On October 12th the Washington Post published a story “U.S. Military Plans Polls and Focus Groups in Iraq”. The story described “The proposed polling contract, which has yet to be awarded, would centralize activities currently conducted by four different commands within Multi-National Force-Iraq and the Psychological Operations and Information Operations task forces.”
ThePost pegged the new strategic communications initiative as a $15 million effort to supplement the military’s existing strategic communications budget of $100 million year. And “would centralize activities currently conducted by four different commands within Multi-National Force-Iraq and the Psychological Operations and Information Operations task forces.”
As a civilian market research professional and the former DCO of the Combined Joint Information Campaign in Bosnia I have some opinions about this contract and the story – some positive, some not so positive.
First of all the notion that the identity of the ultimate user of the data, i.e. the U.S. government can be kept secret is preposterous. In the day of the Internet to quote the title of a book by Richard Hunter of Gartner Group, we live in a “World Without Secrets”. It is only a matter of time before the nature of the poll or focus group becomes public. Given the heat the military took for actually paying a writer to write positive stories from the LA Times and others, some enterprising journalist will have a source that uncovers one such poll or focus group and will blow it up in hopes of winning a Pulitzer Prize.
Secondly, as correctly pointed out by SecDef Gates on more than one occasion, the State Department should be the lead dog in this kind of effort, not the military. Public Diplomacy and helping other nations rebuild their infrastructure is the responsibility of the Department of State. Their diplomats along with seconded representatives of other Cabinet Level Departments should be driving the nation building, not the Department of Defense.
Third, polling and focus groups produce intelligence – they don’t change opinions, nor do they perform concrete functions. Who will use this information and what will they do with it? Doesn’t make more sense to beef up the as recommended by SecDef Gates?
Fourth, any contractor selected for this project – assuming it moves along will need a civilian oriented buffer organization that can interface with the native Iraqi sources, analyze the collected information and make appropriate recommendations. Military personnel are simply not trained nor experienced in market analysis and perhaps most importantly, they don’t think like civilians.
Fifth – Congress is Clueless If the quote attributed to Senator James Webb (D-VA) that "At a time when this country is facing such a grave economic crisis . . . it makes little sense for the Department of Defense to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to propagandize the Iraqi people," is true, it is clear that Senator Webb hasn’t the faintest idea as to the importance of strategic communications and likely has no clue as to why effective strategic communications and information engagement are needed to stab at the heart of what fuels the success of terrorists and insurgents.
While there is always more to government contracts than printed in any publication, this particular story raises some red flags that need attention.