How might we measure the usefulness of fusion centers?

It’s been a few months since the U.S. Senate (or at least one of their subcommittees) released a scathing report about the 72 fusion centers that have popped up around the country since 9/11.  While the initial firestorm appears to have subsided I’m sure it remains a touchy subject and be rest assured as soon as fusion centers have something to bolster their case you’ll be seeing a whole lot of crowing about how much value they have.

It does raise an interesting, and still unanswered, question of how we should evaluate the value of fusion centers.  Certainly there should be something besides anecdotal reports either in favor or against.  Right?  One would think so, but given we’re more than a decade into this experiment, the fact that we haven’t really gotten far in beyond simple quantitative figures (we’ve answered 1,000 phone calls! We sent out 5 bazillion emails!) should have you consider that nobody is really interested in finding answers.

Let’s face it, identifying metrics for the effectiveness of something as squishy and ambiguous like ‘homeland security’ (similar to ‘counterinsurgency’) is going to be really hard, fraught with errors and, even if you get it right today, subject to change as the operating environment changes.

But, allow me to provide one possible piece of the puzzle.  One of the problems of determining effectiveness of something as big as a fusion center or as simple as even the smallest intelligence bulletin is if people actually value the darned thing.  You can try to send out surveys but a) response rates are abysmal and b) if you think grade inflation is bad in our universities check out evaluation forms in government work.  Everyone has learned that by giving straight ‘excellents’ you usually aren’t asked to answer any open ended follow up questions.  Therefore, the quickest way to be done with an evaluation form is to say everything is great and forget about it.

Even if you can swing in person interviews (very time and personnel intensive) you’re likely to hear only praise if not conducted properly (and very few in the community know how to conduct such interviews even if they were interested in doing so).

And yet, across lunch tables, while sharing a brew or via electronic communication device I receive a steady stream of dissatisfaction among erstwhile ‘consumers’ of intelligence.  Why don’t they speak up when given the chance?  Most often it’s because of concerns about reprisals.  Either institutional (‘Oh, you said something unflattering about our agency.  Yeah, we’ll get to your request.  Look for it around half past never.’) or personal (‘Oh, Ms. T applied to work at your agency.  Yeah, she’s not really a ‘team player’. I’ve got a brother in law though who’d be perfect…’).  And with no payoff there’s only downside in speaking up.

So, if you can’t always rely on what people and organizations say in this environment, you can look to what they do.  Most organizations jealously guard their resources and don’t spend them unless they think they can make a net profit on the deal.  Fusion centers, as the name implies, are designed to bring elements from many different agencies together so that each representative can contribute their expertise.

I suppose you could, therefore, look to see who puts there money where their mouths are when it comes to providing resources to these fusion centers.  Specifically:

  • What agencies have ever provided personnel or other resources to the center?
  • Has that level of commitment increased, decreased or remained the same over periods of time?

Of course, this would by no means be a complete picture but it would give you an idea of who feels such a center provides value.  We all know that joint centers also provide agencies the opportunity to dump under-performers and sometimes contributions reflect more of a ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ sort of arraignment but I think it could provide some important hints as to the value of the center.  Some agencies you could automatically exclude from this (for example the agency that owns the building or is mandated by law to participate and the Department of Homeland Security which has a organizational commitment to provide liaisons to these facilities but how many other partners are out there.  And how long do they stay?


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