Management Matters Management MattersManagement Matters
Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Creaky Collaboration

ARCHIVES

A minor rebellion broke out in the intelligence community a few months ago when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced it was shutting down a popular e-mail system. Called uGov, it allowed employees of different agencies to share information securely with each other, often without revealing operational details such as which agency they worked for or where they were located.

uGov looked like a prime example of the innovation that many intelligence reformists, as well as the 9/11 commission, had demanded in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. It allowed people separated by barriers of secrecy to work together, even if on a limited basis. And judging by the outraged response that news of its demise drew, the sharing system apparently had taken hold.

Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, a sister publication of Government Executive, broke the news of the shutdown, and it set off a flood of e-mails to the DNI's office. Aggrieved employees actually set up a protest wiki to save uGov. "I can't imagine doing my job as effectively without it," Ambinder quoted one DNI employee saying. A Navy officer reported that following a "catastrophic loss of communications [in Europe], decision-makers were kept in the loop only because we could access ugov.gov accounts from mobile devices and send updates and pictures." A CIA analyst claimed the system offered the only way to provide state and local law enforcement officials with homeland security information. And on and on.

Officials cited undefined security concerns as the impetus for terminating the system. This has always been the Achilles' heel of any open platform that allows employees with unequal access to secrets to communicate with each other. But outraged analysts questioned whether their leaders also would take the ax to other popular collaboration tools, like the wiki Intellipedia. Officials tried to assure them those tools were safe.

The protests, as well as Ambinder's dogged coverage of them, might have convinced intelligence leaders to alter their course. The ODNI has promised to hold off on ending uGov for some months and to assess the effects of shutting it down. And a letter to employees insisted the office "remains committed" to providing technology services across the intelligence community.

Yet one has to wonder how solid those assurances really are. For one thing, the very rebellion that the threat to uGov touched off likely affirms the initial fears some officials had about it. From the perspective of a security officer, whose sole mission is to ensure an agency's secret business stays that way, the employees who adore uGov are the ones who have no qualms about airing their agency's dirty laundry in public. Some aggrieved employees actually posted their remarks on Twitter for anyone to see.

Of course, had the protests never occurred, it's likely that uGov's opponents would have succeeded in killing it. No one has claimed that the system led to any security breaches, or that it threatened an agency's turf. So, it is tempting to conclude that skeptical officials were slaves to a kind of parochial thinking that a significant portion of the intelligence community finds antithetical to the way they work.

These might be irreconcilable differences. Security always has been the bane of innovation. The question long facing the DNI has been whether to come down on the side of openness and to accrue all the benefits it can bring, or to stick with a closed and arguably safer model, which also has proved to increase the chances of a major intelligence failure. The fight over uGov speaks to a still deep-seated conflict over this fundamental problem. And it doesn't bode well for the future of collaboration.

Shane Harris writes about intelligence for National Journal. His first book, The Watchers, will be published in February.

 
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.