If you’re blaming “coordination”, you’re probably missing the real problem

It has become a sacred truth that fragmentation holds back peacebuilding. Integration, coherence, and whole-of-government are good. Silos, turf wars, and tactics-without-strategy are bad.

Yet we have seen a full decade of initiatives to blow up silos, and the ambitions that we held at the beginning have not been realised. In fact, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that we have gotten better at collaborating on certain specific tasks, but failed to change much at all at the policy level.

Within the UN system, I recall an early task force on “rule of law” assistance to fragile states. This was consumed with mapping exercises and workshops for several years, identifying who should do what and harmonising standards. Then at the end of the process the Chair conceded in retrospect that, as it turned out, “no UN agency had developed experience or expertise in how to build adequate capacity”.

Larger-scale change initiatives fared little better. I have worked on several generations of “integrated mission planning” to link up peacekeeping missions with development and humanitarian agencies. After ten years of skirmishes  over process, management lines, and humanitarian space we came to a quite uncomfortable realisation. We were, as the head of UN peacekeeping during this period described it, “still a long way from being able to provide credible responses” on key priorities.

His successor, still in-post, has noted that “our expertise is not very deep in critical peacebuilding areas”. A high-level panel has gone one better and stated categorically that “many of the civilian capacities most needed by conflict-affected communities were not to be found within the United Nations”.

In short—we were either unable or unwilling to execute on many of the key priorities that we had identified as crucial to “peacebuilding”. As one early enthusiast of “multi-dimensional” approaches to fragile states has noted:

Too often, unrelated problems are misdiagnosed as coordination failures because they manifest themselves, superficially, as disorderliness or ineffectiveness in the field, whereas in fact they reflect deeper frustrations, tensions and uncertainties in the statebuilding enterprise.

More polemically: the G7+, a group of countries classed as fragile by their donors, has complained that “aid delivery, interventions and programs instigated by international actors are often inapplicable, unsustainable and incompatible with our in-country national agendas”.

Taken as a whole, these are emphatic rebuttals to the idea that more coordination will fix the problem. They suggest that our instinct is to talk about “coherence” exactly because it is a neat problem of process, rather than a messy problem of priorities and values.

Adjucating values

Such growing unease is leading us to tear down “coordination” and replace it with another idol: “politics”. The recent high-level panel on UN peacekeeping made its keystone assertion that “politics must drive the design and implementation of operations”. The policy manifesto of the G7+, the New Deal for Fragile States, revolves around a “country-owned one vision, and one plan”.

These measures will, we are led to think, redress the “frustrations, tensions and uncertainties” of international engagement. But this idea of political leadership as deux ex machina seems hard to reconcile with the common-sense observation of how governmental decision-making actually works.

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One of the best such accounts is a classic study of Cabinet decision-making in the United Kingdom by Hugh Heclo and Aaron Wildavsky.

After exhaustive interview research, the authors took their starting point from a former head of the civil service, who told them straightforwardly that “The first thing to be noted about the central government is that it is a federation of departments”.

What he meant by this was that Cabinet discussions required adjudication of competing claims and expectations that had all become broadly legitimate in the period since World War II.

In such a setting, officials working in the departments “expected Ministers to support the large objectives with which their lives were identified”. Opposing ministers did not challenge core objectives, but rather worked by a sort of reciprocity. The Treasury department, as the main “integrator”, prided itself on mastering the brief and providing a common-sense test for departmental demands. Meanwhile the Prime Minister’s Office tried to articulate electoral consequences as a sort of bottom-line for decision-making, but got only so far as their storyline was convincing.

The net result for Heclo and Wildavsky:

We have therefore interpreted our subject matter, not in the usual terms of relative power and divisions of responsibility, but in terms of community and policy. There is no escaping the tension between adapting actions and maintaining relationships, between decision and cohesion, between governing now and preserving the possibility of governing later.

In fewer words, government policy was a composite product—whose production “resembled the labours of Sisyphus more than the thunderbolts of Zeus”. Changes were incremental, and based on mutual adjustments rather than decisive mandates.

Real-world “political” solutions

Things have changed considerably since Hugh Heclo was wandering around Whitehall taking notes. Yet his account remains instantly recognisable in the public policy and budgeting world—and this should be rather disquieting for the peacebuilding and counter-insurgency enthusiasts calling for “integrated” master plans.

Talking amongst international agencies won’t resolve value judgments about what’s important, or gaps in what we’re prepared to provide. And by asking for a “political” solution they are simply throwing the exact same problem to a different set of interlocutors, only with much higher stakes and often weaker capacity.

The Cabinet model is thus interesting because it suggests what a best-available solution may look like. In short, when we talk about coherence we could perhaps just be looking for:

  • a community of decision-makers who are equipped and expected to make mutual adjustments;
  • a facilitator who tries to understand the whole picture and can make a compelling case for the bottom line; and
  • a supporting team with mastery of the technical details.

Would international agencies be better served by calibrating their expectations in this way? Do we do ourselves a disservice by expecting a level of finality / clarity in policy debates that is rarely achieved in even very stable political systems?