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?