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August 5, 2008

United States of America

Intelligent Progress

Reform Takes a Step Forward

By Michael Tanji | August 5, 2008

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently released their new vision (PDF) for the future of the community. While no one expects perfection from such works, it is a remarkably forward leaning effort that sparks a bit of optimism for those who think serious change is too long in coming.

“Creating decision advantage” via a “globally networked and integrated intelligence enterprise” is a fine start and gives an obvious if oblique nod to the broad thoughts of those who have espoused the idea that no one has a lock on brains, so best to use your brain faster than the other guy. If there is a flaw in the high strategy it is that there is no mention of functionality. The goal of the IC has long been to provide decision advantage. And technically speaking, the community has been integrated for a long time. What has long been missing is deep action. Words are nice, but few at the operational level see a shift in thinking or behavior.

DNI McConnell’s introductory letter captures the essence of the problems and issues facing the community very well. No new ground covered here if you have been tracking such issues, but it is refreshing to see the words come from the inside and the top. I see a lot of code-reuse when talking about energy and cyber issues (we are on the start of a five-year rota where such issues will rise for a brief time, then trickle off), but he goes on to address the shortcomings noted in the more succinct Mission-Vision-Strategy-Values page.

The rest of the document is broken down into three major sections: The Shifting Strategic Landscape; Creating Decision Advantage, and Making it Real – Implementing the Vision.

The Shifting Strategic Landscape addresses issues we’re all well aware of: things are getting complicated and moving faster than any standard issue bureaucracy can deal with them. The goal therefore should be to anticipate and adapt to complex challenges. All well and good save for the fact that the community as a whole doesn’t do anticipation very well. On the occasion when it does, few actually understand and/or listen. I’ve done strategic warning - and there is not a lot in my old domain that wasn’t predicted well before hand. But since the blind can’t lip-read, the warn-ers in their eyes “failed” and the people whose lunch got eaten got “surprised.” The simple solution is to not get wrapped around the axle trying to anticipate and just build the most adaptable, flexible entities, outlooks and operating modes/procedures you can so that any given change or shock is rapidly and readily absorbed.

Creating Decision Advantage is basically a repeat of lines you have heard before: speak truth to power, be objective and relevant, be aware and avoid surprise. There is a fair amount of recognition – finally – that the workforce of today and tomorrow isn’t going to be anything like the workforce of the past. There are also boiler plate statements about supporting partners, customers, building relationships, etc., etc.

Making it Real is where they talk about how to implement the aforementioned vision. All the right words are there, words we have seen before, but what’s going to be different this time? Well, at a minimum the document echoes – in the Leading Change section – my own sentiment that we operate in a risky environment anyway (and our adversaries certainly have no problems taking risks) so we lose nothing by pursuing high-risk, high-reward strategies. It recognizes that others are having success doing similar work in innovative ways, so why not us?

What Wasn’t Said

It is nice to hear the right words being put to paper. But as with any such effort from a hide-bound institution, it is fairly middling in its approach. I will grant that it is a more far-reaching document than I have seen come out of the IC in the past, but if we are truly in a period of unprecedented and extensive change, I would expect the response to match the challenge. Some suggestions:

  • Reducing the size and workload of various agencies. Too many agencies are doing too much of the same thing. Some competition is good, but internal community competition isn’t real competition: its cannibalism. If it doesn’t deal exclusively with classified information, give it to a university or think tank or contractor.** If you are in the information business you ought to be using the best resources period, not duplicating an existing effort simply because its people are not cleared (particularly if OSINT is the source of first resort).
  • Focus and streamline agency missions. If the community is truly going to a Mission Focused operating model, then smaller and more focused (perhaps even fewer) agencies are the future. If the primary reason for existence is some sort of collection platform or capability, stick with it and ditch the rest. SIGINT and IMINT collection is unique and valuable; associated analysis is valuable as well, but it doesn’t need to be done in a strictly SIGINT or IMINT house. When every agency is a mini-CIA, specialty is diluted unhealthy competition arises.
  • Open the OSC to outsiders. If OSINT truly “holds more promise” and is “critical to the future success” of the IC, then it’s time to tapping OS-Analysis as well as collection. Some vetting is necessary of course, but the emphasis here is not on “clearing” people from a security sense but making sure you’re getting people with the experience, insight and intellectual chops to make a contribution. A “trusted” blogosphere if you will. It’s time to stop pretending the IC has a lock on brains, and that pretense may be in fact be fading.
  • Reform publication and productivity. Color glossy finished products with an agency seal on the top (whether hard or softcopy) are dinosaurs. They are not timely, only nominally collaborative and limited in scope, scale and functionality. If any consumer globally cannot access it via the appropriate wiki (a nod to classification issues); if any analyst cannot update it in near-real-time; if it is not interactive, it does not provide decision advantage or on-demand capability, and it does not allow you to effectively manage your knowledge. Working exclusively online is also a more effective way to track meaningful contributions and effective collaboration; solving critical aspects of the workforce management and reward /retention problems.
  • Accountability. Short of wholesale, radical change, the IC is still a bureaucracy of bureaucracies and bureaucrats (in the best sense of the word) will only implement reforms if there is incentive to do so. This means every reform agenda item has to be the only agenda items people need to comply with. If faced with doing what will drive a promotion, raise or bonus and what is nice to do if there is time/resources/energy, people will always do the former over the latter. Unless there is a hard cut-off on these issues, there will always be a very good (in an individual’s eyes) reason for not making it happen.
  • Seek and promote innovators. The Rod Beckstrom example is great, but too little, too late. We should have 4-5 years worth of examples of the IC plucking the visionaries and innovators from outside and inside the community (pulling a Marshall when necessary) and putting them in key positions to implement change. The standard pipeline and process for promotion does not reward the sorts of “trouble-makers” and disruptors that are going to bring about the equivalent of Google or Firefox to the intelligence business.

I’ve read a lot of these documents in the past, even lived through some of them. The end-results were always mixed and usually fell far short of the aim point. The fact that the drafters actually put some fairly radical and far reaching words down on paper – and it made it to the final version – suggests to me that there is a serious shift in thinking underway. Talking about it and making it happen are two different things, but in a business where words on paper are used to justify a wide range of legitimate and questionable actions, this is as close as we’re going to get to nailing theses to the church door.

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