Intelligence contracting: A Foustian bargin

Alright, I just had to use that title to talk about Joshua Foust’s senate testimony on the 20th of September. (yeah, and I’m sure you’re the first person to think of that…ugh.  eds)

His remarks center around the difficult problem of intelligence contracting.  Since 9/11 we’ve had a veritable explosion of demand for intelligence capabilities across the board.  Much of that was in increases in actual government employees but the growth was even more dramatic among contractors.  It’s been a very incestuous relationship as people have jumped from government service to (usually more lucrative) contracting gigs and back to (usually more stable) government ones based upon local conditions and individual career paths.

What that leaves you with is a system that probably ends up paying much more for talent than it should.  Some of that is regular old supply and demand where talent moves where it’s wanted.  Some of it, however, is abuse.  Cronyism, insider information, and outright fraud occur far too frequently.  But, individual cases of such abuse aren’t the real problem, according to Joshua:

The biggest problem facing the IC contracting industry is not that some contractors abuse the system, but that the government has designed a system that encourages abuse.

…through vague language, open-ended requirements, and unclear performance metrics these contracts allow companies to send workers into government facilities without clear expectations for work output and job performance.

While I’m not directly familiar with intelligence contracting, these charges of vague language are familiar (I suspect) to just about anyone working law enforcement/homeland security intelligence.  Sometimes that vagueness is familiar because it means someone can evade responsibility and accountability.  Sometimes it means nobody knows what the hell is going on and what they should be doing.

I’m not sure if Joshua intended to (although he probably did…he’s a pretty sharp dude) but many of his complaints about flaws in the contracting system apply just as equally to governmental direct hiring.  For example:

…getting a security clearance, getting hired, and getting “read on” to work at a government site. The system of getting a clearance is structured such that those with clearances are given preference above those without clearance, regardless of the relevant experience of either employee. In other words, if two candidates are competing for a job with a contractor, and one has deep relevant experience but no clearance, she will most likely lose to a candidate with less relevant experience but a current and active security clearance.

This is simply bizarre, especially since the community* isn’t doing a great job of processing and analyzing all the non-classified data out there.  What’s with the rush to get at the classified stuff?  At the sub-federal level, it’s difficult to get employees clearances and so (I suspect) if an applicant already has one (particularly if it’s a high end one) that’s going to weigh heavily in their favor.  How much?  I don’t know but it’d interesting to know.

In other words, there is a very real distinction between qualifications and credentials. A security clearance has virtually no relation to one’s qualification to do a given job; it simply means an employee can enter a room and use a computer. A high clearance says nothing about an employee’s ability to perform any task. Focusing on extraneous details like the status of one’s clearance is focusing on credentials. It is unrelated to the qualifications a given candidate has to perform to contracted task.

If you remember a post I did a while back about some findings by the National Resource Council where they identified a problem in the selection of applicants for intelligence analyst jobs.  Frequently, a college degree substitutes for ‘credentials’.  Add security clearances to those unexamined (and woefully inadequate) indicators of a successful intelligence analyst.

And then I can’t tell if Joshua is pulling our leg or not:

Simply sitting in a chair and turning out reports might be an outcome the government desires, but absent measuring the context of those reports, and the value that the contractors provide the government, it is difficult to say for certain that the contracted tasks actually help the government function.

Wait…wha??? Quantity of output isn’t a suitable metric for a cognitive work product?  I’m shocked…SHOCKED that someone would say something so heretical. I know I’m sounding like a broken record on this but keep in mind we’re 10 years after 9/11 and the huge cash dump into the community that resulted from that and we STILL can’t figure out metrics for good intelligence production other than counting cover sheets?

Quite solid stuff and clocking in at under eight pages it’s worth your time.

*My discussion isn’t to apply to the federal IC.  They’re a different animal (bigger and usually get the lion’s share of attention and resources).

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