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4 Elements That Promote Effective Coordination

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The successes and failures of U.S civil-military reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan serve as the basis for lessons learned in creating effective interagency coordination.

“Interagency coordination is an essential ele­ment of effective public leadership,” writes Dr. Andrea Strimling Yodsampa in a new report for the IBM Center on effective practices for interagency coordination, using U.S. civil-military coordination efforts in Afghanistan between 2001- 2009 as a case study.

Based on scores of interviews with civilian and military leaders in the Afghan reconstruction effort, Dr. Yodsampa found: “Coordination, however, is easier said than done.  Agencies differ in their goals, priori­ties, and cultures. They compete for resources and turf. And they have different interests and concerns relative to coordina­tion itself. Coordination also takes time and money; coordination processes must com­pete for resources with other mission needs and priorities.”

The lack of joint civilian-military analysis and planning in the early stages of the Afghan reconstruction effort was reflected in the following interaction on the ground between a USAID and military official:

“A guy attached to the [military] civil affairs unit was sitting under a tree reading … I said, ‘You guys are funding his [the governor’s] militia, living in his compound, and supporting him.’ He replied, ‘Our objective is to fight and kill Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Your objective is to build a democratic central government. Right now, our objective is number one, and the consequences of our actions will be your problems in six months.’”

When Lt. General David Barno arrived in Afghanistan in October 2003, though, he had an explicit mandate to strengthen civil-military coordination, as did the new U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad.  Dr. Yodsampa writes: “Together, the two leaders put in place systems and process that strengthened coordination.”  This included co-locating the offices of the general and the ambassador at the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul.  A senior military officer who served with them observed: 

“Co-location . . . was a physical manifestation of integrated machinery. It meant that they got on exceptionally well, were able to talk through issues. They didn’t always agree, but the bond was so strong that they could work through any [issues] . . . They had a common purpose. Co-location isn’t essential, but it bloody well helps.”

Does Effective Coordination Depend on Personalities?

Dr. Yodsampa writes:  “Those who have led or served on interagency teams often argue that coordina­tion is driven by personalities and relationships. Personalities and relationships do matter, of course. Public executives and managers must pay careful attention to the composition of inter­agency teams. But they must not stop there. Attitudes and relationships are deeply affected by organizational factors. Therefore, public executives and managers must institutionalize systems and processes that foster the attitudes, relationships, and behaviors conducive to coordination.”

In her research, she identifies a small handful of systems and processes that she found were key to supporting effective coordination of results across agency boundaries in Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts, such as road and school construction. 

Systems and Processes That Support Coordinated Results

The case study of the evolution of civilian-military coordination efforts in Afghan reconstruction highlights four systems and processes that can help lay the foundation for consistent coordinated results. They are:

  • Co-location and regular convening of agency representatives. Co-location and convening of agency representatives provide opportunities for face-to-face interaction that facilitate joint analysis and planning and foster relationship development and mutual learning.  In the case of Afghanistan, co-location at multiple levels of decision-making fostered better planning, but it also served as a symbol of agency commitments to work together toward common results.
  • Regular, structured information sharing and joint analysis and planning processes. Joint processes enable participants to develop a shared assessment of the situation, identify common goals, and agree on a joint strategy and division of labor.  In Afghanistan, the early lack of joint information sharing and planning led to coordination failures.  Later efforts to improve coordination led to joint planning task forces and action groups at both the headquarters and field levels that created more effective results.
  • Provide facilitative leadership. Facilitative leadership, or leadership without authority, is necessary to convene and lead effective joint processes.  Experienced facilitators played a key role in developing and implementing effective joint analysis and planning processes during the Afghan reconstruction effort.  Executives should designate impartial, skilled facilitators to guide interagency processes such as joint planning and analysis.
  • Delegation of decision-making, professional incentives, and accountability for results. Delegation of decision-making authority to lower levels is necessary for coordinated results, but it must be paired with professional incentives to coordinate and accountability for results.  For example, establishing joint personnel assessment processes in which counterparts from other agencies can provide input into an individual’s personnel evaluations.

Dr. Yodsampa also observes that two additional elements are helpful in supporting these systems and processes.  These include paying attention to personalities and team dynamics, and jointly articulating shared goals and priorities up front.

Image via Orla/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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