Monday, January 26, 2015

Treasures from the East: How Funded Meritocracy Can Change Government and Cybersecurity

For centuries, the trade winds, or Trades, have been the means by which the bounty of the East has enriched the West.  These riches were often tangible items such as precious metals, textiles, works of art and gemstones.  The most enduring itinerant wealth, however, has been ideas that fundamentally altered Western concepts of technology, law, government and education.  The westward migration of knowledge continues today, and may hold the key to economic innovation and a safer, more secure cyberspace.

There’s a long history of progressive ideas emanating from the East.  For example, western ideas of governance by a professional civil service are Chinese in origin.  The concept of a civil service meritocracy originated in China in 207 BCE.  Prior to that, official appointments were based on aristocratic recommendations and the majority of bureaucrats were titled peers.  As the empire grew and nepotism became rampant, the system broke down and government became increasingly inefficient and ineffective. 

The solution was the “Imperial Examination,” a sweeping testing system designed to select the best and brightest candidates for civil service.  Initiated in the Han dynasty, this system of examination and appointment became the primary path to state employment during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE), and remained so until 1905. 

The examination curriculum ultimately covered five areas of study: military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography, and the Confucian classics.  There were five testing levels, each increasing in scope and difficulty.  This hierarchy was intended to match candidates to levels of responsibility associated with prefecture, provincial, national and court-level appointments respectively.  This examination is regarded by historians as the first merit-based, standardized government occupational testing mechanism.

Unfortunately, innovative ideas for government travel less rapidly than the Trades.  More than a millennium passed before a comparable civil service meritocracy was implemented in the United States.  The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed in 1883 in response to the assassination of President Garfield by a civil service applicant, Charles Guiteau, who had been rejected under the previous patronage (or spoils) system.  The Act required applicants to pass an exam in order to be eligible for civil service jobs.  It also afforded protections against retaliatory, partisan or political dismissal, freeing civil servants from the influences of political patronage.  As a result (so the theory went), civil servants would be selected based on merit and the career service would operate in a politically neutral manner.

Another critically relevant Eastern innovation addresses the creation, nurturing and maintenance of an innovative, technically astute cyber workforce.  The Israeli Talpiot program is one of the most successful examples of national investment in cyber education and training in the world.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli forces were surprised by Egyptian use of sophisticated technology, including surface to air missiles and guided antitank missiles.  In response, the Israeli government set out to ensure that its forces would have a dominant technological superiority in all future conflicts.  In 1979, Israel implemented Talpiot.  Talpiot creates a synergy between the Israeli national defense infrastructure and the country’s most prestigious universities that produces an elite talent pool dedicated to the most pressing security technology issues.

Approximately 50 students (out of a candidate pool of 3,000 to 5,000) who demonstrate excellence in the natural sciences and mathematics are selected for Talpiot annually.  Their university tuition and fees are sponsored by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) (specifically the Israeli Air Force (IAF)) and they graduate with an officer’s commission.

The Talpiot application process begins after the equivalent of junior year in high school.  After an initial down selection, candidates are tested on basic knowledge as well as reasoning and analytic abilities.  Applicants who pass these tests then go through advanced screening.

Successful applicants enter a three year training cycle, which accounts for the three years of mandatory military service required of Israeli citizens.  While university classes are in session they pursue academic studies.  Military training takes place during the rest of the year.  Upon graduation and commissioning, the candidates spend an additional six years in regular IDF units where they assume senior roles in organizations dedicated to technical research and development (R&D). 

Talpiot builds on a unique, three-part curriculum that features academic, military and ethical cores.  The academic core is based around a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics.  The military core includes combat and specialized military occupational professional training, projects emphasizing both basic and applied research, and a thorough grounding in the Israeli technology and defense establishment.  The ethical core stresses Israeli culture, geography and history, leadership, the IDF mission, and core IAF and IDF values.

The academic core is rigorous.  Graduates earn a Bachelor of Science degree from the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the Hebrew University.  The course of study includes a degree in physics augmented with mathematics and computer science based studies. 

Upon completion of their studies, Talpiot graduates take positions with operational technology development organizations within the IDF.  In these roles, they conduct advanced technology research, develop advanced weapons, design algorithms and computer applications, or conduct systems analysis.  While most Talpiot alumni serve in R&D units, there is an operational option available.  Those choosing this option serve in army ground combat units, on naval ships and submarines, or as air force pilots.  After approximately three years of service in operational units, graduates are assigned to R&D organizations where they contribute the perspectives and insight gained in the field to the R&D effort.

Through Talpiot, Israel has gained a well-trained, highly competent cadre of technical specialists conducting R&D that is extraordinarily responsive to national security needs.  Talpiot research leads to rapid fielding of advanced technical solutions to both physical and cybersecurity problems.  Talpiot alumni are actively courted by global venture capital firms and have created a significant number of successful technology startups that have benefitted both the Israeli and global economies.

As with ideas of a civil service meritocracy, notions of state-sponsored training and education of a technocratic elite to meet public and private sector needs has moved west.  On January 1st, 2015, British national morning newspaper The Independent reported on ideas coming out of Whitehall and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) (the UK’s counterpart to the US National Security Agency (NSA)). 

Impressed by Talpiot’s success in the defense and commercial sectors, the British government is seeking to emulate Talpiot with a variant of the successful Teach First program (itself an offshoot of the Teach for America program in the United States).  The program’s (informally known as “Spook First”) goal is to convince promising young university graduates to work for and with GCHQ to develop new technologies that can be transitioned to the commercial sector, driving economic growth.  After a two year commitment, program alumni would be free to move to the private sector.

Unfortunately, something appears to have been garbled in translation as the Talpiot concept moved west.  Britain’s best and brightest technical graduates, already courted by prospective employers, have little incentive to take a relatively low paying government position.  The British proposal does not cover a candidate’s educational expenses, which are not trivial.  University tuition in the UK averages approximately $14,000 per year.  And that’s without accounting for the cost of room, board, books and other living expenses.  Given that the UK does not have mandatory military service, there is little incentive to drive quality candidates into the Spook First program.  From a student’s perspective, Spook First just doesn’t add up.

 The keys to Talpiot’s success are clear: 
  •  a fully funded world-class education;
  •  leadership positions in exciting, relevant technical R&D organizations; and
  •  a high probability of venture capital funding for technology startups.

 The translation in Britain yields:  “We’ll let you play with us, in a low paying job, after you’ve paid your own way.”  This does not set the UK up for success.

And what of the United States?  Innovation is part of the American DNA.  Unfortunately, so are skyrocketing education costs (average annual cost for a private university in the US is $32,000 per year), a national critical infrastructure that is increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attack and a desperate shortage of qualified cybersecurity professionals.  Given this perfect storm, bringing Talpiot even further west in a way that both replicates all of its key components and applies them in a uniquely American way makes a great deal of sense.  Providing qualified students a means to afford higher education and a mechanism to translate drive and innovation into private sector growth is a winning proposition for students, the economy and the nation.

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