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25 October 2006

The community’s emerging underclass

The issues of intelligence privatization have never been more contentious than in recent days. In earlier times, it was a matter of academic debate; the stuff of long theses and dissertations written in full knowledge that the major agencies would never cede the degree of control required in order to reap the benefits those first theorists could see just over the horizon.

As in many things, those early visions were overtaken by events; shaped by a radically different post-9/11 reality. The butchery of the RIF’s and budget cuts during the foolish days of the 90’s had left a vacuum of expertise and experience; much of it drained into the private sector’s Darwinian competition. And frankly, those human lifetimes were likely better spent as allocated through private choices and the invisible hand of the marketplace than trapped in decaying bureaucracies wrapped up in turf battles and mass powerpoint poisoning. But with the terrible realization of the Long War, capability gaps had to be filled from somewhere.

Thus the current state of affairs of contracting has been born, in ways even the most ardent supporters of privatization could have ever foreseen. The community is being overtaken, and many government structures are reduced to little more than assemblies of contracting officers obsessing over the details of proposals and awards. In bitterly honest moments, it is possible to see that many of those now placed in such roles are qualified for little else – the product of the broken human resources systems which prize a faux diversity over truly unique experiences, or rate readily understandable life paths over the fractal-like eccentricities that mark the careers of the best intelligence officers.

This is not to say that contractors always offer the best solution. Ironically, while many of the RIF’ed veterans were the first tapped due to recent access and “ideal” resumes, they have not always proven to be best suited for the dynamic and radically altered battlespace and conceptual spaces with which the community now grapples. And in the surge, many false prophets arose to peddle the intelligence equivalent of pornography – glossy representations of the thing itself that can never satisfy true needs. Likewise, there are many who can only charitably be described as profiteers, whose obsession with the supposed riches offered by the new business space mark them as quite distinct from the otherwise honorable path of the mercenary.

However, overall and man for man, most contractors offer a great throw weight with a greater range of experiences and skills than their counterparts trapped for an entire career in the sterile confines of a single agency’s walls. It is no coincidence that many of the best in this business are rotating assignments every eighteen months; driven to new challenges and new prospects; walking away from shops mired in politics and funding disputes, places where they know they can no longer effectively contribute to the war effort writ large. This dynamic is only exacerbated by the schizophrenic manner in which they are treated by their government counterparts; who lacking any strategic vision for contracting services impose an endless series of changes and new award competitions; and then blame the contractors for lack of continuity.

And in this blame the true losses are mounting. There is a real and growing culture of treating contractors as second class citizens within the walls of the community’s sanctums. Many times it is the byproduct of resentment given off by those less qualified, who are obsessed first with their own pay and circumstances rather than the mission itself. It is also often the consequence of turf battles between management elements, grappling for additional funds and control of programs and in so doing demonizing those who are actually doing the work – and who will no doubt continue to do so once the dispute is settled no matter which manager or director emerges the victor.

Countless and pointless barriers are emerging, imposed in order to bound the freedom of action of contractors so as to in essence create an appearance of value on the part of their government counterparts, who lack the required skills for a task but do not find their requests bound up in the Byzantine net of backroom politics. In the end this only degrades mission performance, but it is the kind of subtle corrosion which goes unnoticed and spreads. Many of these advanced bureaucratic hindrance techniques have come back to the States from the lessons of overseas deployments, where the distinctions between the two worlds are so sharply defined as to literally cost lives.

It is no wonder that many of the best intelligence officers – whether government or contractor – flee the environments which are defined by these dynamics. Sick shops face attrition. If shops were suffering battlefield casualties at the rate of current attrition, their leaders would be rightfully cashiered. But because it is a slow and un-dramatic process, there are no consequences for bad leadership, arbitrary decisions, or poor morale whose cumulative effects drive the brightest elsewhere and leave the incompetent to continue the cycle.

In this, these officers are simply behaving in the manner long described by Drucker. Knowledge workers follow career paths which are increasingly divorced from organizational contexts and are deeply rooted in the individual’s personal interests and desired end states. Organizations which cannot adapt to this dynamic - and offer sufficient packages of tasks, opportunities, and compensation to attract the interests of the right knowledge workers - will suffer and eventually wither. There are dozens of shops in the community which are now but a shadow of their former selves because of these forces, but in too many of them the first complaint of the managers is about the “contractors”, not their inability to forge a coherent common vision and suitable working environment.

The new DNI human capital strategy has laid down a gauntlet, defining this as a talent “war”. This seems to mean the community is now setting a course diametrically opposed to the very contractors which staff and support it. If there were not a long history of official pronouncements regarding the community’s workforce that have come to nothing, one might be worried – whether contractor or government. But in reality this will likely amount to little more than one more milestone along the road in which the fantasies of academics and bureaucrats unravel.

You cannot win by betting against market forces, even in the most non-rational of marketplaces that are government bureaucracies. There must be a new approach to these problems, one that takes into account the demands of individuals and focuses on the needs of the mission. One that is built around the next generation, and generation after next in the Long War: the generation victory.