The challenge of policy coordination

Ropes linked to each other signifying coordination
  • Published Date: 04 September 2019

Policy coordination is an age old challenge for government. As the problems confronting governments have become more complex, effective coordination is even more critical. But there are limits on coordination as a solution to the problems of governing.

At a glance

B Guy Peters (University of Pittsburgh) looks at the role of coordination when making public policy in a paper for Policy, Design and Practice.

While policy coordination has been an age old challenge, its role became more significant following the new public management reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. These reforms emphasised the creation of autonomous or quasi-autonomous agencies which fragmented the public sector. The need for coordination is also being exacerbated by complex policy problems that cannot be solved through the actions of any individual public sector organisation.

A number of mechanisms for coordination have emerged, ranging from top down to individual interactions and bargaining. While these mechanisms have some virtues, none is a panacea.

What is coordination?

Coordination can either be:

negative: when decisions made in one program or organisation consider those made in others and attempt to avoid conflict; or

positive: where organisations go beyond simply avoiding conflicts and find ways to cooperate on solutions benefiting the organisations involved and their clients.

Defining coordination also raises issues about whether coordinators should focus efforts on the top or the bottom levels of the organisations involved. If programs can be harmonised at the top then issues can be resolved before programs are implemented. However coordination at this level may produce conflicts over resources and authority.

Coordination at the implementation level may be easier to achieve when there are real clients with real needs involved. This creates pressure for public servants at the coalface to produce solutions.

Why care about coordination?

There are practical reasons to invest time and political capital in coordination. These include:

  • Duplication: this can produce unnecessary costs for government and an impost on citizens.
  • Displacement: one organisation will make decisions that create problems for other organisations.
  • Emphasising vertical management: if an organisation is being assessed directly on their individual performance, they are less likely to invest resources in working with others.
  • Changing demands: Client groups such as children and the elderly have demands for a variety of services and governments must find ways of providing integrated services to these population groups.
  • Cross cutting problems: Some of the most critical problems facing contemporary governments cut-across the usual lines of departmental responsibilities.

Why don’t we coordinate?

There are a range of reasons for the persistence of the “silos” and “stove pipes” in governments:

  • Power: in government, information is power so there is insufficient sharing of information.
  • Performance management: setting targets at an organisational level ignores collective goals.
  • Turf: Organisations want to defend their budgets, staff and other resources, fearing that coordination will endanger their “turf”.
  • Beliefs and ideologies: individuals may be motivated by the mission of their own organisation, resulting in a particular view of the policy landscape.
  • Politics: barriers to coordination may reside at the political level, especially in a federated system.
  • Accountability: strict financial and legal accountability may make coordination more difficult.

How do we achieve coordination?

The task for the designer of policy coordination is to understand the context for coordination and select the appropriate mechanism. Many governments use a wide range of coordination devices with a need at times to coordinate the coordinators. Decisions on coordination problems will depend more on judgment than policy science.

Mechanisms can include:

Networks

Some coordination can occur through networks, especially networks of career public servants. These networks need not be formalised. They may develop over time through interactions which allow those involved to coordinate outside of official channels.

Collaboration

While most mechanisms available for coordination depend upon structures and the interactions of actors, this alternative depends more on ideas and individual action. Individuals have to be willing to bargain over definitions of problems and programs in the collaborative model.

Hierarchy

When faced with a coordination problem, a usual remedy selected by government involves hierarchical authority coming from the centre of government. This is perhaps a natural reaction given those in the centre will not have any commitments to any particular agency or department. They will therefore not be constrained by loyalties or a particular view of the policy issue.

What this means

There is no standardised method for approaching coordination. Much of the success or failure of coordination efforts appear to depend on context. Hierarchical methods for coordination may work in some settings but not in others.

Just as the instruments for addressing coordination problems need to be matched to circumstances, so too does the need to coordinate differ across countries and across policy areas. Some policy domains may work well with minimal attempts to coordinate, but others may require substantial policy integration and coordination.

How much effort should be invested in attempting to create coordination, and in what circumstances? Can resources be better used to deliver services rather than coordinate them? In the real world of governing some balancing may be required. The appropriate balance will depend upon a number of factors, but political and professional judgments are required to make the correct decision on coordination.

Want to read more?

The challenge of policy coordination – B Guy Peters, Policy Design and Practice, Volume 1 2018 – Issue 1

This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG's ongoing special Research Series and featured in The Drop – ANZSOG and the Mandarin’s research newsletter. Sign up to receive The Drop.