Homeland Security, Networks, and Accountability

Social networks guru Valdis Krebs has written an analysis which purports to show that creating a single intelligence czar is less efficient in terms of getting intelligence to the President than leaving the stove pipes but adding connections among them.


But Krebs leaves out at least two critical externalities. First, his proposed solution requires that no less than five intelligence directors report directly to the President. Meanwhile, State, Treasury, Defense, and so on each only have one. Ain’t gonna happen. No matter how important intelligence is, the President has other priorities to deal with as it is. So it would seem that the compromise Krebs raises and dismisses of connecting the stovepipes under the intelligence czar would be the best solution.

Or would it? The second problem is that Krebs’ map fails to recognize that there is not just one network but (at least) two that we need to be concerned with. He has mapped knowledge flows. But there is a different network of budget, command, and control. This matters in several ways. First, as the 9/11 Commission pointed out, if you can’t hire, fire, and set budget priorities, then the information that flows to you may not be the information that you need. Furthermore, in a representative democracy, there needs to be accountability. You need somebody who can say, “The buck stops here.” Self-organizing systems may bring efficiency (when they work), but it’s not at all clear that they help accountability. If you add to this the fact that the largest player in the intelligence game is the Pentagon which, for understandable reasons, has a very strong command and control hierarchy, it becomes clear that networking the silos is problematic. The lines of communication can easily run afoul of the lines of command-and-control.

In an ideal world, you want to either completely harmonize the two networks or completely separate them. Within a command-and-control structure, you can set up parallel siloes and tight networks of communication–as long as there is somebody at the top with the authority to force alignment of goals and be ultimately accountable for organizational failures. When you have to cross organizational lines, it’s best to do so in a strictly advisory capacity with clean lines of command-and-control separation. From the little information we have on Colin Powell’s proposal to create an intelligence advisory committee similar to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we don’t know enough yet to say whether this fits the bill. It might; the Joint Chiefs of Staff are removed from the chain of command, so there’s an indication that Powell is trying to disentangle the knowledge network from the accountability hierarchy. What we don’t know yet is how the vast majority of the intelligence agents will be organized. Will they remain in their current agencies or will they be centralized under the authority of the intelligence czar? I fear that the former would not do the trick. However, the latter might enable the stovepipes to remain intact under a new accountability hierarchy that is not in tension with the knowledge network.

We’ll see.

(Found via ScaleFree.net.)

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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5 Responses to Homeland Security, Networks, and Accountability

  1. Sam O says:

    You’ve probably already read it, but here is a good article from Slate, “Decentralized Intelligence”:


  2. Yup, I saw it. I even blogged it. But Watts is suggesting that we need to develop an unspecified structure that takes advantages of the principles of self-organization, while Krebs is making the simpler (and more concrete) argument for a specific organizational structure based solely on information path length. Watts’ argument is the more interesting one in the long-run, though he is honest in saying that he has little concrete idea of what it would look like in the case of Homeland Security. The accountability issue is still a problem, though; in representative democracy, somebody needs to be “in charge” for reasons that are extrinsic to operational efficiency. It’s not clear how you can have both self-organization and accountability.

  3. Valdis says:

    My analysis of the fictional hierarchy is just that, yet the lesson learned will work in other hierarchies. If someone provides me the actual hierrachies involved in national intelligence, I will gladly re-do the analysis.

    The idea of ” in representative democracy, somebody needs to be ‘in charge’” may not be true. This sounds more like a dictatorship… I’m sure Stalin & Hitler would have felt comfortable with that phrase. In a representative democracy MANY contribute to governing. It is the power of the many, not the power of one, that makes US great!

  4. First of all, welcome, Valdis. Despite my disagreement with you on this particular point, I am a fan of your work.

    I think you misunderstand my point about somebody needing to be in charge. It’s not about power; it’s about accountability. The the thing that makes representative democracy (as opposed to direct democracy) work is that we can fire somebody (and prosecute, if necessary) when they screw up. Otherwise, we have no recourse when something goes wrong. And we have no tools for fixing problems.

    Networks work well in direct/radical/digital democracies. And it’s a fair question to ask whether we need to move more toward direct democracy. But you can’t just graft network organization onto a representative democracy and have it work. The incentive and accountability structures are not aligned.

  5. Valdis says:

    Michael, we are probably in agreement. You are talking about accountability and I am talking about learning/agility.

    The hierarchy msotly takes care of accountability, and I agree – we need it. But… I think we are doing fine in accountability [not great, but OK]. It is the learning/agility/responding we are poor at — that is where we need the networks, the cross-connections, the knowledge sharing.

    We have the links for accountability, we need additional links for learning!

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