Anyone who has not read the INSA report “Smart Change: Lessons of the Past, Direction for the Future” should do so. Led by Joan Dempsey of Booz, Allen, Hamilton, INSA’s Smart Change Task Force has produced a document that should have significant shelf life over the next several years. Or so we should hope.
In my last note, I included the changing budget environment as one of the keys in moving from the “post-9/11” environment to something at least equally challenging. It is almost impossible to find anyone in official Washington who doubts that budget cuts are coming and will likely be in place for an extended period of time. It may, on the other hand, be possible to find a few individuals who believe that the cuts will bypass their program, agency, or department. Reality can be such an inconvenience.
If there is good news in this for the intelligence and national security communities, it is that we have been through this process before, and recently. Most of us have vivid memories of how badly the cuts of the 1990s were handled and the consequences they produced in the immediate aftermath of September 2001. Those memories should produce a better result this time. At the very least, agency leaders who suggest to their workforces that the solution to austerity is to “do more with less” should be shunned. More importantly, congressional and executive branch leaders need to know, as the process develops, exactly what “less” the intelligence community is doing. The community heard, from the Congress especially, a lot about accountability after 9/11, but Harry Truman never said “the buck stops” in one portion of the bureaucracy or another.
The Smart Change paper outlines a difficult but realistic path that could avoid some of the mistakes of twenty years ago. Did I say difficult? Let’s start with personnel: the task force assumes the intelligence community will see significant manpower reductions over the next several years. At the same time, it recommends that the agencies must continue to hire if they are to avoid, at some future date, the misshapen workforce of 2001. Resolving this apparent contradiction involves the radical idea that American intelligence needs a personnel system that rewards the strongest performers, while weeding out the performance challenged to create the necessary headroom for new talent. What a thought. Implementation of this goal will require interaction with a whole host of interests, regulations, and policies. It will not be an easy battle and will require, among other considerations, the active support of Congress. Nevertheless, this is an issue worth engaging.
Along the same lines, the report stresses the need for investment in personnel, historically a tricky problem in tight budget times. As anyone with Washington experience knows, one of the first things that disappears in government when belts get tightened is money for training and development. When I took over education and training at NSA just before the financial faucets opened after 9/11, the training budget had shrunk to the lowest it had been in the history of the agency. This truly bad habit needs to be broken. One of my favorite books is The Regulars: The American Army, 1898-1941, by Edward Coffman. We’ve all read about how the army used trucks armed with telephone poles to simulate tanks during maneuvers in the interwar period. Coffman balances this by noting the army’s investment in education and leadership development during this period, opening new schools such as the Infantry School, and protecting the Army War College and the Command and General Staff College. Moreover, the army did not limit its investment to money, sending many of its best and brightest to lead and teach at such institutions. (George C. Marshall served at both the War College and the Infantry School during this time.) Eisenhower and his colleagues spent a long time as majors, but the army’s investment prepared the service to advance them quickly when the need appeared.
As you study the Smart Change report, take note of the fact that the task force producing it included serving government officials, participating within the sometimes complex (but necessary) conflict of interest policies that ensure ethical behavior on all sides. The process can be frustrating, but, as in this instance, the results are worth the effort. I may be repeating myself, but nevertheless: America’s success in dealing with national security challenges over the last century has resulted from our consistent ability to enlist all of our national assets. We need to continue that tradition as we deal with current and future issues.
Finally, if you think it unusual for AFCEA to be promoting an INSA report, you shouldn’t be. If nothing else, it would be silly for us to do otherwise while promoting better integration of the intelligence community and partnerships across government, corporate, and academic institutions. This is an important report; please read it. And encourage others to see it as a blueprint for avoiding a repetition of past mistakes.
Let me add, on behalf of the AFCEA Intelligence Committee, our congratulations to the Honorable J. M. “Mike” McConnell, who later this month will receive INSA’s William Oliver Baker Award. A great selection!
William Nolte is chairman of the AFCEA Intelligence Committee and a research professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.