Offshore crisis response requires a higher level of multiagency interconnectedness than ever before. However, the data overload that we all face in the Information Age inhibits networking as much as it facilitates it. To achieve the necessary level of interconnectedness needs individuals and organizations to adopt a completely new way of doing government business.
The British government has adopted the ‘integrated approach’ to differentiate Information Age government from the hierarchical Industrial Age model. The UK Stabilisation Unit, which is a joint program of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Department of Defence, summarised the approach as follows:
‘Integration is forming a single multi-disciplinary and multi-departmental team to take on a task. The task may be planning, it may be designing a programme or it may be delivering a project. When asked to work together government departments generally look to liaise or coordinate, to retain their own teams whilst negotiating with other departments. Experience from the field has shown in the complex, fast moving and highly pressurised environment of conflict this does not work. The transactional costs are too high.’
It won’t be easy to achieve such connectivity—government bureaucracies are inherently resistant to change—but the lessons of effective civilian–military–policing integration derived from nearly two decades of constant operations indicate that Australia is well placed to provide a global lead. The high educational standards of our personnel, our strong operational record and the scalable nature of our offshore crisis capabilities suggest that, if any country is able to achieve an integrated approach to effective offshore operations, it’s Australia.
Simply put, Australia’s crisis response capabilities are big enough to be effective but small enough to be efficient. The challenge that government faces is in maintaining a level of preparedness among all of its personnel to enable a joined-up response from the outset of a crisis. Too often in the past, our response to international crises was uneven as different arms of government responded in uncoordinated ways. One of the reasons for this lies in the fact that different government departments and agencies inevitably maintain different levels of preparedness for offshore responses. Contemporary crises arise suddenly, and require greater levels of readiness from a more diverse ‘team of teams’ than in the past.
As the operational tempo has increased over the past two decades, Western democracies have been heavily reliant on the intelligence, flexibility and commitment of civilian planners, crisis responders and diplomats. But these constant demands and the impact of workplace churn have stretched our human capital to the point that civilian capacity is the weakest link in our crisis response frameworks. Henry Kissinger’s observation about the degree of preparation required for senior appointments rings true, as the demands of adaptive leadership require the delegation of policy and decision-making to ever more junior personnel. Kissinger suggested that:
‘It is an illusion to think that leaders gain in profundity while they gain experience … the convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital that they will consume as long as they continue in office. There is little time for leaders to reflect. They are locked in an endless battle in which the urgent constantly gains on the important.’
To privilege the ‘important’, government needs to inoculate its staff against the attractions of just ‘working’ a crisis rather than seeking to resolve it.
Our world has changed and the business of national security preparedness has too. The warning times that we previously enjoyed in the strategic deadlock of the later Cold War have been replaced by the fluidity of the Information Age, where a truck driven by a mentally ill zealot acting outside a traditional command structure can become an instrument of mass-casualty terrorism.
To respond more effectively to the rapid pace of change, we need to learn how to let go of controls that no longer assist in resolving issues. A notable redundant legacy is the rigid command and control structures that suited the requirements of the Industrial Age, but that are of less use when dealing with Information era complexity. At the same time, we need to invest in higher levels of preparedness, so that we’re more able to respond rapidly and effectively to unexpected events. We also need to develop levels of shared consciousness across government to enable the right people to take charge when they need to. Those people will often not be the senior leaders. As short-notice contingencies transition into protracted crises, our responses need to be sufficiently nuanced to adapt to changing circumstances.
An adaptive, learning system of government will recognise what we have long protested: ‘People are our greatest asset’. Our administrative settings need to be away from centralised authority and decision-making, towards systems of governance in which people understand national priorities, appreciate their role in achieving those objectives and feel trusted to do the right thing.
This objective isn’t a utopian ideal, but our models of recruitment, organisation, professional development and knowledge-sharing are currently unequal to the task. Achieving the effectiveness and efficiencies required of Information Age government requires far greater investment in preparedness. We can no longer rely on ‘just-in-time’ ad hoc responses. That’s how offshore operations with initially limited objectives become decade-long commitments. Australian government institutions must:
- apply leadership that adapts to the fact that power and knowledge are ever more diffuse
- decentralise decision-making
- devolve authority
- integrate learning cycles in core functions
- develop a higher level of institutional resilience than we could ever have imagined possible
The old rules of centralised planning and public administration no longer apply. We require joined-up government that meets the requirements of a complex age. We need to trust—and we need to reconceptualise what leadership looks like when traditional hierarchies are an anachronism.