Multiple-agency requirement hits intelligence community

Federal Workers

April 27, 2007|By Melissa Harris

Hundreds of job openings for members of the intelligence community who must gain experience at multiple agencies before advancing into executive positions are expected to be posted on a new Web site, beginning July 1, said Ronald Sanders, chief human capital officer for the director of national intelligence, during a press briefing this month.

Requiring workers to complete temporary assignments at another agency is part of Director Mike McConnell's 100-day plan to improve collaboration among the country's 16 intelligence agencies. The Sept. 11 Commission concluded that the intelligence community's "stovepipe" culture and turf wars contributed to intelligence failures before the terrorist attacks.

The effort also includes tying workers' pay to performance, streamlining the security clearance process and hiring more first- and second-generation immigrants with critical language skills.

Congress addressed the lack of cooperation among intelligence agencies in the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act and ordered the bureaucracy to adopt a joint-training model similar to the military's. That requirement, however, has not been achieved.

"The CIA had jointness programs in the past, but they've come and gone and were famous for being on paper and nothing real," said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official. "This is going to be a communitywide requirement. No one at any agency is going to get into the Senior Intelligence Service without doing this."

Sanders said that midlevel professionals, ones who have reached the GS-13 level, need to start looking for opportunities to "tour" with another agency or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Sanders also said that exceptions would be made for current executives who lack joint-duty experience. However, as those positions turn over, successful applicants must have work experience at another agency.

"If you want to be the civilian equivalent of a flag officer in the intelligence community, and we have a bunch of them, a joint duty is in your future," he said. "Our employees euphemistically refer to this as an `out-of-body experience,' and I think that connotes the agency-centric career paths that have existed to date."

Lowenthal said that McConnell's second personnel reform -- tying pay to performance -- will be far more difficult to achieve than collaboration because the government has strict criteria for firing someone and often does not exercise that authority.

"A performance evaluation system is not worth anything unless there is a mechanism for enforcement," he said.

Sanders said that 360-degree performance evaluations, a popular private-sector practice in which workers receive feedback from colleagues, bosses and subordinates, would be a key part of McConnell's personnel plan.

However, Sanders acknowledged that the Treasury and State departments lack congressional authority to tie pay to performance and undertake other personnel reforms.

Finally, Sanders said the intelligence community wanted to stop creating "self-inflicted wounds" by denying first- and second-generation immigrants, who often have sought-after language skills, security clearances.

"We owe the director a strategy that will include outreach to these heritage communities to help them help us recruit their best and brightest," Sanders said. "Our country is very diverse. We think we can turn that to our strategic advantage."

Sanders said that the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency have created teams of workers that specialize in clearing applicants whose relatives recently immigrated to the United States.

McConnell "has to clamp down on some of the small minds in the security sector," Lowenthal said. "These people have to be told that there is nothing wrong with being a first-generation immigrant. Trying to address this is very, very hard to do."

Lowenthal said that these beliefs come from a philosophy of "risk avoidance." If executives manage their work force with the goal of ensuring that "nothing bad will happen" -- with an eye toward avoiding risky situations -- the stifling culture also will lead to "nothing good happening, either," he said.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@ baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at www.baltimoresun.com/federal.

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