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Kathryn Kolbert

Kathryn Kolbert

Kathryn Kolbert, a public-interest attorney and journalist, is the Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, an interdisciplinary center devoted to the theory and practice of women's leadership.

Three strikes against the intel community

Q: This week's Washington Post investigative series on the government's burgeoning intelligence network prompts the question: Can an organization get so big and so complex that it just can't be managed effectively? Or is "too-big-to-manage" just a cop-out for flawed structure and lack of leadership?

Large institutions are not inherently impossible to govern, although it takes a an extraordinary leader who can manage over-sized institutions and inspire a culture of excellence. Nevertheless, governing the government's vast intelligence network and eliminating redundant functions that often act at cross purposes will be nearly impossible. The agency starts with three strikes against it that make effective governance exceedingly difficult.

First, the purpose of the unifying the intelligence network and merging agencies into the Department of Homeland Security was to get competing political fiefdoms to work together. When creating the Department, post 9/11 Congress intentionally took power away from the chief intelligence agency, the CIA, who had operated with impunity for many years and lumped together agencies whose expertise and jobs were very different [Emergency management and port controls for example]. Expecting cooperation from a bunch of autonomous groups who feel emasculated by the new mega-agency is not a great recipe for success.

Second, daylight and transparency of purpose is essential both to cooperation and to reform. It is difficult to get people who don't know of each other nor trust the process to work together, especially if there are some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies in about 10,000 different locations across the United States. The secrecy necessary in any intelligence agency makes this much, much more difficult.

Third, the leader of the Department of Homeland Security and other key players such as the Intelligence Czar change regularly. He or she must be approved by the Senate and his or her philosophy reflects the views of the President in power. As a result the leader is less likely to implement many of the reforms that would be needed: eliminate jobs; shut down offices, establish protocols across agencies, establish an agency culture that oozes professionalism rather than politics. Anyone who can get through this divisive almost dysfunctional Senate has to be a political animal who knows better than to step on toes of the powers that be.

I never thought I'd be in support of downsizing, but reading this article has put me there.

By Kathryn Kolbert

 |  July 21, 2010; 10:51 AM ET
Category:  Government leadership , Organizational Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Hear, hear!

Posted by: j3hess | July 24, 2010 6:05 PM
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