Coordination for competition: an enterprise-management approach to national security
28 Oct 2019|

The re-emergence of multipolarity in international affairs has reinvigorated our focus on great-power competition. The world of global relations is a complex adaptive system in which unpredictable interactions produce new challenges that we struggle to understand, much less counter, in a timely manner. If Australia is to compete effectively in this environment, agility, collaboration and a shared understanding will be required at all levels across the national security enterprise.

The threats to our national security cut across constitutional, departmental and legal boundaries. Blurred lines can create the ‘grey zone’ that potential adversaries will try to exploit. These challenges aren’t new, and Australia’s national security apparatus has proved highly adaptive in protecting the nation from similar threats. Nonetheless, much like the spectre of terrorism forced reconsideration of our approach to national security almost two decades ago, it is probably time for a similar review and adjustment to ensure Australia is best prepared to deal with contemporary security challenges.

There’s a tension within the national security enterprise between horizontal collaboration and vertical accountability. Change will require new incentives and accountabilities focused on using whole-of-enterprise capabilities through interdepartmental coordination and integration within a common strategic framework. An increased focus on whole-of-government outcomes provides an impetus for cultural change. However, structural change will probably be required to reinforce such a cultural shift.

The establishment of the Department of Home Affairs is a good example of the federal government’s willingness to introduce new structures to enhance Australia’s national security outcomes. But there’s scope for more integration across agencies to focus and align their collective efforts in responding to evolving challenges.

The next iteration of the national security enterprise should reimagine interagency networking in ways that connect silos rather than break stovepipes. Central to this could be mechanisms for coordination that are designed to enable effective competition with potential adversaries through a ‘team of teams’ approach.

The Secretaries Committee on National Security is the interdepartmental mechanism for synthesising and presenting information to the National Security Committee of Cabinet. It plays a vital role in recommending national security priorities and approaches. But whole-of-enterprise synchronisation and a culture of interdepartmental collaboration can’t be achieved solely through this forum.

The concept of a national security adviser has baggage in Australia, and our system of government is unsuited to an American-style advisory role. Yet, the demise of the position in 2013 was a missed opportunity to build on whole-of-government efforts to channel the diffuse components of national power. While the American version has its flaws, the new challenges facing our national security apparatus potentially require a fresh look at the need for an appropriately resourced and empowered national security advisory function.

To suit Australian conditions, these staff could be led by a national security coordinator, a title that probably better reflects our requirement. This individual would offer national security advice, but their primary responsibility would be as the head of a team authorised to coordinate interdepartmental activity and ensure alignment across the national security enterprise.

The establishment of the Office of the Pacific within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is an important step towards improved cross-functional cooperation. The office is charged with ‘enhanc[ing] whole-of-government coordination [to] support Australia’s efforts to develop even closer ties with the Pacific’. However, its location inside a line agency gives the office ambiguous whole-of-enterprise authority and, while it will almost certainly provide enhanced interagency collaboration, it may not be the way to realise ideal interdepartmental coordination.

The 2017 review of the Australian intelligence community identified a need for greater coordination across agencies to deal with renewed competition and rivalry between major global powers. It also recognised that coordination requires bureaucratic heft and recommended the appointment of an experienced departmental secretary to the newly formed Office of National Intelligence to lead the coordination effort through an enterprise-management approach. This is a particularly salient recommendation when considering what a national security coordinator might look like.

The intelligence review acknowledged that the national intelligence community wasn’t broken. Rather than root-and-branch reform, it aimed ‘to provide a pathway to take those areas of individual agency excellence to an even higher level of collective performance through strengthening integration across Australia’s national intelligence enterprise’. Similarly, an enterprise-management function across the national security apparatus could restyle our highly capable departments as a world-class national security enterprise. The result would be an enterprise postured to maximise the use of all elements of national power to compete effectively in this new era of great-power competition.

The development of a national security strategy to sit at the apex of our policy framework might provide an opportunity to apply this approach. It could articulate Australia’s theory of security in a period of increasing uncertainty. It could also facilitate interdepartmental cooperation and collaboration, as successful drafting would require a cross-functional staff headed by an appropriately senior officer.

The drafting team would need the expertise and bureaucratic clout to ensure that a bold vision for Australia’s national security was pragmatically balanced with the need to gain whole-of-enterprise buy-in. This starts to look like the interdepartmental national security staff discussed above: trusted agents of their parent agencies, but collaborative and forward-looking enough to avoid departmental parochialism.

Australia has created effective joint interagency taskforces to address specific national security concerns before (Operation Sovereign Borders and RAMSI are two examples). But this proposal is about institutionalising the approach across government on a permanent basis, recognising that the demarcation between foreign and domestic threats in this new era of competition isn’t clear. The prospect of shared national security budgets is probably a long way off, but shared understanding, synchronisation of effort and unity of response could be prioritised now through an appropriately resourced enterprise-management function.

Harnessing the means to compete in the grey zone requires effective interdepartmental coordination. Strengthening our national security apparatus through an enterprise approach to deal with contemporary and emergent threats provides this. It also ensures coherence across the national security apparatus should competition transition to conflict.