysis there, but it's all vitally important to have a solid database on these countries and on these functional areas, so that you can quickly move from one area to the other and be very agile and flexible.

So yes, you can change current priorities relative quickly but in terms of long-term priorities there is a national process for determining those from the national security strategy right on down through the Director of Central Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense that help us establish our priorities.

Mr. Lawrence: How do you balance the need for security and limited information distribution with the need to communicate the overall mission and the goals of the organization?

Adm. Wilson: Well, I think the most important security rule to remember is that we're trying to protect our sources and our methods and to the degree that we can get our product out, our analysis, our information widely disseminated to our customers and even our processes and our goals and objectives at an unclassified level, the challenge is to do all that while protecting sources and methods.

Both missions are important but I think we can strike the balance, which is needed to do all of it.

Mr. Lawrence: And how do you build a sense of community amongst the employees, amongst the relationship between the customers, given the need for limited information?

Adm. Wilson: I think we do have a good sense of community in the defense intelligence world and I suppose I would agree it's a challenge when you can't always share everything. It may be harder for people to buy into your goals and objectives.

But at the broad levels, I think it's classified sources and secrets don't really impair our ability to establish priorities and to work with customers in understanding what their needs are.

Mr. Lawrence: Could you tell us more about the work that the DIA is doing to promote diversity?

Adm. Wilson: I'd be delighted to. First of all, the intelligence business is all about understanding how other people, other cultures, other countries think and feel about things, and will react in given situations. So it's a very diverse world that we're trying to analyze and understand.

America is an extraordinarily diverse country. We have people of all races, ethnic background, city people, rural people, people who have fundamental understandings that we don't all equally share. So there is a great business case for diversity.

If we have a diverse analytical work force, a diverse force of case officers in the human intelligence world, people who understand more about how people who are different from us think, and feel, and react, we can be a stronger intelligence community.

We're trying to promote diversity in DIA and in fact all of the defense intelligence we have established stretch goals for diversity, minority hiring. I'm happy to say that at DIA about 28 percent of our new hires last year were minorities. Certainly we're working on education and training programs to make sure that our diverse population is elevated and that the pool of people we can choose from for future leadership positions is a diverse pool.

And we're doing it because diversity is important to our business. We have some great relationships with, for example, historically black colleges and universities on some academic work in support of our analysis, and we target some of those universities for recruiting. And we use the Joint Military Intelligence College, for example, by offering fellowships to qualified individuals.

And so there are a lot of tools we can use to help our diversity profile and improve our ability to operate against a threat.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of The Business of Government Hour and our conversation with Vice Admiral Tom Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and today's conversation is with Vice Admiral Tom Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in a career in public service?

Adm. Wilson: Well, the public service I know most about, of course, is the intelligence community and the United States military. And the advice I would give any young person is that either one of those, or in my case I'm in both, is a tremendous opportunity for individuals to make a real contribution in work that is exciting.

It's high impact. It's invigorating to go to work every day. It can lead you into areas of access and situations that you never thought you'd experience in terms of where you live in the world, who you meet, who you operate with. So I think it's tremendous if every young American had the opportunity to serve the country.

You know we no longer have a draft, for example, but public service helps you appreciate more of what we have in our country. And in my brand of public service, our brand, intelligence and the military, they are both tremendous institutions, which are a pleasure and honor to be a part of.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, if someone did want to join the intelligence community, what type skills would you be looking for? It sounds like from much of our conversation, it's very technical. Is that necessarily true?

Adm. Wilson: Well, as I said in the beginning of the interview, my degree happens to be in agriculture, agriculture economics and rural sociology, so I guess that's a short way of saying I think that you can have educational skills in almost anything.

We certainly need information technologists, no question about that. People who can make computers sing for us and network communications. But we also need people who have a fundamental understanding of history, the social sciences, the arts, languages. Language skills are awfully important.

We need people with technical backgrounds in scientific areas. It's almost hard to imagine an area of endeavor that we can't use in the intelligence community. Certainly we need some more than others but the areas I just mentioned, political science, history, the hard sciences, biological sciences, chemical, languages, those are all important skills for us to have in the work force in the future.

Mr. Lawrence: We also hear a lot about the coming government retirement wave and the expected impact on federal agencies. What kind of challenges will this present to DIA?

Adm. Wilson: I think that the biggest challenge that it presents is that you lose workers or analysts who have long experience in certain areas and also we may lose civilians, for example, who have long experience in the military.

We are more likely to get in people who have different skill sets and may not have as much exposure to the military. So I think that the latter is a challenge. We always need in DIA, in defense intelligence, to make sure our people fundamentally understand our military and what its requirements are in terms of intelligence support but also the opportunity to replenish the work force with different kinds of skills that may be needed for the future is important.

And so what we're doing, of course, is trying to inventory the skill sets we have in our work force, trying to project and examine what we need in the future, and are then trying to recruit people who have skills that we think are in greater demand for the future.

Mr. Lawrence: How do you capture that lost experience?

Adm. Wilson: I suspect that people have been worried about experience leaving organizations for hundreds of years. And so you try to keep good files. You try to have good mentors. I think for people who are nearing the end of the careers who have long experience in the field of analysis or collection, mentoring is so important. In any organization, and the degree to which our senior analysts and our senior case officers can grab the young people coming in, make sure they get the right training and mentor them and pass on their skills, that's how you really generate the experience for the future because the young folks can blend their new educational capabilities along with the mentoring they receive from the experienced veterans.

Mr. Lawrence: What kind of technological advances do you expect will assist DIA in managing knowledge, improving operations, and providing intelligence information?

Adm. Wilson: Well, I'm hopeful that we will be able to advance the ball as far forward in information understanding in the next 10 years or 20 years as we have in information movement in the last 10 years. We certainly have been able to accelerate the amount of information we can move and the speed at which we can move it.

We haven't made near as much progress in using automation or technology to help us understand the information to mine large amounts of data and pull out what's important and having technological assists to analysts.

I don't think the computers can analyze the information for us, but they may be able to help us pare down that which we have to run by the human being. So the bottom line is: I think I'd like to see us make as much progress in information assists to information understanding in the next 10 years as we have had the information movement in the last 10 years.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, speaking of the next 10 years, what's your vision for the next 10 years at DIA?

Adm. Wilson: I think that the most important thing for DIA in the next 10 years is to really pay attention to our people. And my vision for DIA in the next 10 years is an empowered, enlightened work force that knows the goals and objectives, has a deep understanding of their customer set, and has a business value of total teamwork with the customers, with each other, with the intelligence community to work the tough problems that the country faces in the national security environment.

I know that we can make a lot of progress in a lot of areas but we are first and foremost about people. And how we develop an organization, which takes care of people, recruits the right people, provides them the opportunity for training and mentors them will really gauge how successful DIA is in the future.

I say often there are no facts for sure about the future. We can make assessments, we can make probability judgments of what will happen, but there is always going to be surprises no matter how carefully you try to engineer for the future.

My vision is a work force that is agile and flexible and able to adapt to change, to recognize that they are in a system which supports their efforts and their individual work values, and allows them to make the kind of contributions we know they will be able to make in the future.

Mr. Lawrence: In such a system would the process of managing DIA be different?

Adm. Wilson: I think it's possible that the process of managing DIA could be different. We may have different organizational structures that are better for the future. We may have different ways to communicate things around the work force.

But one thing that will not be different is about leading DIA or leading any large organization and that's all about making sure that the people understand what the organization is about, what the goals and objectives are, what their customer set is, and feels like they're empowered as individuals and, more importantly, as teams to work toward those goals and objectives. So while management techniques may change, it's doubtful to me that leadership techniques will ever change.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, I'm afraid we're out of time. I want to thank you very much, Admiral, for spending some time with us today.

Adm. Wilson: Thank you.

Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour featuring a conversation on management with Vice Admiral Tom Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. To learn more about our programs in research and to new approaches to improving government effectiveness visit us on the web at endowment.pwcglobal.com.

See you next week.

Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson interview
06/09/2001
Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson

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