Lauren Zabierek is the Executive Director of the Cyber Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. She previously served as an intelligence officer in the United States Air Force and as a civilian intelligence analyst with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA).
Paul Kolbe is Director of The Intelligence Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is a former member of CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service and formerly led BP’s global Intelligence and Analysis team.
OPINION — In the Intelligence Community we like to discuss cutting-edge technology, complex operations, and advanced analytics to give us an edge over our adversaries. But the most important element in our intelligence advantage is the quality and makeup of the IC’s corps of professionals. Much like we accept that the best equipment and training is vital to military effectiveness, diversity across all functions within the IC is essential to the conduct of our intelligence activities. Unfortunately, the IC is not as diverse as it needs to be and is not recruiting from as wide a talent pool as it could. The CIA recently launched its new website dedicated to hiring intelligence officers from different backgrounds. This is an important step, but it’s important to note that the Intelligence Community comprises more than just the CIA–its other agencies must also step up and make diversity a priority. Additionally, a truly diverse workforce does not rest alone on hiring; retention and development of officers is an equally important pillar in this mission.
In September, the Intelligence and Cyber Projects at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs hosted a virtual conference exploring Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging in the IC with over 600 participants from the Community, academia, and private sector. During the conference, panelists and attendees shared their experiences and ideas for concrete policy and cultural changes to improve DIB in the IC for the benefit of our national security. Speakers examined the historical record and the experiences of underrepresented groups in the IC and compared strategies for recruiting, retaining, and developing a diverse workforce. The participants identified pathways for improving the diversity of thought in the IC, including how academia and the private sector could play a facilitating role. Panelists also reexamined the role of networking, mentorship, and leadership within national security organizations. The purpose of these conversations was to stimulate dialogue, spark creative new solutions, and inspire a diverse new generation to consider service in the intelligence community.
Changes to improve diversity of thought, experience and background must start in the way the IC defines and looks for talent. Can we acknowledge that the understanding of what it means to be elite has evolved from pedigree to capability and talent? What does talent actually look like? To us, talent looks like curiosity, integrity, honor, grit, courage, the ability to think on one’s feet, and the ability to speak up and go against conventional thinking. Diversity of experience and backgrounds, we believe, is a necessary foundation for those qualities. In addition to more intentional hiring, we must also nurture our talent as well, or else these attributes can be dulled by groupthink, bureaucracy, the grind, or lost entirely to attrition. Too few make it into the senior ranks.
We invest massively in IC technology — an indication that we believe in its ability to powerfully augment the mission. All the technology in the world, however, won’t do much when intelligence officers are reticent to embrace it in favor of traditional methods. Developing new methodologies, moving away from “the way things have always been done,” and incorporating technology into analysis and operations is a hallmark of an elite organization. Though there are pockets of innovation and excellence across the community, we must aspire to building more capable IC across the board. Doing so requires people from every background, race, age, and gender denomination, to imagine and work and evangelize. It also requires de-prioritizing elite pedigrees and educational backgrounds as indicators of success.
So how do we recruit this talent? Our panelists stated we must start by acknowledging that the talent pool is not limited and continue by building connectivity in underserved communities. One key step is to understand that just because a candidate might be interested, they won’t always apply. We must have models to demonstrate value and belonging, and more transparent pathways into the IC. And if an officer departs, we must offer them pathways back into the community so that we do not lose that institutional knowledge and experience forever.
Policy and culture play important roles in nurturing our talent. We can create community wide policies that promote diversity and leader’s actions and intentional messaging matter to create a truly diverse and inclusive culture that supports innovation is critical. Culture starts at the top, and so a leader’s actions and intentional messaging matter to create a truly diverse and inclusive culture that supports innovation. It’s not enough to offer platitudes and designate diversity officers, change must be modeled from the top-down, and be lived and championed throughout the ranks. It must also take place in the course of everyday hiring, promotion, and assignment decisions.
In the IC, all human capital issues are inherently national security issues, and diversity is one of mission effectiveness. Officers must look like and understand the makeup of the nation to truly understand the threats we face. The IC needs to develop strategic human capital policies and programs that hire, develop, respect, and properly communicate with an evolving workforce that reflects the diversity of the public it serves. Failure to address these issues will diminish the IC’s ability to recruit, retain, and develop the best talent, thereby reducing the IC’s ability to maintain its most mission critical asset – its people.
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