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24 March 2007

Competition and rent-seeking in the Intelligence Community

Aside from the horrors of being forced to listen to interminable discussion of bureaucratic procedure and the ego-stroking of committee structures, we have struggled to articulate our objections to the intermittent re-appearance of proposals that would seek to regulate our profession through some external standards body, usually academic or legalistic in nature. We have decried such attempts before, and asked that others “profess to me no profession”.

This item by George Will in the Washington Post well articulates the argument against such a process using the example of another industry. Unsurprisingly, it too is one of the creative professions, in which the distinctions between various kinds of tasks are blurry and frequently changing.

The key line, however:

“This is done in the name of "professionalization," but it really amounts to cartelization. Persons in the business limit access by others -- competitors -- to full participation in the business.
Being able to control the number of one's competitors, and to dispense the pleasure of status, is nice work if you can get it…”

When your humble authors here speak of professionalization, we speak of the cultivation of the analyst, the development of the individual officer. The definition of standards - and the efforts to meet them - is best done at the individual and small team level through performance review, mentoring, and the encouragement of individual development opportunities. The community has far too many barriers to the expression of talent, initiative, and superior performance already. It does not need additional measures to further distort the marketplace so that those less able to compete directly in the difficult world of economics and ideas can rest easy in their newly crafted sinecures.

And we say this as mid-career professionals who constantly look back on our younger, more brilliant and far better positioned counterparts nipping close at our heels. For while we might for a time enjoy the benefits of keeping such minds from taking our jobs, it would not serve the country’s interest, nor would it in the long term saving the community and ourselves from the death of irrelevance as change inevitably sweeps through. And change delayed is not evolutionary but becomes revolutionary – and there are already too many forces at work which stir the torch waving mobs to life, at least as far as that metaphor will carry a range of introverted pseudo-librarian personality types which make up most analytical ranks. (Your authors apologize, but lightly, for reliance upon the all too common but proven stereotypes, however please accept it as shorthand to preclude a longer discussion of Meyers-Briggs personality types and conditioned reactions under stress by individuals in varying environments and organizational cultures…)

This Long War is a generational war. Enacting hurdles to ensure that only those of the next generation who meet with some arbitrary stamp of approval are blessed entry into the war is among the ultimate foolishness; especially when that stamp is bestowed based on the conception of the profession understood by the older generation. While core analytic tradecraft remains the same, many of the other critical skills needed by intelligence professionals today are far different from what would have been considered standard or even appropriate for their counterparts even a short decade ago. (We know, having lived through the painful growth experiences of acquiring those new skills which we lacked, and which no one ever believed we would need until after we needed them, and needed them yesterday.)

It is this protectionist impulse also that one sees driving many of the commentators who rail against the increasing privatization of the Intelligence Community. But that, our dear friends, is a topic for another day….

h/t Instapundit, for the original Washington Post item

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