Archive for June, 2010

We can do better.

Posted in Web2.0 Productivity with tags , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2010 by Lance Strzok

No matter who you put in the DNI office, they have to be willing to address the changes that have to take place within agencies and analysts. The DNI has to be empowered to directly impact the budget of the agencies that he is trying to get to work together. Otherwise you can fire all the people you put in that seat and it won’t make a bit of difference. The public has to demand more from our leadership, and from our intelligence agencies.

To say I am disappointed would be an understatement. I am frankly disturbed with the current demonstrated lack of desire (not ability) for government agencies to truly collaborate on articles and issues regarding our national interests.

Family, friends, and fellow taxpayers deserve better from the Intelligence Community (IC) and government agencies that are sworn to guide and protect our great nation. Taxpayers pay taxes every year with the idea that the money they give to the government will be spent on programs that have well defined requirements, have little waste, and are realistic in scope and timeliness.

Watching the news we see glimpses of failures to recognize key information that was available across the various government agencies or agency databases that may have allowed a given atrocity to have been avoided. This followed by finger pointing and general denial of responsibility when something happens. I see databases at individual agencies that are created using government funds and then treated like they somehow belong to that agency. Rather then storing that information centrally where it can be searched, mashed, and relationships can be formed, they sit on servers within disparate agencies with the hope that access to those data can be logged and metrics can be made on how useful that database or information is so that a business case for its continued use can be justified. This of course inherently reduces its usefulness and timeliness and the ability for computer systems (that don’t sleep) to find relationships in mountains of data. Do agencies own their databases? Or did taxpayer dollars pay for them with the idea that they would be shared and used by all in an effort to protect our nation?

So put those mountains of data, (databases) in a central location where computers can apply artificial intelligence and pattern recognition on all of that data simultaneously and alert analysts to relationships that are found or that may exist with flags that denote a need for a given analyst to be granted access in order to find out the details of that relationship.

By moving the data into a shared environment, we can allow computers to find relationships and share those relationships and relevancy with the analysts that are interested in that information. We won’t have to rely on humans to detect it, and share it. You see, the sharing part of this is where I believe we are coming up short.

So why is it that sharing is so difficult within these communities? Well there are several reasons.

Policies – that state which organizations can share what with others, and also define the protection of databases and information.

History – of keeping secrets in the case of of the intelligence community. A long history of doing our best to keep secrets and protect databases of information under terms like “national security”, or “need to know”. These ideas served us well, but are they actually working? I would argue that they are not as effective as we may imagine, and that we may want to start to outpace our adversaries rather then spend so much time and effort trying to protect every bit of information so zealously. That is an entire debate that deserves another post all together.

Culture – where the people that know information seem to have more value and bring more value to an organization. Knowledge is power, and your pay is based on what you know and what you bring to the table. Rather then what you know and how you share it in ways that others can benefit from it. This continues to be a problem, fueled with a pay for performance system that (if done incorrectly) could lead to ever tighter lips when it comes to sharing.

In short, we will have to address the policies, historical vs current sharing ideology, and the culture of perceived value in knowledge sharing vs knowledge hording and the value that either idea brings to an organization.

Once we have the culture of appropriate sharing, shared situational awareness on items of interest within a community of interest, and technology supporting the sharing the awareness across unified data stores then we may see a more realistic environment for stopping future attempts at causing the US harm.

Another area ripe for improvement is where do we write about the things we know and understand?

Currently, each agency has its own process for vetting and releasing reports or products that get some sort of seal of approval (which just means it completed a vetting process that can be as shallow as one person deep). They also each have a production group, or division of folks that move these products through a process, then publish them to some server (again, may or may not be seachable or indexed). By the time the information has gone through the process, the information may be a little old, or been overcome by events. This group and process is intended to bring a sense of authority to the documents, and once the document or information has the command seal added, it is available to the rest of the consumers to apply to their problem set. These reports are now something that can be referenced and in some cases, only these documents can be used or referenced for making decisions with regard to acquisition. This is another area where we need to take a good look at policy and see if there is room for a joint product, not just agency products that can get a seal of approval.

The idea that the smartest people on any given topic exist in one building is just not realistic. acquisition communities should be able to find joint products that reflect what communities of interest have to say about the topic at hand. They should not have to be bound to one agencies opinion, but able to use the opinion of the members across the community that work that issue. Simply put, if I offered you a report by one agency that has 4 people that looked it over and contributed to it, and one that an entire community worked on collaboratively to create, which one would you choose?

So the question always comes up on the vetting process for these collaborative documents. What rigor is there? What process? How can the consumer know that a given product has any more or fewer errors then a product created by a single agency and put through their process? Put another way, how can we know that a product that had 15 contributors from across the community and was read by many more as it was being created is any more accurate for making decisions then one that is created by 4 people at a single agency that goes through that agencies process?

Bottom line, we need to demand that our Intelligence Community act more like a community than a group of competing agencies, and empower those that are trying to change the culture of collaboration and analysis from agency specific to that of one IC supporting decision makers. Not 16 agencies trying to tell their own version of the story. Huge change has to take place, and it won’t happen unless the public is demanding it. Otherwise, no matter who you put in the DNI’s chair, it won’t matter because the agencies can just wait him or her out and go on with business as usual. So empower the DNI to directly impact budgets, and force documentation of actual collaboration and proven steps of change with embedded liaisons. Make intelligence production occur in a collaborative space that is open to all of the people that work that issue and have the appropriate credentials to work with that information at the lowest level possible. Take production down to the analysts level, and have it created and published in an open, accessible, collaborative forum. Build communities of interest, foster and reward superior contributions and products that have the touch of many hands and minds.

These are real, and achievable steps that we can take to move us toward a more focused and efficient Intelligence apparatus.

Constructive comments always appreciated.

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