One rationale for reorganizing government agencies and programs is to reduce conflict and increase coordination. The trend towards increased collaboration is happening against a backdrop of historically stove-piped programs and institutional conflict—between agencies as well as within them. Coordination is viewed as good and conflict as bad. But can interagency conflict be good?
A thought-provoking 2017 California Law Review article by Daniel Farber and Anne Joseph O’Connell documents various types of adversarial relationships that exist between agencies as well as the various mechanisms of conflict resolution.
They write: “We are reluctant to join the celebration of agency coordination, at least not without substantial qualifications. Coordination is not always desirable, or may not be desirable immediately. Conflict among and within agencies can provide substantial political, social welfare, and legitimacy benefits.”
They note that “agencies have different institutional cultures, political allies, or policy priorities that lead to clashes” and that conflict “can be most constructive when they bring differing expertise, information bases, constituencies, and values into policy decisions.”
Their article reminded me of an interesting interagency regulatory conflict that I observed back in the early 1980s while working at the Government Accountability Office. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Food and Drug Administration independently imposed conflicting regulatory requirements on chocolate manufacturers. OSHA insisted the manufacturers install sound baffling to reduce ear-damaging noise from machinery, while FDA insisted on stainless steel machinery to ensure the chocolates were not contaminated with foreign material. Eventually, the newly-created Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the White House Office of Management and Budget was brought in to referee the conflict.
Three Types of Interagency Conflicts
Farber and O’Connell created a typology of three primary forms of interagency conflicts that will sound familiar to many. Interestingly, they conclude that in many of these cases conflict is “a feature not a bug” in program design. They describe three kinds of conflict relationships:
Hierarchical Conflicts. In this set of relationships, one agency is formally subordinate to another, or one agency can effectively overturn another’s decisions in at least a subset of cases. Examples include:
The authors say these types of design choices centralize control, where “the agent brings expertise, and the principal brings control.” They say “For democratic legitimacy, the mechanism of conflict resolution provides clear accountability.”
Conflict in Advisory and Monitoring Relationships. In this set of relationships, one agency has decisional authority but another can exert some degree of influence on a decision. This can create internal checks and balances by generating information to be shared. For examples:
Farber and O’Connell say such relationships work to prevent groupthink and may render administrative decisions more legitimate in the eyes of stakeholders.
Conflicts Between Agencies with Equal Power. In this set of relationships, two agencies have equivalent and overlapping authority, much like the example cited earlier with OSHA, FDA, and the hapless chocolate manufacturers. This results in some degree of competition between agencies. This approach can result in redundancies but has both benefits and costs. For example:
The authors say that Congress is aware of these conflicting jurisdictions and that “this design often results in less accountability but more participation.” They also note that “symmetrical conflict within an agency allows each party to always retain some authority,” and that as a result, interest groups have more difficulty in “capturing” a particular policy area.
Mechanisms for Resolving Conflicts
The authors believe that there are “potentially healthy benefits of conflict among administrative actors.” But there also needs to be mechanisms for resolving conflicts. They describe four such mechanisms:
So, as OMB and Congress assess the President’s recently-released reform and reorganization proposals, it may well be worth pondering whether some degree of duplication, overlap, and conflict—with appropriate resolution mechanisms—is actually worth keeping in the design of selected agencies and programs. Such conflict can induce a form of institutional checks and balances—a feature, not a bug.