Focus: Prof. Lægreid, on Coordination in the Public Sector

PerWhat is coordination in the public sector?

Coordination is an ambiguous and contested concept. Coordination in the public sector can be seen as the purposeful alignment of tasks and efforts of units in order to achieve a defined goal. Its aim is generally to create greater coherence in policy and to reduce redundancy, lacunae, and contradictions within and between policies. The basic coordinating mechanisms are hierarchy, markets and networks. Different coordinating instruments usually represent a mix of them. Coordination can be seen both as a process and as an outcome. It can focus on policy design, policy implementation and management. Important distinctions are between horizontal coordination and vertical coordination and between intra- and inter-organizational coordination.  Our focus is on positive coordination, meaning coordination that purposively aims at building coherence. This is in contrast to what has been called negative coordination, meaning alignment or just plain agreement to avoid conflict.

Why is coordination so important?

Coordination and specialization tend to go in tandem. Increased specialization enhances the need for coordination. Specialization by tasks or purpose has been the dominating form in the public sector. This tends to produce siloization and departementalization in public administration. It is effective when the tasks follow the borders of organizations, policy areas or administrative levels, but more challenging for tasks that transcend these borders. Especially when it comes to the handling of ‘wicked’ or transboundary problems, such as welfare, problems related to climate change, or the use of new IT technology, there is a need for inter-organizational coordinating arrangements. Coordinative arrangements are often introduced to counter fragmentation, overlap or outright negligence or ‘gray areas’ where important tasks are not dealt with. New Public Management reforms has mainly focused on vertical control and coordination and it has had little to offer regarding the more pressing problem of horizontal coordination.  Agencification, performance management arrangements and the establishment of single purpose organizations have tended to increase the fragmentation of public administration and enhanced the need for integration and coordination. The establishment of new coordination arrangements can be seen as a reaction to this.

How do various coordination practices function, is it a success?

Our case selection illustrates that there is a large variation of different arrangements.  Thus, identifying a typical coordinating arrangement is difficult. In our sample the coordinating arrangements are mostly from the central level. They mainly focus on wicked problems, often with a rather high level of conflict and political salience. Their main goals concern input and processes as well as output and activities. They are introduced by political and administrative executives from many different agencies and multiple organizations. The majority of the coordination arrangements are mandatory and formal but not permanent, and they mainly deal with policy implementation and focus on horizontal linkages.  Most of them have only public sector participants and join up at the top, but they also cover several levels of government. There is a rather high intensity in their work going beyond information and communication, including collaboration and cooperation, advice and decision-making. Regarding the effects and implications the picture is somewhat inconclusive.  Most of the coordinating arrangements are reported to have at least some positive effects on the main goal. The effects are the most positive when it comes to input and processes. There are also some positive effects on output and activity. Regarding effects on outcome and societal impacts, the effects are more uncertain. There are also some negative as well as positive side effects of the coordinating arrangements. Still, regarding the overall effects of the coordinating arrangements they are generally on the positive side.

Could you kindly provide us with successful and failure cases studied on the COCOPS web site?

It is not easy to assess the effects of the coordinating arrangements. Hard facts are often missing and we have mainly to stick to perceived expert assessments. There is also the attribution problem meaning that it is difficult to isolate the effects of the coordination arrangements from other reforms and changes that happens in the public administration. Adding to this many of the arrangements are in an early phase and the observed effects can be affected by the uncertainty, resistance and confusion that are normally higher in the adaptation phase than in a more established operational phase. This being said, most cases have some intended positive effects but also some important negative side effects or only minor impacts where more substantial changes were intended. The following coordinating arrangements are reported to have mainly positive effects in terms of intended positive coordination: ‘The Development of the Estonian Top Civil Service’;  ‘Regional Electronic Patient Record in Lombardi;’ ‘Organizing Government Around Problems: Interdepartmental Program Randstad Urgent’, and ‘Szell Kalman Working Group’. The following coordinating arrangements have on the other hand not been particularly successful:  ‘Contracting with Pre-Hospital Emergency Medical Service Providers in Estonia’ and ‘Departmentalism in Climate Adaptation Policies in Germany.’

What will be the future of coordination and research?

New Public Management has stalled and is supplemented by Whole-of-Government approaches, Joined-Up Governance, integrated and holistic governance, networked government, partnerships, connected government, cross-cutting policy, horizontal management, collaborative public management and other post-NPM reform initiatives, all intended to enhance the integration of public sector organizations. Increased focus on ‘wicked’ problems that are transcending organizational borders, policy areas and administrative levels asks for new cross-border coordinating arrangements that are operating in the shadow of the hierarchy. What we need more than anything else is reliable comparative data about such coordinating arrangements that make it possible to compare over time, across policy areas, administrative level and countries. We need stronger evidence based knowledge about how such coordinating arrangements emerge, how they are organized, maintained and change and what the effects and implications are.

Dr.philos Per Lægreid  (1949) is professor in public administration and organization theory at the University of Bergen since 1992. He is currently heading the research group on “Political organization and multi-level governance” at the Department of Administration and Organization Theory. He has served as research director and is currently a part time senior researcher at Stein Rokkan Centre. He has also been head of department and  research leader at the Norwegian Research Centre in Organization and Management. He has been involved in several big research programs on administrative reforms and public administration in general in Norway such as the first and second Norwegian Power Study. In 2007 Lægreid was elected as a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letter. He is a member of the partner Institutions involved in COCOPS.

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