Interagency Collaboration: Implications of a Common Alignment of World Regions among Select Federal Agencies

GAO-11-776R Published: Jul 11, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 11, 2011.
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To carry out complex national security initiatives--such as combating illicit financing of terrorist activities, undertaking development projects in conflict zones, and countering piracy off the Horn of Africa--U.S. government agencies must coordinate with a large number of organizations in their planning efforts. Our prior work on the federal government's national security initiatives has determined that U.S. agencies face a number of challenges to effectively collaborating with one another, potentially resulting in gaps and overlaps in policy implementation. In particular, we have found that agencies face challenges to developing overarching strategies to achieve common goals, creating effective mechanisms for operating across agencies, and sharing sensitive information. For example, our work has shown that the Department of State (State) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have different planning time frames than the Department of Defense (DOD), which poses a challenge for the three organizations. This report summarizes and formally transmits the enclosed briefing in response to Section 1055 of the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011, which required us to examine the need for and implications of a common alignment of world regions in the internal organization of federal departments and agencies with international responsibilities, specifically the Department of Commerce (Commerce), DOD, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (Justice), State, the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), USAID, and the agencies comprising the intelligence community. To address the mandate, we organized our review into the following three objectives: (1) describe how federal departments and agencies are geographically organized to address their international responsibilities, whether they share a common geographic alignment, and their rationales for their alignments; (2) examine agencies' views on the advantages and disadvantages of a common geographic alignment, and whether there are obstacles to implementing a common alignment; and (3) assess challenges, if any, to interagency collaboration, including those related to different geographic alignments, and measures agencies have taken to overcome those challenges.

Global geographic alignments differ among agencies, which have a variety of rationales for how they are organized and aligned in different regions of the world. To address their international responsibilities, DOD, State, USAID, and certain intelligence agencies are organized by geographic region. These agencies also have functional components or issue-based offices that serve across all geographic regions. The other four agencies we reviewed--Commerce, DHS, Justice, and Treasury--have missions that are predominantly domestic in nature, and are organized primarily by functions or issues; however, these agencies also have some offices and components that are organized geographically. Moreover, we determined that, in northern Africa and southwest Asia, DOD, State, and USAID have alignments that are notably different from one another. Officials we interviewed from all of the agencies stated that the rationale behind their current alignment is related to achieving agency-specific mission objectives. Several agencies also cited other rationales, such as cultural, historical, or economic connections among countries, or the need to balance workloads within the agencies. All of the agencies indicated that they need the flexibility to reorganize their geographic alignments to better meet mission requirements. Four agencies identified advantages to a common geographic alignment. Three of these agencies pointed to DOD's creation of U.S. Africa Command as an advantage of a common alignment because it improved the coordination among a DOD combatant command, State, and USAID. However, these three agencies--in addition to Commerce, DHS, and Treasury--also identified disadvantages to having a common geographic alignment. For example, State officials indicated that realigning State's regional bureaus to look like DOD's combatant commands could lead international partners to view this step as emphasizing a military approach towards U.S. diplomacy. Commerce, DHS, and Justice identified specific obstacles to changing their alignments, such as the potential need to increase personnel or retrain staff, because the agencies are tailored in size and expertise to their current regional responsibilities. In examining interagency collaboration challenges in northern Africa and southwest Asia, we found that the different geographic alignment among DOD, State, and USAID does not appear to be a significant factor. However, we also found that agencies continue to face collaboration challenges, consistent with those that we have identified in our prior work, and that agencies are taking some steps to address such challenges. Our prior work identified challenges to interagency collaboration, such as the lack of a comprehensive strategy and milestones for counterterrorism activities in northern Africa, the lack of clear agency roles and responsibilities for undertaking counterpiracy operations, and problems in creating a database of development projects in Afghanistan that is accessible to all relevant agencies. During this review, agencies identified similar challenges, including differences among agency cultures and planning processes, and difficulties in developing consensus around competing priorities. We also found that State, DOD, USAID, and others are taking some steps to address interagency collaboration challenges by elevating the importance of interagency collaboration in their strategic plans and through other measures. For example, U.S. Central Command embeds civilian personnel into its command structure and stated that a "whole of government" approach is integral to the command's operational design. We are not making new recommendations based on this review, because many of the examples of interagency collaboration challenges that we identified are similar to those that we have identified in prior work. Agencies generally agreed with the recommendations from our prior work, and have taken steps to implement some of them.

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