Webinar: Coordinating for effective humanitarian action: Lessons from unified command systems

1 Apr 2015
14:00 - 15:30

As the latest of the series of webinars on Leadership Coordination and Incident Management System- IMS, this webinar explores the potential of learning from the multi-agency approach within the Incident Management Systems. Speakers from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance & Innovation and the Center for Terrorism and Emergency Preparedness address the questions of applying lessons from IMS to the complex reality of the humanitarian system as well as understanding the logic of coordination through which national governments who are using IMS function in order to coordinate humanitarian action more effectively.

Key points and lessons learned:

Dimensions of coordination span across different levels horizontally and vertically in order to generate an effective response that grows from the bottom up as the disaster intensifies, and allows for more enhanced information management and situational awareness.

The real key in the structure of ICM is that it starts small at the bottom and then builds up and expands out to provide a platform for critical thinking and decision making among all agencies.

In response to the myths about IMS, the following points were clarified:      

  1. Consensual involvements are crucial to the system of ‘unified command’. It is not a top-down, military-style hierarchical structure.
  2. Information is comprehended better when visualised. However, the IMS system places getting work done – not bureaucratic process – in the forefront.
  3. Although a functionally-based system, IMS has a great potential to be merged with the specific assistance tasks provided by the cluster system.

Rather than being antagonistic, IMS and the Cluster system can provide synergy and work together in a single system because the cluster system mobilize at the international and national levels and then extend their reach downwards to the disaster site while the IMS is an immediate response that forms at the bottom and then scales up to reach a collective operation.

Q&A snapshot:

How does a bottom up coordination system in humanitarian action look like?
It is about complementing each other’s work and feeling as part of the whole process. All should have the chance to express themselves, and then information will be turned into a written plan and put on a map. It is not about prioritizing rather about being responsible for the whole collective action and having the situation awareness.

Do you have to have somebody in charge?
Leadership appears informally. It goes to those who have substantial experience or strong local knowledge. In some cases it might represents major organizations as they control the bulk of resources. However, this does not mean drowning everybody else. It only means that major stakeholders are centrally located.

How to respect the autonomy and accountability of major actors who do not want to participate while simultaneously have an effective coordination system in place?
It is a question of balance. The innovation and different perspectives of the different organisations is core to the effective functionality of the system. It is just about providing the structure that allows them to plug into it to receive and provide information.

Has there been any cost benefit analysis done of using unified command systems?
Cost benefit analysis have to be done for particular situations. If done in an abstract way, they will become more of a qualitative list of advantages and disadvantages. However, having a pre-existing agreed-upon system that organisations are willing to participate in actually reduces the costs of coordination and makes it easier.