News Stories

Recommendations in hand, new commandant outlines priorities for school’s future

By Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kristi Nanco Defense Information School


Elbows out, the salt-and-pepper haired, 48-year-old Army officer strides into an Instructor Training Course classroom at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade to observe a lesson in early November.

The class has already started, and the students tilt their heads, briefly turning their focus from their instructor, Dave Wiltshire, to the new arrival.

They sit up a little straighter as they recognize their commandant, Col. Martin Downie, who has been on the job since June.

Downie smiles and shakes hands with Wiltshire. The smile starts with his eyes and flows downward to a wide, infectious grin. The intimidation factor is entirely forgotten. The room relaxes, and Downie takes a seat among the students, ready to learn along with them.

Attending classes is just one example of the commitment that Downie, the 19th commandant in the 50-year history of DINFOS, has made to understanding the institution and the people in it so that – together – they can shape its future.

“I’m humbled by the talent I see every day,” he said. “It’s never boring, and it’s an exciting challenge to lead this powerful team.”

Over the past few months, a group of staff and faculty members at DINFOS has been working on a strategic plan, known as the Balanced Scorecard, that breaks down what the school is doing, how it is doing it, and what efforts may need to start, stop or continue to accomplish various goals. Members of the working group developed a list of 19 possible initiatives and then ranked them in November.

On Dec. 10, in a schoolwide meeting, Downie described three areas of effort that he said encompassed many of those initiatives and that will be his top priorities. They are:

-    improving the Defense Information School’s mobile learning capacity;

-    improving training services by overhauling the social media curriculum and making classroom materials available to public affairs and visual information practitioners around the world; and, finally,

-    expanding academic, interagency, industry and international partnerships.

The first area of effort involves sharing information in ways that are familiar to modern students and that will increase their effectiveness as communicators, Downie said.

“The type of thinking and professional skills that we are teaching here, for the most part, involve creativity, innovation and exploring opportunities,” he said.

Creating a mobile learning environment by installing a wireless network and issuing tablets to students and faculty members will encourage and reinforce that kind of thinking, he said. Assigning students to what he called “fixed rows of desks that are bolted to the floor” will not.

The Defense Media Activity, to which DINFOS belongs, already has issued a request for Wi-Fi proposals, and the DINFOS director of plans and technology is considering which tablets to buy, Downie said. The network could be up and running by spring 2016, with tablets issued around the same time.

The existing wired network will remain in place for a while.

“You don’t take away what you have until you’ve proven that the new thing is reliable,” Downie said. Still, he said, “I personally won’t waste any time getting my tower out of my office.”

Where training and certification are concerned, “The gold standard remains the instructor-student exchange,” Downie said. At the same time, the second area of effort – making classroom materials readily available online – will help commands accomplish their public affairs missions.

“For the practitioners who need the information now, not in six months when they are scheduled to come to the Defense Information School to receive their training, there it is,” he said. “They can find what they need and use it in a timely way.”

Such materials might include procedures for setting up news conferences or for responding to requests for interviews, Downie said. The procedures might differ slightly from command to command, but there will always be a benefit to following a Defense Department model, which logically should be found at DINFOS.

“If we’re not providing it, then who is?” he asked.

Moving to the ideal situation from the current situation, in which some material is posted online but is not readily searchable, might take a year or two, Downie said. Meanwhile, the DINFOS provost is researching how to standardize the look and feel of the materials, where to keep them, how to organize them, and how to simplify searches.

In the third area of effort, expanding partnerships, DINFOS already has significant experience. A one-year military visual journalism program, for which DINFOS coordinates applications, was revived recently at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York; the International Military Student Office at DINFOS arranges training for approximately 30 students per year; and students from agencies outside the Defense Department occasionally attend DINFOS for training.

Each of those partnerships has room for growth, but he would also like to move DINFOS beyond just transactional relationships, in which agencies pay for services, toward consultative relationships, Downie said.

Examples of consultative relationships include the naming of retired Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, now the State Department spokesman, and Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Hyatt, the sector sergeant major for the NATO Communication and Information Agency, as visiting chairs at DINFOS. Each will be invited regularly to speak at the school about common public affairs and visual information challenges.

“We’re establishing DINFOS as a more widely known and more widely used communication center of excellence,” Downie said. “We feel this is where these conversations can happen and should happen in an accessible way for the practitioners in the field and around the government.”

Downie, who began his military career as an air defense artillery officer, attended DINFOS in 1998, completing what is now the Public Affairs Qualification Course. As a public affairs officer, he deployed to Kosovo and Iraq, and graduated from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, now the Eisenhower School, in Washington, D.C.

His most recent assignment was as the chief of public affairs for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium.

At DINFOS, Downie leads a team of 400 military and civilian instructors who train approximately 2,200 students annually in public affairs, photojournalism and related skills.

“I fought hard to get this job,” he said. “It is my dream job, and I look forward to coming into school and leading the school as best I can every single day.”