The recent terrorist attempt to destroy an airliner reflects an excellent example of when bureaucracy, in its worst form, trumps leadership, in its best.

As a trained public administrator, I am not one to use the term bureaucracy in its most negative form – except in this case, when conditions merit the use. Reports in the New York Times and Washington Post reflect the stove-piped nature of agencies possessing critical information and failing to share it across organizational boundaries.

The President stated that he was launching a review to identify why the alleged bomber’s name was in a system for intelligence, yet omitted from a screening list. In a later report in the New York Times, it was reported that the alleged bomber’s own father had raised alarms about his son’s radical stance; however, this information was not shared across different organizational boundaries.

When the investigation’s findings are published, I fear a number of excuses will be offered as to why the information was not shared – excuses such as security concerns, different networks, lack of a proper forum, or all of the above. However, like an airplane crash (which this could have very easily become), it is never a singular fault but rather a compilation of a number of missteps that when linked together, create the loophole within which disaster occurs. Many times these loopholes may be traced back to a lack of direction, a failure to align with a need, or most importantly, a lack of commitment to cooperate on the part of a government agency.

Direction, alignment, and commitment provide an easy structure to arrange the challenges that led to such a loophole. The direction, fighting terrorism and keeping the air safe for travel, was pretty clear, as was the alignment – with the intelligence community providing overwatch external to the United States and Department of Homeland Security, along with the FBI providing overwatch within the United States. What is not known is the level of commitment. Is the desire for safety more important than the bureaucratic politics within each of these agencies?

This is where leadership comes in. This is when the mid-level civil service operator must, through their actions, demonstrate true commitment to the higher calling of safety and go beyond the bureaucratic inertia that limits the achievement of that goal. This is the time when bureaucracies must understand their higher mission, not their short term goals – their strategic call to service, not their short term desire for organizational power.

Realizing and acting on the higher call to create safety demands leaders within each organization to reach-out and share resources (in this case information), creating an environment designed to close, not open, loopholes in security.

Fortunately, many within government reach across boundaries everyday. A great number of leaders within the civil service reach across organizational lines daily to share, build, and secure information that leads to our security. They are the quiet heroes and professionals upon whom our security rests.

These quiet heroes follow a couple of rules that I learned when I was fighting terrorism overseas. We had two signs posted in our operations center – “Who else needs to know?” and “How do I get into the Fight?”  These two signs reflect the need to both share information (push) and understand the role played by the organization (pull). They were posted next to every map, phone, and computer. Each time we sent out an email, we asked ourselves – “Who else needs to know?”  And each time we received an email, we asked ourselves, “How do I get into the fight?” 

This push-pull methodology of acting on information increased our effectiveness as an organization because we reached across our organizational boundaries to collaborate with others. Leaders reinforced actions made on behalf of the signs, building initiative and an understanding of the importance of sharing and creating information. This initiative and was an organizational mantra shared by the entire organization. 

For Northwest Flight 253, someone had the information and did not ask themselves “Who else needs to know?” Someone in an Embassy, an analyst, a senior level official in the intelligence community, did not ask themselves, “How do I get into the fight?” This lack of initiative may have been influenced by organizational inertia, a bureaucratic mindset, or a simple lack of initiative. Each one of these is a leadership issue and leaders in each area must address the root causes, not the surface ones, that allowed a loophole in our defenses through which terror could enter our skies.

Leaders must now pose some hard questions to close the loopholes bureaucracy has created by inquiring how we might create greater collaboration through both pushing and pulling of key information. Furthermore, leaders must reward those who insure collaboration occurs and identify and retrain those for whom bureaucracy trumps effectiveness. 

This is the task of Leaders. They are the ones who will keep our skies safe.

Photo Credit: Kevin Balluff

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