- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Iraq Study Group (ISG) has made its splash and now will fade into oblivion, its irrelevance assured by the flaws inherent in advisory groups in general. Image, rather than solutions, is the reason most are formed — to show concern about a problem and openness to new ideas. Sharing the following characteristics, few advisory groups produce anything of real significance.

Politics, not knowledge or ability, determines membership. The ultimate accolade is “bipartisanship,” and a gloss of fairness and balance is required. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) ran the gamut of diversity — a woman, an African-American, a cross-section of formers — secretaries of state and defense, members of Congress, White House advisers, Supreme Court associate justice, attorney general, governor.

Members are chosen by the positions they hold or have held, not by their experience or expertise in the issue at hand. “Blue ribbon” commission members have “big resumes.” Although some experts were consulted by the ISG, noticeable in their absence were many scholars (Victor Davis Hanson, Frank Gaffney and others) who have a proven grasp of the issues. Including differing views is one thing; but too much contradiction to prevailing opinion would be injurious to a consensus report.

Members are often the very people who are or have been part of the problem, yet they are charged with finding a solution. Whether addressing policy or organizational issues, members generally come from the upper ranks. Managers know their mission and functions, but with rare exception have little understanding of how things actually work in their organizations and thus often produce ideas that look good but simply won’t work.

Commission reports can be useful, if expensive, reference documents, because of the large amounts of staff-produced background information included. There are usually multiple recommendations offered, increasing the probability something will be implemented, validating the effort. Occasionally there is a thought-provoking idea. But most recommendations either state the obvious or offer bureaucratic solutions.

For example, the September 11 Commission chapter, “A Different Way of Organizing the Government,” added a layer of coordination to the intelligence community, reshuffled organizations, and urged growing the analytic capability. The result is a CIA effort to double the number of analysts. But does failure of analysis indicate a deficit in quantity or quality of analysts? Nowhere was there serious discussion of a total restructure, such as a small unit of CIA analysts responsible for coordinating efforts and producing final reports, but taking advantage of the enormous and varied intellectual resources available in the multiple policy institutes that have grown since the CIA structure was created.

Truly approaches may get brief review but not serious consideration by advisory panels because they would hit a bureaucratic brick wall and prove too difficult to implement.

Advisory reports are intended to offer advice. But with a public often both uninformed and eager for quick resolutions, they take on an aura of infallibility and become rallying ground for those who oppose past or current policy. Added to that pressure is the self-importance of many commission members, who demand that their wisdom not be cherry-picked, and that all recommendations be carried out. (See comments by members of the ISG and the September 11 Commission.)

It is surprising how frequently elite panels produce such mundane and uncreative reports. Advisory groups rarely produce much of value and are ultimately ignored. With “blue ribbon” commissions, there is temporary media frenzy. With lower-level studies, there is a briefing or two. Years later, little impact can be seen.

We will continue to create advisory groups, but with the focus on political balance and quick fixes, the value of their products is unlikely to change.


While working more than 3 decades with the federal government, Anne Allen sat on numerous task forces and study groups.

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