Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The political Red Team

This post was co-authored with Capt. Brett Friedman USMC. Brett blogs for the Marine Corps Gazette Blog and the inimitable Grand Blog Tarkin.

Two things threaten a campaign, an improper understanding of the environment, and an improper understanding of the opposition. In the context of a political campaign the environment is the electorate, and the opposition is the party or parties you are trying to dislodge from their position amongst the electorate. Like any good insurgent you want to ensure that the message of the opposition is unable to penetrate the population, and where it does, it is treated negatively.

Sun Tzu tells us “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” It’s a message of almost blinding simplicity, and yet it is surprising how much information a political campaign will amass about the environment and their opponent, without linking those two things to fully understand how their opponents will operate within the environment. This creates a strategic and tactical mismatch, and thus actions are based on flawed assumptions, which leads to defeat.
In the most recent US Presidential election we saw a highly creative Obama campaign was able to outmanuver the Romney campaign.
The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters' impressions with a heavy expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And it could leave the president exposed later.
"If it doesn't work, we're not going to have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall," Mr. Messina said, according to people in the meeting.
The president gave his approval. And within weeks the Obama campaign was blasting away in a late-spring offensive, forcing Mr. Romney to respond to charges about his business record and personal finances rather than making the president defend his record.
Mr. Obama won his re-election battle, amid persistent economic anxieties, in significant measure because of that bet on defining Mr. Romney early. There were other factors behind the Obama win, of course, including the surprisingly strong support of former President Bill Clinton, a secretly taped video, the timing of a nearly disastrous debate performance that came early enough in the calendar to allow Mr. Obama to recover, and a hurricane that ended Mr. Romney's last, best chance to catch up.
 In order to do this, the Obama team identified a chance to influence two things:
  1. The Environment: An opportunity to influence the environment, to reshape it in a form which was more hostile to Romney
  2. The Opponent: A weakness in the tempo of the Romney campaign in which they could make only limited countermoves - In essence, Obama got to make two moves for everyone one Romney made
Was this sportsman like? Not particularly. As the article notes, traditional wisdom is that you hold back on the negative so that you can exploit it later when it has greater impact. But to my mind the Obama campaign wasn’t about having a big impact right at the end, they wanted to make sure that every day of Romney’s presidential campaign (as opposed to his primary campaign) was a little harder. In military terms the Obama campaign wanted to introduce a new element of friction over the long term.
It’s deeply startling to me that the Romney campaign didn’t seem to understand that the Obama campaign would be so aggressive. One of the genius parts of the Obama machine has been how his inherent likeability has been coupled with a campaign style which focuses on a take no prisoner’s approach. So the question is, what mechanisms should have been in place to ensure that a mismatch between expectations and reality wouldn't occur?

The red team or red cell is an ill-defined but important piece of military planning processes. The US Joint Publication 2-0 Joint Intelligence defines a red team as, "an organizational element comprised of trained and educated members that provide an independent capability to fully explore alternatives in plans in plans and operations in the context of the operational environment and from the perspectives of the adversaries and others."

This unwieldy definition poorly defines what a red cell can do for a commander and the fact that it is only defined in an intelligence publication implies that it is an intelligence function. JP 5-0 Joint Operation Planning and the Marine Corps' MCWP 5-1 Marine Corps Planning Process both mention red cells but do not define them.

Yet the concept is elegantly simple. The red cell is any person or persons designated to "play" the enemy. While the rest of the staff plans the operation, the red cell studies the enemy in order to ascertain what the enemy may do. The red cell becomes critical during the "wargaming" phase of the planning process. During the wargaming phase, the staff talks or acts through the plan to test it before execution. The wargame is frequently conducted using a turn-based system where the red cell gets to control the enemy units.

The more holes or weak spots the red cell finds in the staff's plan, the better job he or she is doing. This has the duel purpose of keeping the rest of the staff and the commander honest while also making the plan better. A good red cell, empowered to be as critical of the rest of the staff as possible, prevents the commander and the staff from "falling in love" with their plan and refusing to see weaknesses. Once the wargame is complete, the staff modifies the plan to deal with any enemy actions that were found to be effective.

Outside the military red teams are relatively rare, although the world of white and grey hat hackers has taken them into their collective heart. In this context red teams seek to breach security and force electronic access to shielded systems. Similar tools are used by private security companies to test physical security. However, they are not used in a corporate or political context.

So how would this tool be used in a political context?

An ideal red cell for a political campaign would be someone that both the candidate (analogous to the commander) and the campaign manager (analogous to the operations officer) trusts but who is also willing to tell them the unvarnished truth. It can be difficult to find an effective red cell. Just as in a military staff, that person wants the campaign to succeed. However, he or she must be willing to put their personal feelings aside and "fight" the rest of the staff as hard as possible, realising that the campaign as a whole will be more effective for it. The rest of the staff, and especially the candidate, must be willing to shed their egos enough to allow the red cell the ability to function effectively. The red cell's greatest enemy is the ego that cannot or will not accept constructive criticism. In essence, they must be a source of simulated friction, so that when the actual environment is encountered real friction is minimised.

The 2012 US Presidential election offers a stark lesson in the importance of a red cell. After President Obama's reelection, both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have said that the outcome truly surprised them as their internal polling presaged a Republican win. Since this was not the case, it seems clear that no one on the campaign staff was keeping the campaign honest.  Evidence continues to mount that there was a shocking amount of wish fulfilment occurring at the very heart of the Romney campaign:
Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. His campaign was adamant that public polls in the swing states were mistaken. They claimed the pollsters were over-estimating the number of Democrats who would turn out on Election Day. Romney’s campaign was certain that minorities would not show up for Obama in 2012 the way they did in 2008. “It just defied logic,” said a top aide of the idea that Obama could match, let alone exceed, his performance with minorities from the last election. When anyone raised the idea that public polls were showing a close race, the campaign’s pollster said the poll modelling was flawed and everyone moved on.
Internally, the campaign’s own polling—tweaked to represent their view of the electorate, with fewer Democrats—showed a steady uptick for Romney since the first debate. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win “decisively.” It seemed like spin, but the Boston Globe reports that a fireworks display was already ordered for the victory. Romney and Ryan thought they were going to win, say aides. “We were optimistic. More than just cautiously optimistic,” says one campaign staffer. When Romney lost, “it was like a death in the family.”
How did the Romney team get it so wrong? According to those involved, it was a mix of believing anecdotes about party enthusiasm and an underestimation of their opponents’ talents. [Author’s emphasis]
So how would a red team have helped with this specific issue? A red team would have had it’s own numbers, based on public data, or any data it could get, have run it’s own analysis and been able to feed back into the campaign a warning message. At the very least they would have been the one’s asking “Are you sure?” The objective isn’t to be automatically negative, but to challenge any assumption being made about the opposition or their hold on the population.

The role need be no different than in the military. Red teams in this context should provide an assumption checking engine, with a focus on the opponent but with a strong eye to the environment. They should be isolated from the campaign to the extent that they should be loyal to it, but not influenced by it. It must also be constructed so as to avoid the obvious pitfalls
Despite their many potential advantages, red teaming and alternative analysis are not silver bullets. As one would expect, the quality of the output hinges inter alia on the quality and experience of the team, the team’s approach and toolset, and the overall context of the effort. An overconfident or culturally biased analyst or team will not benefit as much from these approaches as might an analyst or team that employs “actively open-minded thinking,” to use Jonathan Baron’s term.
We are in a world of data, rich with information and content which can inform us of the reality around us to a degree which has been almost impossible to create until now. Assumptions are a luxury which cannot be allowed to stand without an effort to base them in fact. No organisation should be allowed to rest on it's intellectual laurels, and must be constantly be reminded that it exists in a world where it's opponents would like nothing more than it's downfall, and the surest way to avoid that downfall is to ensure that an opponent's moves are known before they make them.


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