Towards a Concept of Good Civilian Guidance

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In 2015, the Director of the Joint Staff described for a room of defense fellows the basic conundrum of defense policymaking: “We want objectives, they want options,” he said. “They ask us for options, and we ask them, ‘What’s your objective?’” We’ve both heard uniformed colleagues bemoan a lack of civilian guidance, whether in a crisis or over strategic choices.

At the same time, faith in the unique value of military expertise has spawned the term “best military advice,” suggesting unquestionable, unified military thinking that is superior to alternative — some say especially civilian — ideas. Regardless of views on its inviolability, military advice and the expertise that underwrites it have a tendency to overshadow civilian judgment in the policymaking process. Yet, it is precisely the role played by civilian guidance that requires attention.



Guidance is a civilian prerogative — a fundamental avenue of civilian control of the military. It is also a large fraction of the job of the secretary of defense, who issues guidance on everything from defense strategy implementation to war plans to spending priorities to the use of military forces. Despite its crucial role in exerting meaningful civilian control and oversight, the concept of good civilian guidance would benefit from serious efforts to both define it and to offer a rubric for formulating it. This essay proposes both.

What is “Civilian” Guidance?

Guidance itself is neither civilian nor military. Guidance is simply an expression of a desired goal, outcome, or activity, often phrased with exclusionary clarification: I want this and not that. It can “come in a variety of formats and names,” as the Office of Management and Budget’s study on good executive branch guidance underscores.

But guidance is also issued with the intent that a designated actor performs an action under a specified authority: On my authority, I direct you to do this and not that. What makes guidance “civilian” — or military, for that matter — is thus the identity of its provider and the political and legal authority associated with that identity.

The authority of civilian leaders in the Pentagon to issue guidance to the military is generally specified in Title 10 of the U.S. Code. For example, the under secretary of defense for policy’s responsibilities include providing “strategic policy guidance for the activities of the Department of Defense.” The basic purpose of such guidance is to direct and delimit the major activities and resources of the military. The authority to issue it comes from both law and the principle of representative government. Democratically generated civilian authority ensures democratic civilian control.

Therefore, getting guidance right is fundamental to the effective exercise of civilian oversight. It has also rarely been more important to master than it is now. Although officers will acknowledge the principle of military subordination to civilian control, many Americans both in and out of uniform nevertheless question the wisdom, sincerity, and competence of civilian leadership. This eroding faith in civilians threatens to overwhelm their formal authority with informal bureaucratic practices such as dominating the process of writing guidance itself. And, for those who question whether civilians can have the expertise and credibility necessary to have the final word in defense policymaking, proffering and implementing good guidance is critical to efficacy. In short, civilians cannot rely only on their prerogatives to exercise control over defense matters. There are — and always have been — skill sets involved. Such civilian skill sets just haven’t been captured as systematically as military ones have.

For the purposes of this essay, we concentrate on formal written expressions of civilian guidance. Although the debatably binding nature of civilian speeches, emails, and Tweets is an important focus of study in its own right, this essay proposes a starting point for these future explorations. We limit our focus to civilian guidance issued within the Department of Defense in order to isolate the basic contours of good civilian guidance from broader contextual variables like interagency or interbranch competition. Although civilians on Capitol Hill and in the White House also issue guidance to the military, defining policy guidance in the defense context is a useful way to focus the discussion — particularly since the Department of Defense is swimming in it.

Guidance 101

Civilian guidance begins with strategy. When military officers say that civilians should “give guidance” and then let the military execute it, they typically mean strategic end-states. However, guidance is more than just an articulation of goals. In the classic ends-ways-means construction, guidance provides not just the desired ends but also detailed information about the preferred ways and means to achieve those ends. As a result, the full formula for guidance looks something like this: Under my authority, I want these five things, in this order of priority, to which I am willing to devote stipulated levels of resources and for which I am willing to assume a certain level of risk, including by forgoing these other things and constraining myself in other enumerated ways. Some of the most prominent defense strategy documents provide guidance according to this basic formula. Every four years, the National Defense Strategy articulates prioritized defense goals — strategic ends — and points to key capabilities and force structure changes — ways and means — to achieve them.

The guidance found in such a strategy document, however, is typically insufficient, and must be supplemented with formal supporting documents and regularly reinforced by civilian oversight to effectively guide implementation. Because guidance flows more regularly than strategy documents and pertains to the implementation of those documents, guidance contains greater detail about what military components should be doing and how they should be doing it. Two major examples are found in the Defense Planning Guidance and the Contingency Planning Guidance (formerly the Guidance for the Employment of the Force). Issued annually or biannually, these documents briefly remind the audience of the strategy’s parameters and permutations, and then focus on how to make the strategy reality.

Accordingly, guidance can be either a technocratic product or a strategy, concerned with the disposition of forces and their task organization or fundamental national interests. For that reason, politics imbue technocratic guidance as much as pure strategy. Indeed, as studies of wartime presidential leadership have shown, the politics of using force are as implicated in the ways and means of military action as they are in the ends. Guidance to the military is thus a critical avenue for asserting civilian control because it provides detailed follow-on instructions for how the military should be developed and how force should be used in the context of politically derived national priorities.

But, as with many routine civilian and military activities, guidance is a practice rather than a formal constraint. Although the authority to issue guidance is based in law and reinforced by Congress’ budgetary control, guidance itself is not an order and is, therefore, not legally binding. In this way, civilian guidance is distinct from orders issued by the two civilians atop the chain of military command. While guidance should contain lawful direction, military agents are bound to execute it through norms on the one hand and incentives offered by civilians on the other. That is, while professional and organizational standards discipline adherence to guidance, civilians may offer benefits to following guidance or punishment for ignoring it. Nevertheless, such constraints are not as inflexible as legal ones. Moreover, as guidance can be subject to the military’s interpretation, it is partly reliant on the professionalism, expertise, and intentions of those executing it.

These pliable aspects of guidance can cause profound civil-military tensions. They also elevate the importance of relationships — both inter-organizational and interpersonal — in maintaining the trust and honest communication necessary to construct and understand guidance. This case illustrates the classic principal-agent problem in which the principal relies on the agent to carry out her direction. As described by Peter Feaver, the less serious the principal is about her guidance and her relationship with the agent, the less closely she will monitor the agent’s implementation. But, the more closely she monitors, the more she is apt to strain the trust relationship between herself and the agent. The fact that civilians have the legal prerogative to issue guidance to the military but not necessarily the same credibility of expertise as those in uniform — both because civilian expertise is neither well understood nor treated as sacrosanct — makes mastering guidance all the more important for civilians’ practical control of the military.

Four Tests for Good Civilian Guidance

The above discussion has several implications for what constitutes good civilian guidance. It must be based on not only political context and policy judgment but also on a level of expertise comprising how military campaigns and capabilities contribute to strategic success. It must follow a tight and sensible logic consistent with broader national aims expressed in a way that is difficult to misinterpret. In addition, its likelihood of implementation relies not only on the principal’s authority but also on her trustworthiness. With this framework in mind, we argue that good civilian defense guidance meets four tests.

First, good civilian guidance focuses on something important that is either new or dictates a change. Because guidance is associated with defense activities, new guidance connotes modifications or additions to those activities. Guidance supporting the 2008 National Defense Strategy represented a sea change for the Department of Defense. The secretary expressed the formal shift from conventional to counter-insurgency capabilities in support of contemporary operations by making changes to acquisition and force structure guidance. Reports on the emphasis in the 2016 Defense Planning Guidance on preparing for new and different challenges posed by Russia and China give credence to the value of clarity. One of us led that document’s development — and that of its predecessor — and sought to inject clarity through bold categories highlighting areas to invest, sustain, and take risk in an effort to clarify strategy and budget priorities.

Important guidance does not communicate marginal wishes. If civilians must quibble over picayune details, they have already lost control and are making their situation worse. Civilians should be as parsimonious as they can be with their guidance. An excellent example of guidance — or guidance-like — issuances overwhelming a system is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s overuse of memos, which were derisively dubbed “snowflakes” for being short yet numerous. For example, one such snowflake complained about faulty communication connections. Jamming the bureaucracy with a maelstrom of directions and demands will confound prioritization, waste energy on task assignments and interpretation, and spread efforts too thin.

Second, good civilian guidance is clear. It strikes a balance between specificity and generality, ensuring that recipients benefit from broad principles that facilitate decision-making and action under both specific and contingent circumstances. Writing and issuing guidance that is clear requires that civilian policy leaders avoid words with multiple different meanings or any vague, flowery, or abstruse linguistic phrases. Simple language, straightforward sentence construction, and active voice are always good — especially when issuing guidance with the aim of being understood. Good guidance should minimize room for confusion and misinterpretation. A clear guidance document communicates civilian intentions in ways that military institutional leaders and commanders understand. This outcome requires expertise and some adaptation to military terminology, largely so that the guidance does not unwittingly say something it does not mean to say. Clear guidance also settles any lingering confusion over concepts and terms.

Making guidance clear means striking a balance between brevity and detail. Too little detail obscures clarity because it invites ambiguity. Too much detail invites boredom and confusion. Whittling language down requires bureaucratic skill. As anyone who has worked in government knows, brevity is often ritually sacrificed to enable coordination among organizations. With each additional author, a document becomes longer and suffers from the infamous “Christmas tree problem” in which each office attaches its favorite issue, thereby diminishing the document’s clarity and coherence. Fighting unnecessarily high word counts is a noble calling for civilians involved in issuing good guidance. Both the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2018 National Defense Strategy met this test well.

Third, good guidance is implementable. It is logically connected to the ends it pursues and is practically doable. Such practicality involves delineating who implements the guidance — specific agencies, offices, commands, and commanders — and clarifying when the directed action should take place. Therefore, those developing the guidance must have a deep understanding of where authorities and responsibilities are distributed within implicated organizations, in addition to a practical understanding of time constraints and what constitutes reasonable deadlines. The specificity in the 1993 Bottom-Up Review represents one worthwhile attempt to outline the reasoning behind difficult decisions and the timing for implementing them.

Fourth, good guidance does not contradict itself or inadvertently contradict other guidance. Put another way, it is formulated with the recognition that each new piece of guidance lives in a broader context of guidance and that those issuing directions must be aware of how each piece fits into larger campaigns. If guidance does contradict earlier missives, civilians must be clear that new guidance supersedes old guidance. Lawmakers frequently do so in saying that a new Act of Congress either does or does not contravene something in a previous Act, including the annual National Defense Authorization Act. The Joint Staff is also explicit in doctrinal issuances where new ideas replace old ones. For example, Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning, underscores that “the guidance in this publication is authoritative … [and] will take precedence” if it contravenes other guidance.

Where civilian guidance is not codified in law or doctrine, policymakers and implementers can lose track of the relationship between current and older guidance that is still in effect. Civilians should take care to ensure guidance does not leave the military in the position of having to decide which request to honor.

It Takes Guidance to Make Guidance

These four hurdles, however, are just the beginning. Knowing what good guidance is in principle will not magically conjure it. And, although civilian guidance is the counterpart to military advice, neither should be developed in isolation. The policy process, as one of us wrote with co-author Jim Golby, is iterative, time consuming, and inevitably colored by the tension of which party shows its cards first. This fact can make the policy process painfully tautological or what Janine Davidson calls a “chicken-and-egg dilemma” as the military awaits clear guidance before engaging in rigorous planning while civilians await multiple realistic and discrete options before developing definitive guidance.

Participants in this dialogue would do well to recognize that military advice and civilian guidance are symbiotic; each must bring their unique value to bear, but neither can develop and succeed without the other. As a result, the argument returns to the centrality of civil-military relations. On the basis of an open, confident civil-military relationship, civilians can partner with military leaders to generate guidance that is important, clear, implementable, consistent, and known.

But, within that relationship, civilians must take on the responsibilities of leadership. Good guidance will become a mantra. Secretary of Defense Bill Perry’s emphatic “prevent, deter, defeat” statement became the military’s bumper sticker for tackling global security challenges in the mid-1990s. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates repeated the priorities he set out in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review in public speeches and private meetings until his retirement. The follow-on guidance developed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, much of which Gates signed, made its way through the bureaucracy and was repeatedly conveyed over video teleconferences, during battlefield visits, and in acquisition decisions.

Furthermore, civilians should be aware that issuing implementable guidance is not just a matter of logic and practicalities. Good guidance is not a supine expression of validating everyone’s work to date. Given that meaningful strategy and guidance involve choosing bureaucratic and resource winners and losers, there exists no shortage of valid and parochial naysaying that impedes implementation. Ensuring guidance is implemented requires pressure and discomfort — and often some good old-fashioned horse-trading — which is another reason guidance should center on critical, rather than pet, issues. Although military professional standards dictate subordination to civilian control, civilians are ultimately responsible to monitor compliance and punish shirking, a key element of the incentive structure that makes guidance effective.

Therefore, good civilian guidance is not just a legal prerogative or a communications exercise; it is also the product of the unique organizational and political leadership that civilians bring to bear. It is built on the foundation of good civil-military relations, is refined by military and civilian expertise, and is important, clear, doable, and consistent. It is too important to get wrong. Civilians must be willing to invest themselves in good civilian guidance.



Alice Hunt Friend is a Visiting Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Mara Karlin is Director of Strategic Studies and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Chad J. McNeeley)