Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Quim Brugué (UAB, IGOP-UAB) R. Canal and P. Payá (IGOP-UAB).

 

Interdepartmental commissions have proliferated over the last two decades, but little is known about the reasons for their appearance, the characteristics of their operation or the effectiveness of their results. The aim of our research is, on the one hand, to take a closer look at this little known phenomenon in the administration, and on the other hand, to do so from an analytical perspective that is anchored in the paradigm of deliberative government.

 

Traditionally, simplification has been used by the government to solve the problems it faces. Thus, each problem should correspond to a specialist, at the same time that a specialized and segmented structure becomes the ideal for the administration. Today, this simplification is no longer adequate to address public issues that are characterized precisely by their innate complexity. The specialized literature uses the term "wicked problems" to refer to these complex issues (not meaning that they are “evil,” but rather that they are extremely difficult to deal with). A segmented and specialized administration cannot handle these problems, since they require the coordination of different areas of expertise, perspectives, and types of resources. In other words, these wicked problems require what could be called deliberative government or collaborative management.

 

To test these initial hypotheses, the paper begins by reviewing relevant theories and basic concepts necessary for the designing of the questions and hypotheses of the study. Thus we start out with the questions: Are interdepartmental commissions, by providing opportunities for interrelation, capable of addressing complex public problems? Does dialogue and interaction that can generate intelligent responses to wicked problems actually occur in interdepartmental commissions?

 

We set out to address these questions by analyzing six case studies, basing our approach on contributions from the field of network management. For each one of the cases, we assessed the impact of five variables which, according to our hypotheses, should explain the better or worse performance of these commissions. Each of the six commissions analyzed aims to address an issue of proven complexity: climate change, territorial planning, water, immigration, family, and gender equality. Regarding the factors that would allow us to assess their ability to create sound policies, we focused on: (1) the way the commission’s objectives were defined (the objectives being more or less shared and accepted by all members), (2) the choice of participants (and the interdependence that should govern their relations), (3) the work dynamics and available resources, (4) the type of relationship among the participants (degree of trust, way of dealing with internal tension, etc.), and finally, (5) the intensity and style of leadership that gave rise to the commission and drove it forward.

 

By examining the empirical evidence, we first of all obtained a deeper understanding of this little-studied reality, and, secondly, we were able to compare these facts with our conceptual approach. In sum, we must conclude that interdepartmental commissions do not work effectively as deliberative spaces and therefore are not able to generate the intelligence needed to address the complex policies that they are aimed at. Part of this failure is due to a poor understanding of what an interdepartmental space is, and as a result, our paper concludes with a proposal of what a transversal space should be and how it should work to achieve more satisfactory results.

 

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