Can Uber be a model for the intelligence community?

Uber has upended the taxicab industry.  Other companies are reorganizing to thrive and survive.  Economists call these acts creative destruction.  New ideas, needs, and desires force marketplace transformation.  And, it happens fast.  Less than seven years ago, Uber did not exist.  With the Islamic State and its adherents causing mayhem through large swathes of the Middle East, Paris, and suburban California, the intelligence community may benefit from some creative destruction.

Since World War II, there have been two major intelligence community events.  In 1947, the National Security Act created the modern intelligence community.  In 2004, in response to the events of 9/11, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act created the Director of National Intelligence.   This official is charged with overseeing and coordinating the work of the intelligence community.  While there have been other changes within the intelligence community, the pace of that change has been slower than the change in the “marketplace.”  In 1947, the primary threat to the United States was the Soviet Union. Today, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and the Islamic State and al Qaeda all pose significant risks to U.S. interests.  These threats can change quickly.  Like Uber, the Islamic State is not yet ten years old.

While government bureaucracies do not change at the pace of private companies, it is important that we give the intelligence community resources and freedom to innovate.  Why?  A small investment in the intelligence community reduces the chance of spending large amounts of money responding to attacks and war.  Uber’s success is based on great service, flexibility, an innovative use of talent, and sufficient but not suffocating oversight.  The intelligence community needs the same.

First, the president and Congress must be advocates for the intelligence community.  This does not mean blind support, but it does require an acceptance that the intelligence work comes with risk.  Things can and will go wrong.  Nevertheless, the importance of thoughtful and accurate intelligence is critical to our nation’s security, and we need leaders that can explain this to the American people and provide the intelligence community with the needed resources. 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration and certain members of Congress have done the opposite.  They have reduced intelligence community budgets, restricted legal authorities, and sent a clear message to intelligence community employees that risk-taking and professional assessments contrary to political goals are not welcome.  No innovator, in business or intelligence, will be successful without support and an acceptance of risk.

Second, the intelligence community needs greater freedom to restructure and reallocate resources. Today, the Director of National Intelligence can neither reallocate congressionally appropriated resources from one element of the intelligence community to another nor can he easily alter the structural elements of the intelligence community.  Like a business leader, the Director of National Intelligence needs flexibility.          

Third, greater attention must be given to attracting talent.  Existing outreach programs to colleges and universities should be expanded.  Non-traditional employment models such as short-term assignments for those with special expertise should be tested.  While security clearances can limit flexibility, we must rethink whether the traditional process is suitable in every context.  Similarly, standard government salary scales may not make sense for high-demand specialists, and the intelligence community should pay for performance not seniority.          

Finally, congressional oversight should be reviewed.  While 9/11 triggered changes to the management of the intelligence community, Congress altered nothing about its oversight regime.  Depending on the topic, intelligence, judiciary, and armed services committees may all be involved.  While congressional oversight is critical to a lawful and productive intelligence community, multiple committees covering the same ground wastes the limited time of intelligence community leaders and legislators.          

Without support, flexibility, talent, and efficient oversight, the intelligence community risks becoming like Kodak, a company that had a great product but was overtaken by changes in the marketplace.  America cannot afford intelligence community obsolescence.  It is critical that the next administration and future Congresses recognize this and take steps to ensure its long-term success.

Heiman is a lawyer.  Previously, he worked for the National Security Division of the Department of Justice and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Bagdad, Iraq.