Intelligence and public trust - challenge and opportunity

Dan Wildy, PhD
Director: National Intelligence
Chair of the New Zealand Institute of Intelligence Professionals

Intelligence is considered by many to be an arcane profession, one that is opaque, secretive, and therefore of questionable trustworthiness. At a time when trust in democratic institutions is already shaky, this presents a concern to those that do intelligence. Is it all doom and gloom, or is there an opportunity to dramatically improve public perceptions? Can intelligence (the people and agencies) become the cornerstone on which the broader regression in public trust could be reversed? Can intelligence (the products) become a byword for trusted reliability?

Admittedly, such a vision of the future for intelligence in society is aspirational – very aspirational. Sufficiently so that it might cause the reader to chuckle at the audacious (and possibly unrealistic) nature of it. 

But why not? Intelligence is anchored in the principles of objectivity, balance, and completeness. By design, intelligence draws from the widest possible range of information sources, checks for reliability, sifts for relevance, and uses structured analytic techniques to guard against bias and fallacies. All this with a view to deliver rigorous insight and foresight.

Further, intelligence practice is underpinned by a firm commitment to principles enshrined in the Public Service Act: political neutrality, free and frank advice, and a stewardship mindset. This is where intelligence has the potential to rebuild broader trust. Intelligence is both rigorous and it has a degree of independence. Intelligence is the loyal dissenter – loyal to the long-term wellbeing of the New Zealand public, but occasionally dissenting from accepted wisdom or prevailing policy sentiment. In other words, intelligence dutifully seeks to identify current and future trends, opportunities, and risks to support robust decision making without fear or favour.

There are significant hurdles to overcome. The first is the global entertainment industry, which paints a dark and lawless image of the world of intelligence. This has a significant impact on public perceptions. Then there is the enduring requirement for intelligence to be discreet in some aspects of its work, lest essential operational sources and methods be compromised. There is also the simple reality that intelligence remains a human endeavour and humans are fallible. Intelligence must therefore be treated as such. It is not the final word on any subject, rather a voice worth listening to.

So how are such hurdles overcome? Largely, through persistent public engagement – opening up as much as possible on what we do, how, and why within the limits necessary to protect the tradecraft that underpins intelligence success.

Intelligence agencies and practitioners must speak openly and often about their core principles and the type of people that work in Intelligence – committed Kiwis that are honest, decent, and smart, representing a broad range of ages, and social and cultural backgrounds. Intelligence agencies and practitioners must be professional in all they do, consistently delivering timely, relevant, and accurate insight and foresight to enhance decision making. It is also crucial for intelligence to constantly self-assess their own performance, actively seeking to identify where room for improvement exists.

It’s an aspirational vision: To change public perceptions of intelligence and to transform the term itself from one of mystery, ambiguity, and opaqueness, to one of solidity, clarity, transparency, and ultimately – trust. 

New Zealand has done well in recent years to build trust in its intelligence community through its careful selection of its principal public-facing leaders, while the leaders themselves have extended community trust through their proactive engagement in public discourse. This has created an opportunity, one where the term intelligence may one day become a byword for trusted reliability.

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