Bureaucrats fail to think

Not a failure of “intelligence,” but of, well, Intelligence.

“This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” stated President Obama in response to the Christmas bomber security briefing. “It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.” This statement applies equally well to analysis of the very real disaster about our economy. As the New York Times asks, “If the Fed Missed this Bubble, [how] will it See a New One?” (Jan. 6).

In both cases, decision-makers had information in hand to make very different choices than they did—choices that could have more effectively averted catastrophe. The CIA and other security agencies had received warnings that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab could pose a violent threat. Likewise, there were plenty of indications in the last decade that housing prices were rising far too quickly and that speculation and unscrupulous lending was getting out of hand. The Fed simply didn’t pay attention to those perspectives.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. It’s easy to get all worked up with 20/20 hindsight. Almost as easy as picking on cheerleaders. But that isn’t my point.

In both cases, the problem was indeed what I would call a failure of intelligence—but not the government-speak definition of “information about an enemy or a potential enemy.” I mean the more global understanding of intelligence as the ability to integrate and make meaningful interpretations from disparate sets of data—i.e., connecting the dots. In a world drowning in seas of information, this latter kind of intelligence is becoming ever more vital to our ability to thrive—or even survive. It is also increasingly rare.

This should not shock us, for a quick glance at our education system makes it clear that we are raising our youth to become ever more specialized and compartmentalized in their thinking. If you get really good at this compartmentalization, you can continue on to graduate school and get even more specialized. And as faculty in higher education, you are rewarded in tenure and promotion for your authorship of original research in your specialty. This system does a great job of turning us into experts but is not designed to foster the kind of integrated thinking that allows us to see patterns across disparate sources of information. The Times editors described the Fed’s problem as listening to the “echo chamber of conventional wisdom” within a very narrow world of neoclassical economists, real estate professionals and homeowners. The national security agencies’ failure to integrate information was due to the specialization of different agencies, along with their turf wars and silos, to prevent communication across bureaucratic barriers. In other words, the same problem that kept us from seeing the 9/11 attack coming, the same problem that bedeviled the Katrina response, and the same problem, on a far more mundane level, that mucks up our daily lives with hours wasted in customer “service” calls and other nonsensical bureaucratic boondoggles. And then, there is Copenhagen.

We desperately need to transform our understanding of “intelligence” to move beyond specialized data collection and toward understanding and analysis, and we need to transform our educational system to nurture and support this type of intelligence. I spent the last 10 years of my professional life promoting interdisciplinary environmental curriculum design, only to see the fledgling results of this work become an easy target of the budget cuts, being “outside” the traditional structures of departments and colleges. These traditional structures are entrenched and powerful, but the crises of our times remind us that we can’t move into the future if we remain stuck in the towers of the past.