Cross‐level coordination among international organizations: Dilemmas and practices

AuthorValentina Mele,Giulia Cappellaro
Date01 December 2018
Published date01 December 2018
Cross-level coordination among international
organizations: Dilemmas and practices
Valentina Mele | Giulia Cappellaro
Department of Social and Political Sciences,
Bocconi University, Milan, Italy
Valentina Mele, Department of Social and
Political Sciences, Bocconi University, via
Roentgen 1, Milan 20136, Italy.
Funding information
SDA Bocconi School of Management, Grant/
Award Number: OCAP Grant 2013
This article contributes to the understanding of inter-agency coor-
dination among international organizations, conceived as interna-
tional public administrations (IPAs). We adopt a practice-based
approach to study the dilemmas of coordination across levels of
government in the empirical setting of United Nations agencies
involved in field-level development activities. Based on elite inter-
views in both pilot countries and agency headquarters, comple-
mented by extensive archival analysis, we track the emergence of a
specific type of coordination dilemma that has been understudied,
that is, the dilemma of inter- and intra-agency coordination. We
identify two sets of coordinating practices that aided in balancing
the dilemma, that is, systemic thinkingand jointly mobilizing
resources and consensus, and we discuss the organizational factors
mediating the perception of each set of practices.
The awareness that complex and interdependent societal problems require integrated public solutions (Roberts
2000) has granted sustained currency to a broad stream of literature focused on the collaborative imperative
(Bingham and OLeary 2006; Thompson and Perry 2006). This literature asserts the need to move beyond boundary-
based solutions, which are considered out of sync with 21st century problems(Kettl 2006, p. 13), through shared
arrangements (for a review, see Emerson et al. 2012) either across sectors (Bryson et al. 2006; Ansell and Gash 2008)
or among public agencies (Bardach 1998; Thomas 2003; OToole and Meier 2004; Askim et al. 2011; Bel and
Warner 2015).
Considering that most of our current societal problems are interdependent and can rarely be addressed by a
focus on individual countries, international organizations (IOs) have been entrusted with the explicit mandate of tack-
ling these problems by developing a multilateral approach. Over time, scholarsin large part from the disciplinary
quarters of international relationshave conceived the capacity of IOs to tackle complex problems primarily as a
function of their ability to achieve agreement among member countries. Such a perspective, in line with the tradi-
tional state ontology that has characterized the study of IOs for several decades, overlooks the organizational chal-
lenges associated with the implementation of integrated solutions as well as the practices that may help in managing
those challenges. This is precisely the focus of our study.
We build on scholarship that has analysed IOs as organizations (Ness and Brechin 1988; Barnett and Finnemore
1999; Baccaro and Mele 2011, 2012) and more specifically as public organizations (for a review, see Trondal 2007,
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12525
736 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2018;96:736752.
2011, 2016). Similar to what happens in domestic settings, studies focused on IOs have acknowledged that the deliv-
ery of integrated solutions requires overcoming fragmentation and siloed thinking (Trondal et al. 2010) through coor-
dination or the alignment of interdependent activities to accomplish a collective organizational task (Jarzabkowski
et al. 2012). Within the scholarly debate on inter-agency relationships in modern political-administrative systems,
coordination perspective focuses specifically on how to create more consistency among decisions horizontally as well
as vertically (Egeberg and Trondal 2016) by leveraging the administrative capacity of agencies (Thompson and Perry
2006). However, coordination is likely to activate a series of tensions that, taken as a whole, make such harmonized
activities oscillate between the search for integration and maintaining the participantsautonomy. The picture is com-
plicated by the so-called coordination dilemma: efforts aimed at increasing coordination at one level are often
deemed incompatible with coordination across levels (Egeberg and Trondal 2016).
The setting of our study is the United Nations (UN) system, a compound bureaucracy (Trondal et al. 2010) char-
acterized by fragmentation among its subunits. As an independent UN evaluation reports, the UN was assembled
through a historic process of creating separate but overlapping mandates or fragments, which have not yet been
brought together in a coherent manner(UN Independent Report 2012, p. 6, emphasis added). Against this backdrop,
system-wide coherence has been cyclically addressed by the UN, and, since the early 2000s, has scored very highly
on the UN reform agenda (Ghebali and Tortora 2007), especially in the context of operational activities for develop-
ment (von Freiesleben 2008). Development activities are crucial for the UN, for they engage over 30 UN agencies
and benefit approximately 90 recipient countries (UN Secretary General Report 2016).
The empirical context of our study is Delivering as One (DaO), a UN initiative aimed at achieving system-wide
coordination in field-level development activities. First tested in eight volunteer pilot countries, DaO is currently
undertaking a significant scaling-up process. However, the efforts aimed at reducing fragmentation within the UN
system have been hampered by incoherence and hierarchy within individual organizations, resulting in an explicit
trade-off between inter-agency, system-level coordination and intra-agency coordination (Hanrieder 2015a). Based
on 84 elite interviews with staff working both in the pilot countries and in several agency headquarters as well as
extensive archival analysis, the article distils the main traits of the specific type of coordination dilemma that emerged
from the early implementation of the DaO reform. It identifies two sets of cross-level coordinating practices, sys-
temic thinkingand jointly mobilizing resources and consensus, which aid in balancing the trade-off between inter-
agency and intra-agency coordination. The article further discusses the organizational factors that alter the percep-
tion of effectiveness of each set of practices on the original trade-off, three of which amplify it (non-resident status,
small specialized statusand politically sensitive mandate) and one that reduces it (strong brand).
Together, the results from this study contribute to the literature on inter-agency coordination and specifically on
the coordination dilemma by advancing a practice-based approach to the everyday effort of coordinating.
2.1 |International organizations and fragmentation
Two opposite stances have animated an intense and protracted debate on the nature of IOsthat is, the one
between rational-choice intergovernmental theory and functionalism (for a synthesis, see Mathiason 2007,
pp. 615). A third stream of research informed by sociological institutionalism has started to analyse IOs as
The extensive literature on inter-agency relations does not agree unanimously on terminology, drawing as it does from a wide vari-
ety of perspectives. As a consequence, terms that are frequently cited interchangeably include cooperation (Busuioc 2016), network
management (Ansell and Gash 2008; Ospina and Saz-Carranza 2010), inter-agency collaboration (Vangen and Huxham 2012) and
coordination (Egeberg and Trondal 2016). While acknowledging the variety of perspectives on the theme, we employ the term coor-
dination(Egeberg and Trondal 2016) to refer specifically to the deliberate and orderly alignment or adjustment of agenciesactions
to achieve jointly determined goals (Gulati et al. 2012).

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