Spying Talent

Human capital chief Ronald Sanders says the intelligence community is only as good as its people, so agencies have upped the ante.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the commission charged with investigating the tragedy concluded that the government's failures were largely attributable to a lack of cooperation and collaboration among its intelligence agencies. "The quality of the people is more important than the quality of wiring diagrams," the 9/11 commissioners wrote, citing a need to fundamentally change the organization and culture of the intelligence community by investing in its people.

Congress responded by passing the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which unified the 16 surveillance agencies under the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence and provided them with a range of flexibilities designed to improve the workforce, fill skills gaps, and boost information sharing and collaboration.

The agencies have embraced the requirements of the 2004 law and then some. Under ODNI's leadership, the intelligence community is adopting a universal performance appraisal and pay system, connecting employees and agencies through social networking tools, boosting its foreign language capacity, and rolling out an innovative program that requires employees to complete at least one assignment outside their home agency to be eligible for promotion to the senior ranks.

Most of the human capital reforms are still in their infancy, but with evidence showing the transition to the Obama administration as a time of heightened vulnerability to an attack, it's worth pausing to reflect on whether the human element of intelligence reform is on the right path. Many observers both inside and outside government say it is.

"I think everybody gets it. They get something that I've known for my 35-year federal career-that the human element is critical to the success of any agency," says Ronald Sanders, chief human capital officer for ODNI. "Everything the [intelligence community] does revolves around knowledge and the ability to collect and communicate knowledge, so it may be even more important for us."

Common Ground

Intelligence-gathering has been organized around the disciplines of individual agencies rather than the joint mission, the 9/11 commission noted in its report, which said top officials must hold all employees accountable to the same criteria for collecting, sharing and analyzing information. "A common set of personnel standards for intelligence can create a group of professionals better able to operate in joint activities, transcending their own service specific mind-sets," the commission wrote.

Shortly after passage of the 2004 law, Sanders knew that evaluating intelligence employees against a common set of performance metrics would be a powerful first step to reform. "It takes courage to speak truth to power," he says. "We can't just say, 'Do it.' We have to make sure our human capital systems are linked and reinforce those kinds of values and behaviors."

The goal of creating common performance metrics came to fruition in late 2007, when ODNI rolled out an appraisal system across agency lines. The system was designed to assess nonsupervisory employees on collaboration, critical thinking, communication, technical expertise, integrity and accountability. It also established objectives for supervisors and managers to gauge their leadership and management competencies through 360-degree performance reviews, where feedback comes not only from one's supervisor but also peers and subordinates. "There's nothing more powerful than asking the people you're supposed to be collaborating with how well you're collaborating," Sanders says.

ODNI went one step further in May 2008, when it began to roll out a standard pay-for-performance platform-the National Intelligence Civilian Compensation Program-to begin linking employee appraisals and ratings to annual pay increases. The goal is not only to incentivize better performance and adherence to the rating criteria, Sanders says, but to recruit and retain top talent. Many employees have indicated that agencies aren't doing enough to link pay to performance or to recognize high performers, he says.

"It doesn't take too many of those employees who aren't meeting expectations to draw down the morale of a unit," says John Allison, deputy director for human capital at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "We think this system will allow for the meaningful distinctions in performance that haven't been made in the past."

DIA was the first agency to convert its employees to NICCP, and while employees have not yet received a performance payout under the system, Allison believes it already is having an impact. A 2008 intelligence workforce survey, for example, showed that 45 percent of DIA employees interact with peers at other intelligence agencies either daily or at least once a week. "There's a high amount of collaboration going on that's both self-assessed and observed through performance appraisals," he says.

Because half its workforce consists of younger employees with five or less years of experience, the intelligence community has a leg up in its quest, Sanders says. The millennial generation instinctively wants to work across agency boundaries and be evaluated on performance, he says. "They want to collaborate; they think that way, and we've had to catch up with them," Sanders adds. "Ultimately, it contributes to our reform."

In October, ODNI established a policy for defining and cataloging workforce competencies, largely to serve as a foundation for establishing pay levels and advancement criteria under the new personnel system. Compared with the General Schedule, where the best way to progress is to advance to the next grade, NICCP offers fewer opportunities for promotion. With only five major paybands in the system, an employee likely will be eligible for only four promotions during his entire career. The catalog of skills shows employees the minimal qualifications they must have to move up, says Jane Homeyer, ODNI director of competencies and standards.

The directory has been rolled into the analytic resources catalog, a comprehensive database that tracks the experience and expertise of thousands of intelligence analysts. When agency officials discover a need for a specific skill, Sanders says, they can refer to the catalog to determine whether and where that skill exists. "This is like the periodic table of elements," he says. "Every job and occupation can be described through a combination of these elements, and the performance standards and qualification standards are the chemical equation. We'll turn them into a reaction."

Joint Effort

Recognizing that the ability to break down the structural barriers to collaboration was essential to reform, intelligence agencies began touting the Defense Department's model launched after the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. The law reorganized national defense, unifying command operations and requiring officers to serve tours outside their military branches to be eligible for promotion. The approach transformed national defense by moving the services to a joint-mission mind-set.

There's no better way to foster a culture of collaboration than temporarily embedding employees in the organizations they should be collaborating with, Sanders says. In fact, he considers the civilian joint-duty program to be the centerpiece for reform of the intelligence workforce. The program requires all employees to complete at least one assignment outside their home agency to be eligible for promotion to the senior ranks.

"Joint duty is designed to teach leadership skills and ensure that over time, we have a leadership corps that can lead in a netcentric way," Sanders says.

ODNI has identified thousands of senior positions across the intelligence community that require joint duty as a prerequisite for promotion. An interagency Web site lists hundreds of joint-duty placements for civilian workers.

In 2006, ODNI launched a pilot-the Leadership Exchange and Assignment Program-that placed a small group of intelligence workers on temporary assignments of 24 to 36 months. DIA's Allison says the initial test of the program quickly sold him on the concept. A National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency employee came to DIA's human capital office as part of LEAP to help build a leadership training program, he says. "She taught a lot of people at both her agency and ours that there is such thing as a win-win," he says. "We gained and she gained, and we embraced things that NGA was doing as best practices and imported them into our curriculum."

DIA took the concept of joint duty one step further by opening up temporary assignments within its own workforce. The idea emerged from the agency's inspector general's office, Allison says, largely because smaller, more specialized occupations, such as general counsels and equal employment opportunity professionals, were not subject to joint-duty requirements. "They thought it was the best way to get some synergy among that group of professionals," he says.

Another variation of the joint-duty program is a training curriculum at DIA that takes a group of employees from every occupation and puts them together for a five-week indoctrination. "It's a social network that could last the employee their entire career," Allison says, "because there are 25 to 30 people from all disciplines in the same course, learning about the agency and how the agency works and contributes to the overall intelligence mission."

Boosting the Numbers

Crafting collaborative programs may be essential to intelligence reform, but it is only half the battle. Aside from carrying out the 2004 law and supporting the nation's war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the intelligence workforce is recovering from a significant downsizing in the 1990s. "We're not going to win the war on terror if we don't win the war on talent," Sanders says.

But the efforts extend beyond simply filling jobs with people who have the appropriate technical skills; it's also an issue of recruiting individuals with diverse backgrounds, cultures and languages, says Patricia Taylor, chief of equal employment opportunity and diversity at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Sanders agrees: "We want a workforce that not only looks like America, but one that can work with all the peoples and cultures of the world, sometimes clandestinely." Staffing shortages of translators, interpreters and analysts with proficiency in languages and cultures native to most terrorists has long hobbled the intelligence community.

The intelligence agencies work with their Heritage Community Liaison Council, made up of ethnic organizations, to help reach out to, mentor and bring on board applicants with the skills and backgrounds it is looking to attract, Taylor says. Groups such as the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Somali American Community Association step in to help strengthen these relationships with agencies, gathering data on recruitment and retention of heritage Americans, and addressing issues of concern among diverse communities. The FBI's community outreach program has been particularly successful in recruiting heritage Americans as well as those with critical foreign language skills, because the program operates at all 56 of its field offices, says Donald Van Duyn, the FBI's chief intelligence officer.

The bureau also relies on a Middle Eastern task force designed to reach out to those communities and build trust, he says.

ODNI has developed a database where agencies can post résumés of skilled individuals who were not chosen for specific jobs but could be useful elsewhere in the intelligence community, Sanders says. It's also not unusual to see all 16 intelligence agencies working together at a career fair, according to Taylor. "That's part of the collaboration," she says. "We hire someone at NSA, and the folks at Langley rejoice."

But Sanders says recruiting and hiring efforts, particularly those that target Middle Eastern Americans, still are hampered by the intelligence community's inability to measure progress. Arab Americans, for example, often are coded as white, an issue that many find misleading. ODNI sent a proposal to the Office of Management and Budget that would allow agencies to attach a form to job applications that would ask applicants to voluntarily disclose their national origin or ethnic descent. "We cite national security reasons for getting approval of that form, because everyone agrees that we need a workforce that can know, understand and deal with all the cultures of the world," he says.

The IC Model

Despite progress on bringing the workforce in line with the ideals of the 9/11 commission, the intelligence community still lacks the appropriate tools to measure the effectiveness of its reforms, says Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "The IC is understandably less transparent than the rest of the federal workforce given what they do, but we also don't have all the right tools for measuring effectiveness in place," he says. "I think in addition to the changes that have taken place, we need to see more work done."

But Stier acknowledges that the federal government has much to learn from the intelligence community's model. "The IC is in some sense a harbinger of what's to come," he says. "The idea of trying to create common expectations and effectuate change without requiring massive organizational movement is quite attractive."

A report released in February by the IBM Center for the Business of Government touted the intelligence agency reforms as steps in the right direction, noting that the initiatives could serve as a guide to update the civil service system.

Sanders agrees, saying that while the implementation of reforms is still at a relatively early stage, the new approach and commitment to human capital will make the workforce more cooperative, effective and accountable. "Sustaining this effort is going to be critical," Sanders says. "We still have some ways to go before we can rest assured that the IC truly has a culture of collaboration."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec