The national crisis in Ferguson is a wicked, multifaceted problem. Sure, it’s a social problem involving poverty and crime, not to mention a political problem of democratic institutions failing to behave competently and ethically. Since the Department of Justice’s report was released last week detailing the level of racial profiling involved with the city’s plan to triple city revenues through police citations, we know that the Federal Government has a massive knowledge management problem on its hands. This failure of government was allowed to fester because of ignorance - not personal, but organizational.
I led the Knowledge Management Working Group for the The Project on National Security Reform in 2008 which identified the following (partial) list of knowledge management problems for the U.S. national security system:
Sharing knowledge across organizational boundaries is difficult.
The DoJ had, to most accounts, no idea what a powder-keg existed in Ferguson. When the nation first learned the town's name, numerous local writers began to illuminate underlying issues that were not on the DoJ radar. This is not to question local control, or argue states' rights, but we are facing a major new question: Is knowledge-sharing inhibited by political structures and climate, by organizational norms, by law? Whatever the causes, the finding holds.
Organizational learning is thwarted.
Knowledge about what has been happening in Ferguson is hoarded and used as a weapon. One side seizes on (later disproven) claims of a victim's raised arms and fuels a national movement. The other parcels out information about the dead man - and not the shooter - to influence carefully public opinion. (If you think this is just Ferguson, ask yourself why Trayvon Martin's body was drug-tested, but not Mr. Zimmerman's? What knowledge base was being updated here?) The ability for the department to learn and adapt to change is thwarted - we can speculate on the reasons, but the problem is clear. When knowledge is currency, organizational learning takes a back seat to agendas.
The system lacks true global situational awareness.
Do we understand the root causes behind the excruciating inefficiencies in jurisdictional policing? Washington DC has four law enforcement authorities for just under 500,000 citizens - these include the U.S. Marshals, the Park Police, the U.S. Secret Service, etc. In other words, some pretty specialized police departments due to the unusual nature of this city. St. Louis has 58 separate departments, for a county of 1 million citizens. Why? And what percentage of these departments have to self-fund by shaking down their populace? What percentage of each department's budget anticipates revenues from nuisance violations? What effect does this pressure have on informal quotas, the court system, fee structures, etc.?
Where is the next Ferguson? Do we know? Do we understand the elements of this situation, and can we spot the next Department poised to come to the attention of the DoJ through tragic circumstance? Deepening the sophistication of the U.S. Government’s knowledge management may provide some of the answers.