KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

The heart of co-ordination

with 9 comments

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?


Written by Ian Thorpe

November 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. One of my recent insights has been that the common goal, however important, is often too abstract for people to find day-to-day “heart” for coordination and collaboration. I have noticed that the closer you come to the field, or to the work floor if you like, the less difficult it seems to be to coordinate. The reality is that goals of different organisations are not the same, although yes, at a higher, fairly abstract level they do converge. When I see coordination and collaboration working in practice, it comes from the mutual realisation that one can achieve the goal of their organisation better when the other also achieves the goal of their organisation. Trouble is that the “body” makes so many boxes: multiple organisations, departments within that, country plans or frameworks over that again, and projects within to implement the framework. No wonder people loose sight of the wider system and how everything is connected. It is too complex to fit in the “head”.

    Where coordination seems to go right, I observe a true interest in the other party. Really finding out what the others are about enables you to see where coordination can be beneficial for you.

    There is something in human nature that makes us actually work the otherway around. We don’t inquire, we tend to explain, to broadcast our own goal. However, because we do not understand the other, our information tends to fall flat in the ears of the other. It doesn’t connect with the “heart”. The other is equally geared to explaining. Notice how few people actually have the habit of listening carefully, of reading between the lines for the “heart”. We mostly engage in advocacy based interactions. We try to win the other over for your own cause. This tends to lead to feelings of ‘not being heard’, not being valued and acknowledged, and that’s no fertile ground for collaboration. The others don’t get it, so we keep muddling on without them.

    The beauty is that as soon as we begin to ask others about what they do, what is important for them, we can just see their “heart” opening up.

    It’s no miracle recipe, but in order to improve coordination, one way to the “heart” is facilitating more interactions based on inquiry as an antidote to the dominant advocacy based interactions which only work to improve coordination if the other is listening for the “heart”.

    Lucia Nass

    November 12, 2011 at 1:58 am

    • Very good point. Behind any successful collaboration there is a need to identify common ground by listening and understanding your partners goals and needs and from this identifying where you can make common cause. This aspect seems to me also to be underemphasized in current discussions on UN co-ordination.

      Ian Thorpe

      November 12, 2011 at 7:52 am

  2. Nice post, but there are some logical jumps in it. The Head is more like the heart. The evidence base for coordination as it is pushed in the UN is more conviction based than evidence based.

    The whole discourse claiming coordinated UN-activities will be better, because coordination is always better, is fundamentally flawed. The UN is built on separate mandates that are (if everything goes fine) only marginally overlapping. This is not accidental. every Un-agency has been created by a consensus of UN-member (really all countries of the world) because they thought the issue could only be addressed by creating a separate (not integrated) institution. The G77 request for impact evaluations of the stealing of resources from development to fund coordination has, as far as I know, not yet been replied to.

    Just compare: what percentage of time of the management of the department of Health is spent in coordination with the department of Education in the US? In any other developed nation? Perhaps this empirical evidence should be taken on board before embarking on another quest for Holistic approach.

    Indeed, if you want to get something done, you must take your environment into account. Like a bird in a flock, there is no general steering mechanism, only local actors reacting on local feedback. In the real world too, division of labour is not a top down coordination, but a bottom up approach.

    Sam Gardner

    November 12, 2011 at 2:12 am

    • You are right that the mandates of the different agencies were designed to be distinct, but they have evolved over time and out of necessity considering that the issues they address are much more closely interrelated than say government ministries are. To illustrate this just take a grossly oversimplified look at a few mandates: UNICEF (children and women), UN Women (women and gender), UNFPA (family planning – strongly related to children and women), UNDP (poverty – much of which is related to children and women), WFP (food mainly for the poor), WHO (health – a lot of which is related to women and children’s health and poverty), UNESCO (education – a lot to do with children). It’s clearer here that there is a greater need for coherence to avoid these mandates tripping up over each other.

      That said I agree with you that we also need to look at the evidence of when/how this works in practice, and co-ordinate when it makes sense to do so – and looking for evidence on this will be part of my new job. I also agree that co-ordination that emerges bottom up from mutual benefit might well work more effectively than top down in many circumstances – although I see both approaches as been needed – the trick being knowing when to use or encourage one or the other – a topic for a future blog post I think!

      Ian Thorpe

      November 12, 2011 at 8:08 am

      • However, UNICEF has a good list of evidence based activities without overlap with the others where they could spend happily all their core funding. Meanwhile, to keep growing, institutions tend to expand not only their activities within their field, but also explore greener pastures, where others have a mandate.

        This brings us to another issue: what if one of the organisations is way more efficient in addressing an issue than another one (even with a stronger mandate). Letting them compete works in practice, but somewhat “feels” wrong (e.g. maternal mortality co-covered by WHO, UNFPA and UNICEF). Coordination does nothing to weed out inefficiency.

        It is complex, and I find the discussions in the boards and at the UN on this issue rather simplistic (although I promote the expression “core contributions is the bedrock”, as I was always a fan of Fred Flintstone).

        The donors keep funding whatever at whatever efficiency, with whatever results, and so keep driving uncoordinated and even bad aid. I think that the transparency movement can provide with a cue, with activities shared in standard format at the moment of formulation, so other actors can adapt their work, or join up, before coordination is needed.

        What is important is to change the political economy. The current system provides incentives for sitting in coordination meetings and poach each others’money outside of the meeting. Incentives for results instead of activities should be created.

        Sam Gardner

        November 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm

  3. The heart, however, is fickle. I have always been overwhelmed by the fact that it seems glaringly obvious that we need to work well together, both for the sake of the luckless civil servants in Governments we all work with, and for the sake of those we are working for (in UNICEF’s case, the children). Yet the heart quails under the reluctance of so many to “share”, the desire among so many to “win” in cooperation, and the automatic response to counter reluctance with paperwork, structures and guidance notes (which can also hide inaction).
    I remain even more convinced that if we want to work together, we will work together (regardless of whether or not we have plans of action, codes of conduct, 180 degree assessments, or any other paraphanelia) and vice versa, no matter how many systems we set up, the horse will only drink when it is thirsty.
    So we should spend time getting to know and trust each other, not filling out matrices. A former UNDG head/UNDP Administrator said he had expected an UNDAF to be written over a weekend by heads of agencies with only a case of wine as a tool. Tongue in cheek it may have been, but succinctly summarises what cooperation can and should be:people, not process. Another senior UN official once said that “being an RC means having a large car-park and a box of biscuits” – again, the idea of convening, bringing together and welcoming. That was a decade or two ago, however. Nowadays a logframe might be more useful than the biscuits.

    Mark Hereward

    November 19, 2011 at 2:59 pm

  4. Creating the space to prioritize the ‘heart’ is really challenging. With some much time dedicated to the pursuit of logic and systems, the heart is what takes the most time and is the most difficult to persuade others of it’s importance. For example, I can easily make a concrete argument as to why more funding should be pushed toward developing monitoring and evaluation or knowledge management systems and get some support from the organization, but try to emphasize the need for our HQ-based staff to spend more time with our beneficiaries, and all the sudden I’ve disrupted everyone’s ability to perform their day-to-day tasks. Everyone knows it’s important, but it’s hard to justify the time/energy that’s necessary to make it happen.

    Whitney Kippes (@Ms_Kippes)

    December 13, 2011 at 9:08 am

    • @whitney thanks for the comment. It is indeed relatively easy to make a logical case for investing in M&E and KM, but as I have found out the hard way, it’s much harder to turn acceptance of the logical argument into resources, and more importantly commitment of leadership to make it happen – probably because they need to believe in it and care about it, not just accept that it is logically correct. In that sense – in my own experience at least – it’s not so different from promoting better beneficiary/stakeholder dialogue.

      Of course ideally stakeholder dialogue would be an essential component of both M&E and KM if they are done well since who knows better about whether a programme is working than the people it is intended to benefit. It seems in both cases we need to find ways not only to make a good argument – but also to get people to care about it too.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 13, 2011 at 9:20 am

  5. […] wrote in a previous post about the need to use the heart, not just the mind when trying to improve the coordination of the UN’s work (or for any co-ordination […]

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