The Dissent Channel and Red Teams

I was reading Annie Duke’s wonderful book, “Thinking in Bets“, and at one point she was discussing the power of having a diverse set of viewpoints within a group. Such diversity, she argues, leads to better decisions.

Duke then mentioned the Dissent Channel, and when I first heard the phrase I thought it was a cable TV channel that offered opposing points of view on a variety of topics.

As usual, I was way off.

Here’s a description from Wikipedia:

The Dissent Channel is a messaging framework open to Foreign Service Officers, and other U.S. citizens employed by the United States Department of State and Agency for International Development (USAID),[a] through which they are invited to express constructive criticism of government policy.

Established in 1971, the Dissent Channel was used 123 times in its first four decades. In modern times, about four or five dissent cables are sent each year. U.S. foreign policies that have been the subject of dissent cables have varied widely. The 1971 Blood telegram, named for its author Archer Blood, condemned the U.S. policy of support for Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan, who oversaw a genocide in East Pakistan. Other dissent cables have criticized U.S. support for various authoritarian leaders, dissented from U.S. inaction in crises and genocides, or criticized U.S. involvement in various military conflicts. For example, a 1992 dissent cable protesting the U.S. failure to act during the Bosnian genocide is credited with helping lead to the Dayton Accords. The dissent cable with the largest number of signatories, by far, was a 2017 dissent cable condemning Donald Trump’s executive order imposed a travel and immigration ban on the nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries; about a thousand diplomats signed on to that cable.

Dissent cables circulate to senior State Department officials, and messages receive a response from the department’s Policy Planning Staff. Under department regulations, diplomats who submit dissent cables are supposed to be protected from retaliation or reprisal. Nevertheless, some U.S. diplomats are hesitant to use the Dissent Channel for fear that it could impede their career progress.

Foreign service members who make constructive use of the Dissent Channel may be eligible to receive the American Foreign Service Association’s Constructive Dissent Awards (although use of the channel is not required to be eligible).

How cool is that – a forum for people to openly disagree with State Department policies, without fear of reprisal, and possibly be rewarded for doing so.

It seems as if such a policy would lead to a better decision-making process. According to John Stuart Mill, we can’t know the truth about something without being aware of what the “other side” thinks. That seems to be the purpose of the Dissent Channel.

The Wikipedia article also notes that the Central Intelligence Agency has “red teams” of intelligence officers and analysts dedicated to arguing against the intelligence community’s conventional wisdom and spotting flaws in logic and analysis. Neal Katyal, a Georgetown law professor, argues that the federal government needs more such intra-agency checks in order to institutionalize the practice of dissent.

Later in her book, Duke introduces the idea of a premortem, an investigation into what could go wrong when trying to achieve a goal. Such an approach is in contrast to what Duke calls “backcasting” in which we assume we’ve achieved our goal and work backward to determine how we achieved that goal.

The premortem and backcasting complement each other in working to achieve our goals. Backcasting imagines a positive future while a premortem imagines a negative future. The premortem seems similar to the Dissent Channel – imagining what could go wrong with a particular plan or policy.

(One interesting point made by Duke is that we are more likely to achieve our goals if we incorporate negative visualization, as opposed to the popular idea that positive visualization is more effective.)

I am happy to hear that there are mechanisms such as the Dissent Channel and red teams in place within our government. It gives me more confidence that the decisions and policies that are arrived at are done after carefully considering all points of view.

I know I could benefit from learning more about what the “other side” thinks on a variety of issues.

*image from the National Security Archive

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