A Little Competition is in Order

In the Weekly Standard Michael Rubin takes a high-level view of the problems in the CIA and suggests privatization as a solution:

So what is the solution? Washington’s inclination is always to expand hiring. But that will constrain rather than improve analysis. Today, the CIA’s analytical wing is the ultimate expression of Parkinson’s Law, rather than a generator of accurate explanation or prediction. Rather than expand, the government should privatize much of its analysis.

Privatization works. Already, Beltway firms like SAIC and Booz Allen Hamilton operate streamlined intelligence shops. Their analysts hold the highest security clearances. So do many think-tank scholars and some university academics. Many private-sector analysts have language abilities and experience their government counterparts lack.

Freeing analysts from some government rules and regulations could improve their products. Not only would it enable outside-of-the-box thinking, but it could also improve access. …

Privatization would improve productivity. It can take the CIA hierarchy weeks to sign off on an analyst’s report and release it to intelligence consumers across the U.S. government. Private companies react faster. Competition might also expedite exploitation of several million pages of documents seized in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is the briefest of extracts and the full article deserves your attention.

There are some who will argue that the CIA – as well as the rest of the IC – is already privatized in the sense that much of the work being done in the IC is being done by contractors. The firms mentioned in the article and countless others dominate analytic, technical and policy support positions not to mention a growing amount of collection tasks.

The problem of course is that the IC’s approach to privatizing or outsourcing is back-asswards: Instead of assigning tasks to private firms and letting them apply more efficient and effective methodologies, they essentially end up hiring very expensive “temps” (of course no gov’t program ever dies, so supposed savings in not having to fund health care and retirement funds for “temps” seems questionable to me). Agency employees spend more time managing contracts and overseeing the work of contractors than they do performing actual analysis, which sends many seasoned employees to the ranks of contractors where they can get paid more for doing the job they actually WANT to do.

The IC is unlikely to ever voluntarily employ contract firms in the manner in which they are best suited, so I suggest a slightly different approach: Congress should hold a contest that pits the best the NIC can assemble against the best the private sector can; a slight variation on a similar contest held by the Aspin-Brown Commission of a decade ago. When the private-sector team(s) smoke the government (again) this supposedly reform-minded Congress can use the findings to push for more substantial reforms that could actually improve our IC, not burden it with more bureaucracy.