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Black Box Magic: Whole of Government Coordination Made Easy! September 2, 2010

Posted by Laura A. Hall in Analysis.
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By Laura A. Hall

The continuing quest for answers to how the United States can do a better job in operations like Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in a lot of bureaucratic soul searching, some actual changes and improvements, and lots of spilled ink.  The QDDR and QDR continue to deal with the challenges of civ-mil coordination and interagency operations.  It seems, sometimes, there’s nothing new left to be said.  However, an article in Forbes online manages to demonstrate that absent leadership and real decisions on future structures and resources, there are still many bad ideas to be had.

It’s Big Business

The first head-scratcher is why an article like this appears in Forbes.  But perhaps this makes sense as contracts  have sustained many institutions as this cottage industry has developed.  Training, analysis, research, and even direct implementation of reconstruction and stabilization assistance have been a boon for contractors and academics.  The year-old program to train civilian deployers to Afghanistan alongside the Indiana National Guard – with which the authors’ university is associated – is a welcome advancement.  However much this provides interesting work for local Afghan role players and for academic contractors, this narrowly focused effort to train deployers for a specific conflict should not be extrapolated to the management of all operations in the future.

More is More Better?

The main confusion in this article is its promotion of a “whole of government approach.”  Whole of government (WoG) is not a strategy, a doctrine, or a management process for how to prepare, plan, or conduct reconstruction and stabilization operations.  It is simply a phrase acknowledging that there are multiple actors whose skills may be applicable.  It describes a “supply” not a “demand.”  DOD has been mixing a “WoG kool-aid” over many years about getting all the civilian parts government on task behind the military because they were overburdened by tasks that were civilian in nature.  There is a clear need for additional civilian capabilities, but it is not clear that a greater number of players is necessarily better.  In fact, the WoG focus has distracted from efforts to empower and invest in the lead development agency USAID and has introduced additional policy players into already-difficult operations.

Military Might Does Not Make Right

Clearly the proximity to Muscatatuck has clouded the authors’ views as they propose that the lead U.S. government organization for conducting reconstruction operations should be the National Guard.  The authors propose that the Guard lead and staff “cores of national centers for Whole of Government” that would coordinate planning and operations that include actors from across the U.S. government and internationally.  The first problem is that this idea flies in the face of civilian authority over foreign policy, not to mention recent experiences.  The military needs to return to its roles of combat, peacekeeping operations, and security for civilians and should not lead or coordinate broader policy and planning.

The second challenge is the fact that in most places the U.S. military will not be deploying its combat troops.  Calling up the National Guard for an operation in Haiti, Congo, Sudan, or Bangladesh would be politically unthinkable absent a serious commitment of combat forces.  The requirement for civilian capabilities is clear and enduring for places where U.S. combat forces will not be present.

The capabilities of individual guard personnel are certainly potentially applicable and the Administration would be wise to institutionalize models used in Iraq and Afghanistan that deployed Guard and Reserve personnel in civilian roles and under civilian authority.  But focusing on creating military capabilities crowds out interest and funding for civilian capabilities.

Black Box Magic

Finally, the article provides a graphic on “the WoG approach,” mixing an organization chart and a process chart.  This graphic does include all relevant actors – U.S. departments, host country, multinational, NGOs, allies – but oversimplifies coordination and management challenges by simply showing lines converging into a box labeled “whole of government.”  From this box emerges a mix of reconstruction and operational management activities that lead to stability and prosperity.

This implies a doctrine of full-scale rebuilding of all aspects of a host country in a full-on occupation.  Not only are there limited resources and attention for such operations, but it also prevents development of local capacity.  The box also is labeled “shared interests,” a condition which rarely exists among so many actors.

Most spectacularly, coordination challenges are wished away with this simple WoG box.  What happens in that box?  Who is in charge within it?  How does it produce effective policy implementation?  Those who have spent the last six years trying to develop real ways of coordinating and managing interagency and multinational operations can attest that co-locating offices or drawing lines around the problems on a chart does not create integration and synchronization of efforts in time, space, and purpose.

The article identifies accurately many components that must be considered in any operation, but successful integration of this wide range of considerations is achieved through leadership, clear decision making and planning processes, sufficient resources.  It also requires a clear doctrine for how to successfully support transition to local ownership and how to create sustainable peace, democratic governance, responsive state institutions, economic development, and the rule of law.  Without these, that WoG black box will only contain the same bureaucratic infighting and stovepiping that vexed early efforts in Iraq.


As fiscal constraints and public impatience pressure policymakers to reduce overseas commitments, “whole of government” approaches and massive interventions are less likely.  It is incumbent on the Administration and Congress to determine better ways to ensure effective operations.  This will request investment of real leadership in enduring civilian capabilities and better management practices and well as in international burdensharing.


The views of the author are not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State.



1. Concerned Citizen - September 8, 2010

Wow, the State Department and Ms. Hall are so defensive — seems to be sour grapes on their parts.
Wasn’t it just a few years ago that State Department employees were protesting assignments to dangerous places; so how are they going to rebuild those places long distance?
I read the Forbes analysis too and found it a sensible and much needed antidote to the territorial squabbles that govern Washington DC.

2. Laura A. Hall - September 8, 2010
3. Ex-Fieldhand - September 16, 2010

I recall a State Dept briefing under Condi Rice in which diplomats were protesting assignments to place like Iraq as death sentences. Seems they can’t stand the heat.
Also, didn’t the State Dept just ask for $400 million to pay private security contractors for protection during the upcoming reconstruction there? Why not use our military instead of wasting more of the American taxpayers earnings?
You write about the US military as though it acts subversively rather than as the very valuable resource it is. You seem to be clinging to and perpetuating Washington turf wars.
Shouldn’t the various departments of our government work together? That’s what the authors of the piece you criticized are suggesting. How can that be wrong — it saves US lives, resources, and time.

4. No Civilian Left Behind: Educating the Elusive “Interagency” « The Will and the Wallet - October 6, 2010

[…] that helped them rise through the ranks.” Education is only part of the solution to ensuring effective interagency operations.  Without leadership, clear processes for decision making and planning, and shared operational […]

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