Asking the Right Questions
As an intelligence analyst, I’d estimate that at least 50% of my work was responding to ad hoc requests for information. This ranged from simple data pulls and high-level statistical reporting to detailed analyses of crime patterns or persons of interest. And while the time spent creating those intelligence products varied, the time it took for the requestor to ask me for them always seemed to be quick or rushed. If I can speak directly to the people making these requests, whoever you may be, please take the time to ask your questions well. I promise it will directly affect the quality of intelligence you receive as a result.
The most important thing to focus on when making a request for information or intelligence is context. You must take the time to explain why you want the information you’re asking for and how you plan to use it. This way, the person responding to your request has a better sense of what to include in their report. It also leads to less time and effort being wasted on the preparer’s end and ensures they don’t include anything unnecessary. On your side as the requestor, it increases the likelihood that you get the full amount of information you need and avoid getting bogged down with extra information you never wanted.
There is an old adage I have heard across multiple jobs that simply states, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Applied here, if you ask high-quality questions, you will get high-quality answers. On the other hand, if you ask vague questions that lack any sort of context, those are the results you will get back.
I recall being asked once by a District Commander, “How are we doing on robberies? Can you put something together to show how it’s going?” This request stopped me in my tracks. There were so many ways to tackle the question, and I had no idea where to start. My work product could have taken shape very differently depending on whether he needed it for reference during a meeting with his superiors, prepping for a COMPSTAT session, or if he needed to brief a tactical robbery unit for an upcoming mission. While it was my responsibility as the analyst to ask follow-up questions to clarify his goals and needs, he also could have better tailored the question.
The process of making a request and preparing the response is a balancing act in which both parties can refine their input. The more specific you can make your questions and the more context you can provide for the end use, the more suited your intelligence will be.
Keep in mind that making data actionable doesn’t always mean it needs to be ready to be tactically acted upon in the field. Instead, it simply means that the end product should be fully relevant and its intended use and purpose should be easily understood by all parties involved. The easiest way to ensure your information meets this threshold is to clearly lay out the intended use before anyone starts to compile data for you – and that burden falls to you as the person asking for it.
In my next post, we’ll talk about the other side of the coin (the intelligence producer) and hone in on the importance of knowing your audience and tailoring your products to them.
In the meantime, you can discover more resources as well as information on how to unlock the power of your public safety data here.