The Prince (analyst edition)

Warning:  I was a bit unsure about the wisdom of posting this since I suspect it may very well be the most pretentious drivel I’ve ever written (and, let’s face it, that’s really saying something.  eds.) but one of my blogging rules is not to censor myself so I’m going to give it a go.

Recently I was talking to an analyst who had been moved to a new job within their same agency and wasn’t particularly happy with the move.  Apparently, her new position involved an almost exclusive focus on data entry and retrieval and virtually no analysis.  While her pay and title remained the same, in terms of job responsibilities this was clearly a very big step backwards.

‘If something doesn’t change this will BE my job forever’ she said (opportunities for advancement or even lateral moves are vary rare) ‘and there’s no way I can do this for the next 20 years!’  Her personal/professional situation rules out relocation and the current economic climate means that other opportunities in her area are virtually non-existent.  She was (well, is, I guess) pretty stressed out.

And so I began thinking, what advice could I give her to at least improve the odds that this need not be her lot in life?  As I’ve said repeatedly, analysts tend not to have much power or influence (and, as usual, I’m talking not talking about the Federal IC but rather analysts in the law enforcement (federal, state, local), homeland security (regional, state, local), et. al.).  They’re relative newcomers to the field, rarely have a seat at the table in terms of…well anything really and so have few opportunities to use official levers of power to change things.  This is why I’ve often advocated ‘guerrilla analysis’ where analysts have to use their skills to force their organizations to change.  In my earlier writings I’ve been pretty vague, however, and what’s probably needed is a bit more in terms of specifics.  So, in what may  be the first of a multi-part series, I’m taking inspiration from my old friend Nicolo and offering my own humble thoughts on how an analyst should act in a situation in which they find themselves seemingly powerless against individuals or institutional forces  which work to undermine their role.

For while we may not be princes, we certainly fill the role of counselors.   It is we, after all, that best fit the description of the types of people the prince should surround himself with in order to give him advice:

…a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, …he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred;*

Chapter 1:  On the sources of power of councillors (hint:  Ms. Joplin is relevant here**)

When one thinks of analysts, one rarely considers them the repository or ‘power’ or possessing much influence in shaping the environment around them.  Rather, they’re often seen (even amongst themselves) as powerless when compared to the forces around them and see little choice other than ‘going with the flow’.  I believe in many cases that’s due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the environment that they find themselves in.  They do, in fact, have power to wield.  Allow me to propose several examples:

  1. In many cases they’re civil servants.  This usually means that they’re affiliated with a union of some sort and so the probability of dismissal or any serious punitive action is relatively small, especially if your ‘friction’ with the organization is centered around recommendations to the existing system (including the pointing out of flaws).  While I have, on occasion, heard analysts cave into institutional pressure citing the fact that they didn’t want to risk their job, the fact is I’ve never heard one able to describe a situation where an analyst had been fired.  They had just been so conditioned by our private sector culture they weren’t able to see how their situation was different.
  2. In addition to not needing to be particularly concerned with punitive action, among analysts there is little opportunity to be ‘rewarded’ by ‘playing ball’.  Since many agencies have refused to develop or implement a career advancement program for analysts, sublimating your sense of how intelligence analysis should work in the hopes of reaping professional rewards later will have about as much chance of success as winning the lottery.
  3. These factors are important when considered in combination with the fact that analysts are usually surrounded by people who have opportunities for advancement or banishment (virtual or actual) to various nether regions.  Analysts can exploit these facts by supporting or undermining the professional agendas of those people (as opposed to the mission of their agency which they’re ethically bound to support).

Now, I’m not advocating being a jerk but these factors do give you a degree of freedom to speak ‘truth to power’ and you should exercise that freedom for all it’s worth.  Just remember a couple of ground rules:

  1. Put it all in writing.  Yeah, informal conversations and water cooler discussions allow you to blow off steam but since there’s no record of them their effect will begin to dissipate the moment the words come out of your mouth.  Write it down in a well organized, thoughtful way.  Lay our your arguments and make your recommendations.  Oh, and keep copies of everything.
  2. Know your audience(s).  Look, let’s be honest.  There are a lot of vested interests in every organization and analysts generally don’t get a seat at the table.  So, you need to be aware of which one of those interests might want to use you (and your ideas) to further their own agenda and figure out a way to make sure they know of your existence.  Just make sure you leverage any such opportunity to benefit yourself and your fellows and, as much as possible, avoid becoming an foot soldier in someone else’s factional fight.
  3. Increase your profile.  There’s a cliche about the impossibility of being a prophet in your own land.  Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t.  What is true, however, is that you’ll never be a prophet if no one hears you.  Recognition outside your agency (ideally by entities which command the respect of your agency) not only increases the chances that your lot will improve but makes it more difficult to dispatch you to the equivalent of Siberia.  So, all that stuff you were writing?  Make sure you distribute it…widely.  Start a blog.  Take every opportunity to speak publicly you can (even if you hate public speaking).  Get out there.  Keeping your head down, plugging away and keeping a low profile will usually guarantee you of blending into the woodwork and being taken advantage of.  It may not be fair but that is the world in which we have found ourselves.
  4. Know what you’re talking about.  Chances are few others do.  Take the time to learn about your profession and understand the current thinking about it.  Understand your agency’s (stated) mission.  Figure out where the two coincide.  That’s the sweet spot.

*I could go on at length about that passage and how Niccolo essentially identifies the need of princes to have a strong, coherent planning and direction process but that may be for another time.  Given that one of my central tenets is that such a process is almost universally lacking my advice has to also revolve around how an analyst can guide ‘their’ prince to wisdom.  Or, at least, away from ignorance.

**Or, ‘Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose’.

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