The heart of co-ordination
OK – this is my first post writing about something connected with my new job – knowledge sharing around UN Co-ordination.
Improving the co-ordination and coherence of the UN’s development work (i.e that of the over 30 UN organizations that work in some way in Development) is essentially a change management process – one that is gradual, but nevertheless evolving and deepening over time. It faces all the same challenges that other change management processes face and the same type of potential benefits accompanied by risks and potential failure.
Learning about and observing how co-ordination is developing I notice three distinct levels or aspects of how enhanced co-ordination is being pursued. These three levels would also apply to any type of change management process. But let me illustrate them in the context of co-ordination: The three levels of co-ordination correspond to:
- The body: these are the rules, procedures, tools and mechanisms for co-ordination.
- The mind: these are the reasons that motivate co-ordination, the justification for it and the assessment of results achieved.
- The heart: the belief in and commitment to the UN mandate and the idea of working together towards common goals.
Taking a closer look at each of these:
The body: This is probably the most visible part of UN co-ordination, the nuts and bolts of how co-ordination is done, essential to make sure it happens and that everyone understands what they are supposed to do and we know if everyone is pulling their weight. This includes a wide range of things like common programming tools such as the United Nations Development Assistance Framework, common guidelines on a myriad of issues including joint funding, common premises, human rights mainstreaming etc. as well as joint trainings, working mechanisms and groups and other types of meetings and decision making procedures. This is an ever growing body as time progresses.
The plus side of all these tools and mechanisms and guidelines is that they help define what co-ordination really means, they make responsibilities and accountabilities clear and help measure progress. They also help define the limits of what has been agreed will be done in common and what will be done separately.
The downside is that the volume of “the body” can be quite daunting and some of the mechanisms can seem quite complex and hard to understand, and at times a bit bureaucratic. The other downside is that while procedures can make things clear and hold people accountable – there is always a risk that people will follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit i.e. to follow the procedures without thinking about, and having the motivation to improve co-ordination.
The second aspect is the head – the logic of co-ordination. The arguments we make to ourselves, to donors, to beneficiaries about why improved co-ordination is a good thing. These are the potential, or if we are lucky tangible measurable results of co-ordination – reduced costs due to shared premises or joint procurement, reduced transaction costs for partner governments due to harmonized reporting requirements – and the “holy grail” – improved development results due to better policy coherence and complementary contributions from different parts of the UN system.
The external logic of improved co-ordination is compelling. One of the difficulties I have in explaining my job to people outside the UN is that they can’t see why we are not better coordinated in the first place. Why doesn’t the UN already have common systems and approaches (or why are there so many semi-autonomous parts of the UN in the first place)?
The difficulties with the “head” or logical approach are that i) although improved results are logically expected – they can be quite hard to measure in practice – especially pinning down how much difference co-ordination actually makes in achieving results over and above what might have happened anyway. We get asked for this a lot, but it’s very hard to know exactly how things would have been different if we had been less coordinated – it’s not the sort of thing that easily lends itself to experimental design. Thinking about ways to do this will undoubtedly be one of the upcoming challenges in my new job. This view also sometimes overlooks that fact that at times co-ordination is hard, and takes resources all of its own that need to be weighed against the benefits achieved.
The second difficulty of the logical approach is that the external logic of improved efficiency/effectiveness is not always enough to overcome the internal logic of responding to agency specific imperatives as “our way is the better way”, “our rules only allow us to do it this way”, “I get rewarded for pursuing goals of my own organization rather than those of the UN as a whole” or just that “business as usual” is much easier and less risky than change.
The third level is the “heart” – or belief. This is the personal commitment to work in a coordinated way, whether motivated by a belief in the values and mandate of the UN as a whole (as opposed to only that of the specific agency you work in) or the belief that better co-ordination will lead to better work and that it is a good thing to work better together – note here I’m not talking about the logical argument for better co-ordination, but rather an internal belief in it being “the right thing to do”. With this frame of mind (or heart) you look for, and find the opportunities to work together. People follow the “spirit” of co-ordination rather than following procedure or just going through the motions. It creates a sense of “we” rather than us and them trying to agree on the minimum common denominator or trying to “win” a negotiation about how to do things or who gets the resources.
All of these three “levels” are needed for improved co-ordination, or for any change process for that matter. But my sense is that in much of the detailed and practical work on enhancing and measuring co-ordination, this last element has been somewhat overlooked or underemphasized due to its intangible nature, and due to the typical approaches of large inter-governmental bureaucracies . Yet many/most people who work for the UN do so because they believe in its mission and mandate, and because they have a desire to do something that makes a difference – i.e. for emotional reasons. While in terms of organizational culture we might feel a little uneasy about emphasizing a call to a higher purpose without a specific blueprint on how to achieve it – in fact I think without this we might risk not being able to get beyond a focus on the “how” of co-ordination towards achieving a sense of common purpose. A common purpose that we really believe in is highly motivating and can help us to find ways to work together even when it is difficult, because we recognize that despite our different characteristics, roles or points of view – we know we all are trying to achieve a common goal, one which is more important than any challenges we have in understanding each other and working together.
The question is, how do we awaken the heart of co-ordination in all of us?