As the first deputy director of national intelligence for analysis from 2005 through 2008, Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar had to implement legislation intended to enact sweeping reforms of intelligence procedure, establish a new federal agency, and integrate and improve the performance of 16 intelligence agencies. Synthesizing this experience, Fingar’s new book, From Mandate to Blueprint: Lessons from Intelligence Reform, explains how he carried out that tremendous charge. Identifying and codifying the commonalities that shape and constrain prospects for success, the book provides a practical guide that every new government appointee could use.
In a conversation with FSI Director Michael McFaul, Fingar discussed some of the themes and lessons he shares in the book, from prioritizing and sequencing interconnected objectives through determining organizational structures and staff arrangements, to building support and managing opposition.
“One of the first jobs of any new appointee is to determine which prescribed and suggested tasks are necessary and which ones are possible,” said Fingar. “The flip side of that is making judgments about what isn’t immediately necessary, or maybe necessary but not urgent, and what really isn’t possible under the circumstances.”
All government appointments come with a mix of tasks, responsibilities, and opportunities, and oftentimes carry with them a mandate subsuming requirements and authorities, but virtually never do they come with a blueprint detailing the steps to achieve the required and desirable changes over a four-year time horizon.
When Fingar accepted the position of deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, he knew he had to implement the legislative and presidential mandate he was going to be judged by — namely, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which President George W. Bush signed into law in December 2004 — and to meet the ongoing intelligence responsibilities amid reforming and reorienting the organization. But he also prioritized another necessary task, that of restoring confidence in the intelligence community.
After the events of September 11, 2001 and the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the intelligence community faced severe criticism and harsh scrutiny. “The loss of confidence began at the top, with President Bush,” said Fingar, “and went down through Congress and senior officials, influencing the morale of the workforce.” He knew that it was impossible to meet the requirements of the mission if the people supported by it did not have confidence.
Next-step considerations must address whether the requisite conditions to achieve the prioritized objectives — including staff, information, authorities, and funding — exist or must be obtained. For example, if some tasks require skills that are not currently available, then it is essential to identify and recruit people with the necessary skills and experience. Or if building the capacity to achieve priority goals requires organization restructuring and personnel reassigning, then these tasks require steps to protect or deemphasize legacy activities.
To succeed in their roles, government appointees must also win cooperation and stave off criticism both from opponents and those who believe they could do better. That, in turn, requires one to strike a balance between transparency and flexibility. Knowing what to report and when to report it, having a vision that is clear and easy to explain, and responding to feedback while still conveying an image of resolution and handle on strategy are all invaluable for judgments about what steps to continue, modify, or jettison right away, Fingar writes in his book.
“We captured this with a motto that was also our modus operandi,” he said. "Think Big. Start Small. Fail Cheap. Fix Fast. Listen to feedback. Involve people in the decision-making process.”