Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Managing Incoherence: The Coordination and Empowerment Conundrum

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Managing Incoherence: The Coordination and Empowerment Conundrum

Article excerpt

Governments increasingly must contend with major forces pulling in diametrically opposite directions. Some of the forces are largely the result of their own policies, but others are not. Regardless of their origin, these two sets of forces compete with one another.: Centripetal forces, unleashed by those wishing to reinvent government, pushing the center of government to decentralize decision making to empower managers and front-line employees; and centrifugal forces calling on the center to strengthen its capacity to coordinate policy development and implementations - and even government operations.

Our purpose in this article is to identify these competing forces and report on how, and how well, governments - particularly the American government - are dealing with them. We look mainly to the United States experience, in part because the competing forces are readily apparent there but also because we were able to secure information from key decision makers on how they are dealing with the situation.(1) Vice President Gore's report of the National Performance Review (NPR) took aim at various constraints to solid management. The need to empower government employees is a recurring theme of the report (From Red Tape to Results, 1993). The chapter headings tell the tale: Cutting Red Tape, Empowering Employees to Get Results, and Cutting Back to Basics. Sufficient time has now elapsed to review the report's implementation (Kettl, 1994).

At the same time as the Clinton administration is moving ahead with the implementation of the NPR report, it is also coming face to face with a number of forces pointing to the need for a stronger capacity for central policy direction and control. The rise of policy issues that cut across departmental or agency lines, a difficult fiscal situation, public complaints over overlap and duplications in government programs, and the challenges of the global economy suggest the need for a strong policy and program coordination capacity at the center. One can easily see tensions, if not outright contradictions, in pursuing both sets of ideas simultaneously.

The government of the United States is an excessively complex and often incoherent governing system. There are extreme structural divisions in American government. Divisions exist between the three coordinate branches of government as well as within each institution. One could argue, indeed, many already have, that the American system of governance was designed purposefully to be incoherent, to be incapable of producing efficient and effective governance in all but the most extreme cases. These divisions within the system are magnified by public skepticism about government and its capacity to manage the tasks with which it is charged. Accordingly, any lessons learned about how Americans are coping with the tensions between centrifugal and centripetal forces should be welcomed in other countries with less-extreme structural divisions in their governing systems.

Sources of Incoherence

The vast number of programs run by the governments of industrialized democracies and the competitive and conflicting goals of those programs create a complex web of interaction between state and society. If we apply the usual litany of "interests, ideas and institutions" used in comparative political analysis, we find that changes in all three variables point toward greater incoherence and the consequent need for greater coordination (Hall, 1986). First, private sector interest groups seeking benefits from government have, if anything, grown more demanding, given the increasingly fragmented nature of single-issue politics in many countries, formalized processes of consultation, and the perception of zero-sum politics in the face of fiscal constraints.

A number of institutional reforms in major democratic systems tend to fragment government and make coordination more difficult. The most obvious example of this pattern is the creation of instrumentalities, such as the Next Steps agencies in the United Kingdom and Special Operating Agencies in Canada, that disaggregate large ministerial structures into a host of smaller organizations, each with enhanced autonomy. …

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