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Some Lessons from the 9/11 Commission

Originally published in the September/October 2004 edition of the Virginia Review

When former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean agreed to chair the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (informally known as the 9/11 Com—mission), he did so even though he thought the commission was “set up to fail.” He had good reason to think so. The President resisted the commission’s formation for months, claiming it would distract from the war on terror. Commission members had trouble gaining access to valuable documents. The commission was made up of five Democrats and five Republicans (many of them strong partisan members of their parties), some appointed by the White House and some by congressional leaders. As columnist David Broder wrote, “the makeup of the commission seemed almost designed to put obstacles in the way of agreement.” And the environment in Washington is more bitter than most observers can remember. And yet, the commission completed its work, unanimously agreeing to all of its recommendations in a report issued July 22. Not only that; the members immediately took to the air waves and lecture circuit in an effort to drum up support for its recommendations and keep pressure on Congress and the White House to take action. They formed teams of two (one Democrat, one Republican) and fanned out across the country to educate people and keep the report in the public eye. All of this in the heat of a presidential election year.

To call the commission’s progress a surprise is an understatement. Many previous blue ribbon commissions with equally distinguished members had little impact. When Lyndon Johnson created the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy, he hoped it would eliminate widespread beliefs in a conspiracy; it never did. When the Kerner Commission was established in 1968 to look into inner city violence, its recommendations were essentially ignored. Other such efforts have met similar fates, or in some cases required many years to see some of their recommendations adopted.

What has helped the 9/11 Commission gain such influence? There are a number of factors, two of the most important being:

  • The families of 9/11 victims became a strong constituency for change in our intelligence operations, and
  • The collaborative talents and style of the commission’s two leaders.

VICTIM’S FAMILIES: A FORCE THAT WON’T BACK DOWN

“The victims’ families were a rare force in Washington, with leverage that was not negotiable in ordinary political terms,” Jill Dwyer wrote in the New York Times. Because of their unique status, nobody could accuse the families of having a partisan or self serving motive.

Not only that; leaders of the victims’ families did their homework very well. They read all of the studies and testimony from previous congressional hearings. They immersed themselves in the activities of the 9/11 Commission, contacted its leaders, supported the commission’s requests for documents, attended every one of the commission’s open hearings. They were frequently on TV, always appearing responsible, concerned, and committed to finding the truth (not to finding a scapegoat). Louis Fisher, a scholar at the Library of Congress, called the families “a huge factor.” While the victims’ families adopted a responsible tone, they were hardly shy. They lobbied very aggressively for the commission to use subpoenas when it had trouble getting documents. They worked hard to support the commission members’ request for a two month extension of their work (something that the Speaker of the House strongly opposed). They were outspoken in their TV appearances, insisting that the stakes for the country are far too high to let anything slow down or derail the commission’s work. As Mark Rozelle, professor at George Mason University put it, “the fact that the family members were well organized and demanded the commission be able to fully investigate was very powerful.”

COMMISSION’S TWO LEADERS

The second key factor relates to the commission’s leaders. The commission got off to a rocky start. Henry Kissinger first accepted, then declined the role of commission chair. Former Senator George Mitchell resigned as deputy chair after a few weeks on the job. Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean succeeded Kissinger as chair, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton became deputy chair.

Once Kean and Hamilton were in place, however, something special began to happen. By all accounts, the ten commission members started to come together. “There are folks out there who wanted to see this commission devolve into a partisan food fight, but we were determined not to have that happen,” commented Richard Ben—Veniste, a commission member. How did they avoid the food fight? Several commission members publicly pointed to Kean and Hamilton. One member said that the two forged such a strong partnership, “most people can’t tell who is the D [Democrat] and who is the R [Republican].” Several said that the two leaders’ personal civility and ability to work across partisan lines help the commission remain united, despite some bitter attacks leveled at them.

Tom Kean, in typical modest fashion, deflected much of the credit. He pointed to the pressure, and the “weight of history,” as factors that helped the commissioners work well together. He also heaped praise on Lee Hamilton, calling him “a remarkable individual whose bottom line is always to do what is right.” And Hamilton suggested that the reason the commission arrived at unanimous recommendations was due to Kean’s integrity and talent.

COMMISSION’S LESSONS FOR US

The five Republicans and five Democrats who made up the 9/11 Commission achieved far more, far faster, than anyone expected. Their success offers several critical lessons for those who want to work across political or organizational boundaries. First, collaboration is much more likely when the stakes are high, and are felt personally by the parties involved. With 535 members of Congress, it is difficult to make any one of them feel personally accountable for taking action or solving a problem. But the 9/11 Commission members’ efforts to market the report and need for action raised the stakes. In essence, they shone a light on members of Congress and on the White House. Their unstated message to our federal leaders was clear: if there is another terrorist attack, and you didn’t act on these recommendations, the public will hold you accountable.

A second lesson concerns the open process used by the commission. In May, 2004, Kean and Hamilton told a group of media members that they had studied past investigations into Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination, and learned that commissions that only meet in secret result in suspicion and conspiracy theories. As a result, many of the 9/11 Commissions’ meetings were open to the public. Further, they produced interim reports during the course of their work, continually keeping the public informed about what they were learning. This open process was a key to gaining credibility.

And a third lesson relates to the 9/11 victims’ families. They provided what I call a constituency for collaboration. Their constant attention, pressure, homework, visibility in the media and lack of any selfish motive gave them enormous moral standing in the country. They kept the pressure on when the White House initially wanted to avoid appointing a commission; they applied pressure when the administration tried to withhold senior officials from testifying. Most collaborative efforts need a constituency, a group of people who have a vested interest in the project and are willing to keep the spotlight on the parties doing the work.

Finally, the commission leaders provided wonderful examples of collaborative leadership. They formed a bond between them, they modeled nonpartisan behavior to the other members, and helped those members commit to putting the nation’s good above their party’s narrower interests. As Tom Kean put it, “I believe I’m talking about a commission where we respect each other, like each other. And I think all of us recognized that if we allowed partisan differences to upset this commission we would have wasted our time.”

High stakes, an open process, a constituency for collaboration, and collaborative leadership. These are key principles for anyone trying to work across boundaries on public issues.


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Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.

He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .