Societal issues, business intelligence and the need for balance

To balance or not to balance: That is the question.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

I often lecture on the topic of knowledge management and a frequent item in a chat might be to explain the concept of “tacit” knowledge—that knowledge which is in our heads but we find difficult to articulate. One of the examples that most clearly illustrate the concept is riding a bicycle. This is knowledge that most of us have, and yet we find it very difficult to write it down clearly in words. In the lecture I usually pick one person and ask him or her to spell out the instructions that would allow anyone to learn how to ride a bike just by reading them. It usually elicits a lot of moans and groans, and when they start to put pen to paper I add the curve ball, “… and please don’t use the word balance.” That very quickly makes most people throw their hands up in frustration.

On April 6, the Department of Homeland Security Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, on which I have the honor to serve, held its first meeting. It was an important and most interesting session in very many ways. Yet at some point it was clear that we were going to have to deal again with the tricky issue of balance.

A stellar cast of luminaries presented to the Committee: the leadership team from the Department of Homeland Security, members of Congress, subject matter experts from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academia, as well as interested members of the general public, since the Committee’s sessions are open to the public. Every speaker, almost without exception, felt it necessary at some point to express whether they were in favor of balance or not. Even the committee members at some point felt obligated to enter into the semantic debate. You may fairly ask at this point, what exactly are we talking about?

The issue is: should we “balance” civil liberties and national security? When it’s presented this way, as many people do, there is an implicit suggestion that it is necessary to find a proper equilibrium between two priorities. Opponents of using balance in this context point out that the term entails a compromise, an either/or approach to action, and that is unacceptable because society demands both. Their calculus insists on having the “and” rather than the “or” as the critical Boolean operator. Who is right?

If we start by going back to the dictionary, we find that balance is, of course, both a verb and a noun. As a verb the definitions include: (1) to compute the difference between the debits and credits of an account; (2) to arrange so that one set of elements exactly equals another; (3) to equalize in weight, number or proportion; (4) to bring into harmony or proportion.

As a noun, balance can mean (1) an instrument for weighing; (2) a means of judging or deciding; (3) a counterbalancing weight, force or influence; (4) stability produced by even distribution of weight on each side of the vertical axis; (5) an aesthetically pleasing integration of elements; (6) physical equilibrium; and (7) mental and emotional steadiness.

In addition to these we can find relevant entries for balance of payments, balance of power and balance of trade; as well as for balance beam and balance sheet.

We’ve probably taken the dictionary exercise as far as it will serve us in terms of usefulness, but the discussion at our meeting clearly pointed out that words are important in this context and that the semantics needed to be addressed and clarified. The dictionary does provide, as we can start to understand, ample ammunition for both those who favor using balance as well as for those who do not.

Let’s try to hash this out. When we are engaged in attempts to create policies to deliver the greater good for the greater number, it becomes critical to be able to establish priorities, since there will always be competition for resources. These exercises will inevitably lead us down a path that will force us to review our values, the preference functions that as individuals and as collectives we all have. Balancers in general accept that the right policy must bring these two values—civil liberties and national security—into harmony or proportion. Their opponents, in turn, interpret balance as an attempt to compute the difference between the two sides of the ledger and reject the argument because it will force us to de-prioritize either civil liberties or national security. They suggest this is a compromise we cannot afford.

In my opinion there could be acceptable approaches to articulate the case in our move toward policy using the verb balance. This would entail, for example, focusing on harmony and proportion; or speaking of “proper balance” as was suggested by one of the Committee members at our meeting. But I do not believe this will help to arrive at a consensus on a course of action. There are already at least two communities interpreting the word differently and it is probably not very useful to pursue it further.

I propose that we start with a clean slate that accepts the importance of keeping the homeland secure as well as maintaining the highest safeguards for our civil liberties. From there we should then move ahead with a new narrative that speaks of embedding civil liberties values in our national security policies; or of seeking a robust convergence between these values.

Ultimately we have to remind ourselves that this is a healthy debate because it will force us to make some decisions in relation to taking a course of action; and this will drive us to examine alternatives based on the best information at hand. Since there will have to be resources allocated to the implementation of any policy, we must examine the metrics and return to our main topic: business intelligence. If we are going to make an “informed decision” on this topic, we will have to track and document it with business intelligence.

Now at least we have a running start to initiate our analysis.

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the Business Intelligence Network's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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