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Against the “command and control” approach

Published on 24 October 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

The “command and control” (or “principal – agent”) approach is built on the assumption that by achieving “information dominance” a government can shape events to suits one’s purposes. Karl Rove famously argued: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” The war in Iraq proved him disastrously wrong.

George PACKER’s thorough and thoughtful analysis of the experience on the ground in Iraq (https://nyr.kr/P1CTBP The Lesson of Tal Afar – in New Yorker) shows that in a social reality achieving “information dominance” is delusion.

Structures based on “command and control” are bad at conveying information up the system. For one, critical detail is synthetized out of upward reporting. Yet, adaptive responses need to originate in deviances that point to possible creative opportunities. Secondly, the reporting agent has a personal stake in pleasing the principal, and will tailor the information to match the expectations of the command. This kind of path-dependent outcome  is inevitable and should be analyzed, rather than condemned as self-serving or immoral.

Structures based on “command and control” are bad at conveying information down the system. The principal’s goals are lost as his intent is transmitted along the chain of agents.

A reporter for the military newspaper Stars & Stripes had heard a bewildered sergeant near Tikrit ask his captain, “What’s our mission here?” The captain replied sardonically, “We’re here to guard the ice-cream trucks going north so that someone else can guard them there.”

The discussion on the changing strategies in the run-up to the US elections shows how difficult is to retain commitment of the agent once the principal abandons or lowers his commitment to the original goal.

Also one should be aware of “blow-back” – the unintended consequences:

Aylwin-Foster, who had served under Petraeus in 2004, when Petraeus led the training mission in Baghdad, told me, “It seemed to be an enigma, the U.S. military as an entity. They’re polite, courteous, generous, humble, in a sense. But you see some of the things going on—if I could sum it up, I never saw such a good bunch of people inadvertently piss off so many people.”

A critical concept that emerges is that of “effects-based operations” – where actions are measured by their immediate effects, rather than in terms of efficiency toward the overarching goal. Another – less pompous term – would be “learning by doing”. This concept is counter-intuitive, but not wrong for it. When USDA embarked in raising agricultural productivity in 1913 – one farm at a time – it turned, without even noticing, the US in an agricultural giant.

I could go on forever. There may be no theory in this article, but so much to be learned. But that’s the subject for a blog.

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