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February 5, 2011

Why social agency coordination is difficult

Reuel S. Amdur

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"Agencies should work together instead of pulling in their separate ways and looking after their own interests. After all, they're here to serve the people, aren't they?" You often hear people making comments like this about social agencies in a community.

Laymen, clients, politicians, and even agency staff express this kind of frustration.  Unfortunately, agencies do not work together more because of serious barriers to closer coordination, not just to lack of good will.

Agencies act as they do for various reasons.  At one level, they act for reasons of survival.  At another, they act in an environment where not only the other agencies but even the rules of the game are constantly changing.  And in any case agencies act in terms of what they know about other agencies and their programs. 

Survival is the first order of business for any organization, both basic survival and maintenance of its size and importance.  As well, agencies have expansion ambitions.  Because there are often no “traffic cops” to control who does what, agencies must look to their own devices to survive and prosper. 

The relations among agencies are like those among nations.  There are wars and peaces, treaties, imperialist powers, weak and strong powers, dominant agencies and satellites.  Agencies, especially weak ones, survive by going to various funding sources and by appealing to the particular slogans popular with funders at the time.  Sometimes, the actions of an agency can only be understood by examining the agency’s needs rather than the needs of the clients. 

Self-interest can get in the way of coordination and can color how agencies see the common good.  As an example, consider the way in which the Red Cross invaded the first aid domain previously in the hands of St. John Ambulance.  A large agency chose to invade the territory of a smaller one, and efforts at negotiation failed because there was no common interest in service.  It was a question of power.  

But self-interest alone is not enough to explain the difficulties in coordination.  Agencies are not only seeking to survive and prosper and to carry out their function in a community with many other agencies.  They are trying to do this while the rules are constantly changing, the agencies with whom they relate are coming, going, and changing, and the priorities of the funding sources are shifting.  In order to get by, the agency has to know which way the wind is blowing and which other agencies might be interested in the same kind of changes it wants.  It has to form shifting alliances with other agencies having common interests at the moment.

The picture is further complicated because in many situations agencies do not know what the others want.  For that matter, they may not even know that some others exist.  The hunt for common purposes is therefore a difficult.  Let’s take a hypothetical example. 

A decision is made to coordinate children’s services.  The big agencies are the public and separate schools and the Children’s Aid Society.  But then other agencies involved are children’s mental health agencies, the Hearing Society, the Diabetes Association, Scouts and Guides, children’s and general hospitals, Association for Community Living, private schools, and so on.  What might coordination mean in this conglomeration?

Why do agencies not cooperate more in planning for the good of the community?  Because they are struggling to survive and prosper.  Because they are operating in a confusing, changing field where they may have difficulty in locating others with congruent interests.  Because they may know little or nothing about some other pertinent agencies.

Because of the importance of knowledge about what exists, information and referral agencies play a vital role in a community.  They collect, store, and constantly update information about services and provide this information in printed form, electronically, and over the phone.  Their function is vital in a complex society such as ours, in helping agencies, professionals, and the general public find their way through the maze of services. 

Perhaps the most likely approach is for funders to reward cooperative efforts among agencies.  I think back to an example of how not to have coordination occur.  Former Ontario Minister of Health Frank Miller was telling a group of social workers about an effort to get hospitals in a particular region to plan jointly for growing needs in the region.  They simply would not do so, so he threw up his hands and gave money for expansion to one of the hospitals.  That was political expediency but definitely not the way to go. 

If we want cooperation, we have to plan for it and nurture it.  It is not just a matter of good will.

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