Coordination: Key to the Success of Public Policies

Public policy
Institutions and Development
Politics and Economy

One of the most complicated areas of the political economy of public policy in Latin America is related to the difficulties of coordination. While many policies can be carried out by a ministry or public agency without the need to coordinate with other ministries and agencies, the success of policies in other cases depends on cooperation and coordination. And, unfortunately, this collaborative effort can be very difficult to achieve.

When should public policies be coordinated? In some cases, a ministry needs the cooperation of another ministry to achieve its goals. Think of a tourism ministry, which, in talks with the private sector, identifies the most important obstacles to the development of its sector. To attract foreign tourists, it needs an overseas promotion campaign and training in English for the workers in its sector. The tourism ministry can launch the promotion campaign on its own and dedicate a portion of its budget to it. But it is not responsible for job training. To foster the development of the sector, it needs the collaboration of the ministry of labor, which is in charge of training workers.

In other cases, the problem of coordination may arise because roles overlap when more than one ministry or agency has similar programs. For example, in Argentina, the National Institute for Technical Education (INET), a part of the Ministry of Education, has job training programs. The Ministry of Labor also has them. These programs, targeted at the same population, are not coordinated. Better coordination could allow for savings in program administration and avoid equipment duplication. Moreover, coordination allows for the exploiting of synergies and the leveraging of the different institutions’ comparative advantages.

Another coordination challenge arises when different interventions are directed at the same population group. At times, a target population receives a set of programs in which different elements correspond to different ministries or public agencies. An example is the Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows With You) program, which was first implemented in 2007 and in which three ministries participate: Social Development (which coordinates it), Education and Health. The program includes multiple simultaneous interventions directed at the same population: children between 0-4 who receive education services, public health, and, in the case of the most vulnerable families, targeted benefits.

In certain cases, two agencies can benefit from coordination to achieve their own objectives. For example, Argentina’s Ministry of Social Development is considering opening 5000 child care centers that would allow more mothers to enter the labor market. But how can demand be identified so that centers are deployed in an effective manner? At the same time, the Labor Ministry has employment offices which carry out labor intermediation tasks. But, on occasion, the intermediation fails because potential workers don’t have anywhere to leave their children. Coordinated work between the two agencies makes it possible to locate child care centers effectively. Social Development wins because it sets up its centers where there is demand. Labor wins because the appropriate location of the centers increases the effectiveness of its labor intermediation work. Inter-ministerial cooperation, in this case, can lead to a clear win-win.

Not every policy requires coordination. Conditional cash transfer programs, for example, require coordination between the stimulation of demand that they entail, the supply of education, and primary health care services. But a great many policies don’t require coordination. For example, drawing up primary school curricula is exclusively the task of the Ministry of Education. It doesn’t make sense to coordinate it with other ministries. Moreover, coordination is costly; it requires effort and occupies the “bandwidth” of those responsible for coordinating the policies and the institutions involved. It’s important to identify the tasks that require coordination and not use up that limited bandwidth on policies that clearly correspond to a specific ministry.

Why is policy coordination not seen in adequate quantity and quality? One reason is that at times ministers see their ministries as preserves of power. Coordination means ceding control and can result in a smaller budget or less discretion over how it is spent, because the needs of others have to be taken into account. When those who have the greatest power also have the biggest budgets and the greatest discretion over them, ministers might resist coordinating among themselves, though coordination would generate the greatest benefits for the government and society as a whole.

These incentives to not coordinate only grow when officials are more motivated to accumulate power (for example, to rise in their careers) than to improve the quality of public policies. In these cases, it’s hard for coordination to flow from the bottom up, and a mandate is needed from above (whether the president or the cabinet chief) to force ministers to coordinate. The difficulties only grow if the ministers, or the ministry teams that should coordinate, don’t trust each other. Or when, because they have very different party or professional paths, they speak different languages.

But even when these factors are better aligned, coordination at times doesn’t happen because it takes time and effort. The time invested in coordinating and the loss of autonomy in decisions associated with coordination can reduce the speed of execution, which can be costly for a ministry. For that reason, the need to “manage” at times takes precedence over coordination, even at the cost of the quality of spending.

Despite the challenges, emphasizing coordination and cooperation is key for Latin American governments, given that they make it possible to implement more stable and higher quality public policies. This will be among the themes addressed in a   prepared by the IDB’s Research Department. The course will be launched soon and will analyze in detail coordination initiatives being implemented by the current government in Argentina.

This article was previously published in the Ideas Matters Blog, on March 15, 2017.

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