What Systems Engineering can teach us about institutional coordination

A critical part in a value chain is not addressed.

A major project is left unfinished. 

A community is not well served.

These are cascading effects of lack of proper coordination, one of the major problems facing governing systems worldwide.

In fact, if you watch TV or log on Twitter, it is not rare to find discussions on this topic.

Why don’t these institutions work together? Why didn’t he consult his colleagues before making that decision? This is poor coordination! To many commentators, all the above can be avoided if concerned institutions or individuals find a way to consult each other, work together or simply know what each other is doing.

One way to understand how coordination works is to use the same principle used in Systems Engineering.

In engineering, a system is a group of elements that, when put together, accomplish a task that could not be accomplished by the individual elements. These elements, called subsystems, must not only work as expected, but also provide their contribution in a carefully coordinated manner to accomplish the entire system’s primary mission.

Systems Engineering is, simply put, the art of making things work together.

Any systems project begins with clearly defining a mission.

Once a mission is broken down into sub – missions, subsystems can be designed.

While it is relatively easy to build functional sub-systems, a lot of thought and planning go into designing interfaces and communication protocols between them.

The idea is to avoid having highly functional subsystems that will struggle to work as a unit.

The same theory can be applied to institutional coordination or horizontal government since public entities are essentially systems built around a specific theme or mission.

Countries have a vision of what they would want to achieve in a defined amount of time. The vision is then reflected in different sectoral policies and strategies which are implemented by mission – linked institutions that are usually part of one entity or ministry.

However, as issues become more multidimensional, it is not uncommon to find institutions from different ministries working to achieve or contribute to a common mission.

In this case, it is important that there is coherence in policy and practice both vertically and horizontally. For instance, in order to achieve all education – related outcomes, it takes all institutions in the ministry of education but also a close collaboration with technology, health, and early childhood development entities.

Going back to the Systems Engineering analogy, once all user requirements have been considered, a mission is defined in terms of complete value chains.

This allows for each subsystem to be assigned a specific portion of the value chain and appropriate resources. It is important to note that, higher attention is given to the overall mission compared to individual subsystems.

Governing systems mimic this by allocating resources to missions of strategic importance and evidence-based reforms.

During this process, mission – linked institutions plan together and produce a plan on how each one will work to achieve the mission and share resources.

The “unity in planning and diversity in delivery” method eliminates overlaps, ensures all mission-critical stages are covered while keeping each institution’s autonomy.

Once the mission is well defined, tasks and resources allocated, final testing done, things should go according to plan.

But of course, real life is much more complicated than that, because, humans! It has been observed that organizations that are closest in terms of services they offer can be the most difficult to coordinate because they tend to fight over the same policy and or budgetary turf. 

This fight may be attributed to pressure to perform and be seen performing, misplaced interests, neglect of the mission or simply, lack of sufficient capacity.

This type of competition takes away from the mission as it tends to solidify each institution’s position rather than fostering new ideas and creative approaches to delivering.

In electrical systems, some designs have a supervisory circuit whose job is to ensure each subsystem has enough resources to accomplish its tasks, checks system-wide communication and resolves errors.

This type of supervisory control has two important characteristics – it’s generally low power as to not compete with other subsystems for resources and has the right access.

In the same way, institutions in charge of coordination need to be nimble and placed at an appropriate vantage point to allow them to quickly avail opportunities and correct mistakes in the benefit of the mission.

It is clear that the mission transcends individuals. This is an understanding that, within a system, a mission is not accomplished because some subsystem performed as expected or even exceeded expectations in isolation.

The mission is only accomplished when each entity brings expected contribution, communicates and effectively collaborates with others. In such a system, emphasis is on mission outcomes, not individual performance.

Because in the end, it doesn’t matter if, on paper, a cellphone has a very good antenna if it drops calls or can’t connect in a time of need.

Twitter: @gtwagirayezu

The author is an engineer with interests in science and technology policy as well as capacity building.

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