Cooperation between government agencies remains weak in Arab countries

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Effective government requires agencies to cooperate because modern problems are too complex to be solved by a single department working alone. In the Arab world, such collaboration is often crippled by myopic senior politicians determined to monopolize the credit for a successful project. Addressing this shortcoming will go a long way to improving government performance.

When a person is appointed to head a large government agency, that person should ideally work selflessly to achieve the goals of the agency. Incentives are important, as is the culture and moral scruples of the individual.

Unfortunately, the Arab world is sometimes afflicted with ill-conceived incentives, a culture of self-aggrandizement and poor ethics. The result is that organizational leaders view the agency they lead as their stronghold and as nothing more than a vehicle to showcase their abilities as they seek higher positions in government.

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Such states of affairs have many negative consequences on the performance of the agencies affected. A crucial but overlooked effect is a significant decline in cooperation between these agencies and other government entities.

This is because agency heads have a strong preference for projects where they can take full credit if successful. Partnerships are unattractive because the credit has to be shared – and even worse, a shrewd partner might be able to grab all the credit with a better public relations strategy. Quietly carrying out the agency’s mission is little compensation if there is a toxic culture or a shortage of ethical leaders.

This is one of the reasons why the Arab world is lagging behind in efforts to combat climate change. Reducing a country’s carbon footprint requires cooperation between authorities in charge of energy, transport, environment, trade, etc. When operating in an environment characterized by weak incentives and a negative culture, the head of each of the agencies concerned prefers to work on their projects on a small scale.

A general view shows the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon. (Reuters)

After all, if you’re itching to get promoted, being a big fish in a small pond is more appealing than a small cog in a big machine. The result is anemic progress on complex issues like climate change and a selection of ineffective pet projects monopolized by each agency.

A common remedy is to create inter-agency committees with substantial executive powers, such as the joint commands that the armed forces use to overcome competition between the army, navy and air force.

However, in the Arab world, the dysfunction sometimes runs so deep that the only way for these agencies to function is to appoint a committee head, who then proceeds to absorb the committee into his fiefdom and monopolize the credit for the committee’s success. . Other committee members become disgruntled and drag their feet, seriously undermining the overall performance of the committee.

Enabling inter-agency cooperation is difficult, but the problem of short-sighted agency leadership is relatively simple to remedy. Simply state explicitly and publicly to agency heads that they will share the credit and reject any attempt to monopolize the credit.

This technique is widespread in professional sports. Can you imagine a superstar athlete claiming he was the main reason his team won in a post-game press conference? They would be heralded by the media and laughed at by ordinary people.

Instead, when legends like Lionel Messi score the winning goal in a cup final, they downplay their contribution, take the time to highlight the names of individual teammates who played well, and thank the coach for his advices. Plus, it’s not just empty rhetoric — it’s a true reflection of the sources of victory.

Nintendo’s Mario Party video game features a mini-game called “Slaparazzi”, in which players physically slap each other as they compete for position in front of a photo-taking paparazzi.

Every time I play this game with my children, it reminds me of the metaphorical slaps that leaders of organizations in much of the Arab world indulge in to highlight their achievements.

Our region’s underperformance has many causes, but I confidently say that weak inter-agency cooperation is one of them.

The deadly nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has helped some countries to temporarily overcome this disease, but achieving the Sustainable Development Goals to which all Arab countries have committed requires permanent improvement in this regard. Otherwise, the inter-agency competition over credit will be like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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Disclaimer:
The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not reflect the views of Al Arabiya English.

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