Rewarding intelligence

Once again, the intelligence community has been accused of lacking imagination. The Silberman-Robb Commission Report on Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction found that analysts were so locked into a rigid mind-set that they didn't entertain the possibility that Iraq did not have WMD.

While commentators undoubtedly will find many reasons for this failure of imagination, at a fundamental level it seems rooted in the very nature of government bureaucracies - bureaucracies with deep practices that are anathema to imagination.

But if this is a failing common to all bureaucracies, how can it be remedied? Is there any way to have an intelligence community within government that does not succumb to the bureaucratic practices that plague all government organizations?

Perhaps we can learn something from the political scientist James Q. Wilson, who made a key distinction between government and private industry. In the private sector, profit - the bottom line - drives virtually all actions. By contrast, government agencies are driven by constraints of public policy, whether they are established by the president, Congress, or agency executives.

Unlike private industry, government bureaucracies are not rewarded with profits when they think creatively. The result is that government puts a premium on following the rules and avoiding mistakes, and agencies within the government lack incentives to imagine and innovate.

If Wilson is right, and the root causes of bureaucratic inertia lie in the incentive structure inherent in government agencies, then even drastic intelligence community reorganization could eventually lead back to the same unimaginative behavior. What is needed is change of a more fundamental nature, not merely the creation of new bureaucracies, offices, and institutes - or moving around organizational lines and boxes.

Simply put, the reward structure within the intelligence community must be changed. The current system rewards longevity. Individuals who stay in an agency gradually become socialized into the bureaucratic mind-set of turf protection, risk aversion, and groupthink. They keep their jobs not because they've shaken the foundations of conventional wisdom, but because they haven't made waves.

To change this incentive structure, we would propose several steps.

First, fresh thinking needs to be rewarded in hiring and promotion decisions. A fresh viewpoint comes not necessarily from the 30-year career analyst but from the relative neophyte who has not yet been socialized into thinking that WMD must exist in Iraq or that terrorist attacks could not possibly occur on the American homeland. Agencies should be willing to offer higher-level entry positions to persons from the outside who may not "know the ropes," but who do have new ideas. Similarly, they should promote the innovators inside the agency, not just those with longevity.

Second, changes in formal incentive structures can be reinforced by informal incentives set by the leadership.

The new director of national intelligence (DNI) can play a crucial role. Both the Silberman-Robb Commission and the 9/11 commission emphasized "empowering" the new DNI. It now seems likely that John Negroponte will hold this position. Once confirmed, he should use his very capable leadership abilities not just to better integrate the community, but to set the right tone. The tone is established not by rewarding analysts that merely present intelligence that the DNI wants to hear, but by supporting those who present contrary views, or even those who suggest potential deficiencies in the available intelligence.

Intelligence is about drawing inferences from incomplete information; the DNI should encourage analysts to present both what they know, and to explain what they don't know.

Third, the DNI and other agency heads should be encouraged to bring in outside experts - counselors, if you will - to provide advice in particular cases or with ongoing projects. These counselors would be respected worthies in the field. They could be former high-level government officials, academics, and even leaders in business. Because they would have an independent status apart from the bureaucracy, they would be largely immune from bureaucratic pressures.

In fact, such a practice is not completely alien to government deliberations. During the Cuban missile crisis, for example, President Kennedy brought in former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to provide advice. As a respected "wise man," Acheson was able to offer his views without any concern for career advancement. If such counselors were chosen well, the bureaucratic incentive structure that tends to stifle the creativity of regular government employees would have virtually no effect.

Of course, there is no magical elixir to imbue the intelligence community with imagination. But if public officials - from the president on down - would bring in fresh, creative people and reward those that go beyond the conventional wisdom, we might be able to prevent the type of mistakes made in Iraq and perhaps even avoid another 9/11.

Anthony Clark Arend is professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University. Sarah Elizabeth Kreps is an officer in the US Air Force and a PhD candidate in international relations at Georgetown University.

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