Walk the Talk:  Time to Operationalize Canada’s Whole-of-Government Approach to Twenty-First Century Conflict

The 2008 Manley Report highlighted significant machinery of government obstacles to the effective conduct of the Afghanistan mission, and in particular the operations of the interdepartmental Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT) which the Panel called “a centrepiece of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan.”  So, would we do substantially better today?  Certainly there are examples, such as our Marine Security Operations Centres and Rescue Coordination Centres, where officials from multiple departments and agencies collaborate successfully at the tactical level.  However, there is little evidence that the wider institutional impediments to truly effective Whole of Government action in international missions have ever been addressed the way the Manley Panel called for.

It was perhaps understandable that governments and the bureaucracy would move on from these problems as the Afghanistan mission wound down.  After all, subsequent international missions have been very different, with Canadian government organizations more often making individual discrete contributions rather than the integrated national effort we saw in Kandahar.  However, there are two problems with ignoring the panel’s findings:

  • It undermines the present government’s intent to play an active role in the preservation and strengthening of the global order. It does so by limiting our national capacity to effectively manage Whole of Government efforts in conflict zones.  Rather than bringing a solid, integrated set of national capabilities to the table with which Canada can either tackle a particular part of the wider problem on behalf of the mission or provide expertise and leadership in strengthening overall mission planning and management, Canada will continue to be a provider of discrete contributions to somebody else’s plan (however sound it may be); and
  • It means that whenever a future government does decide to take on a leadership role in an international mission requiring Whole of Government solutions, we will have to repeat the same painful learning process the KPRT and its participating departments went through – in much the same way the Canadian military in World War Two had to painfully reacquire, at great cost in blood and treasure, many of the institutional competencies it had built up in World War One and then lost with demobilization.

Far better to make the relatively modest effort involved in taking as many of the lessons from the KPRT as possible and using them to design improvements to the machinery for managing responses to international conflicts.  A systematic and deliberate approach would be far better than the alternative of a haphazard and piecemeal process where individual departments bring forward requests for specific policy solutions as and when critical problems emerge. This path will never allow Canada’s international peace and stability efforts to become truly effective Whole of Government efforts. This text proposes another way forward, with solutions tailored to three key areas: legislation and policy; institutional culture; and leadership / command & control.

Afghanistan Mission Context

That weaknesses existed in the KPRT should have come as no surprise, given that this was arguably the first serious Canadian Whole of Government (then called “3-D” for Diplomacy, Defence and Development) effort in a conflict zone.  Instead of a common concept of operations or doctrinal framework guiding the planning and management of work in the organization, the people sent to the mission had to improvise ways to get the job done on the ground.

Their efforts were considerably hampered by an absence of effective strategic coordination among departments in Ottawa.  As the Manley Report stated: “While we acknowledge the courage and professionalism of the civilians posted to Kandahar, the Canadian-led PRT in Kandahar also displays signs of the fragmentation and uncoordinated effort that prevail throughout the programming of international development aid in Afghanistan. Effectiveness would be enhanced by aligning national and departmental priorities and operations more closely—and more collaboratively”.

The report did trigger some limited effort in Ottawa in that direction for a time, but this soon died out when the government began signalling its intent to withdraw from the mission.  Following the handover of the KPRT to the U.S. in 2011, Professor Howard Coombs of the Royal Military College of Canada published an assessment of Canada’s Whole-of-Government effort, finding that despite many obstacles the KPRT did have some notable successes.  However, the results were not as good as they could or should have been – and certainly not what the mission needed.  He called for a determined effort to systematically capture, evaluate and act upon the lessons learned so that future missions could be more effectively prosecuted.  In other words, he pointed out the need to actually operationalize Canada’s Whole of Government approach to Twenty-First Century asymmetric warfare.

Whole of Government Today 

A lot is being done to better connect the wider actions of government – from aligning spending to “Whole of Government priorities” to reporting against the “Whole of Government framework for environmental priorities,” to a “Whole of Government” approach to Inuit employment and training, and much more.  However laudable these initiatives are, though, they have done nothing to fix the kinds of strategic governance weaknesses identified in the Manley Report.  As the panel very clearly pointed out, when Canada puts defence, development, diplomatic and/or other resources on the ground in support of international efforts to reduce or end conflict, there is a specific requirement for those missions to be effectively planned, supported and executed within an integrated approach.  This in turn demands an effective framework for ensuring unified government leadership and interdepartmental collaboration spanning the strategic, operational and tactical levels.  In this context, “Whole of Government” needs to be much more than a policy buzzword; it needs to translate into real national capability.

Creating such a model requires a focused effort to identify and address the systemic deficiencies identified by the Manley Panel, recognizing that there has been evolution of national and international circumstances since then.  There is still time to extract the critical lessons from the Afghanistan mission and begin to act on them.  Many of the people with direct experience executing and supporting the mission of the KPRT are still around and many are still in government, but time will begin to run out very soon.

The process therefore needs to begin now, and include a focused effort to work with veterans of the KPRT and with current staff of the major departments and agencies concerned, at the practitioner level supported by policy experts, to document specific issues and determine priorities for resolving them.  The importance of a practitioner-led, policy-supported approach cannot be overstated.  Solutions for complex international missions need to be outcomes-focused whereas government policy development tends to be process-centric, so a tight focus on building solutions that can deliver clear outcomes on the ground is needed.

As noted earlier, three areas in particular need attention: legislation and policy; institutional culture; and command, control and leadership.

Legislation and Policy

Canada’s machinery of government is for the most part designed around the routine business of departments and not necessarily for Whole of Government initiatives – and certainly not the often unique requirements of international missions.  The same kinds of obstacles identified by the Manley Panel largely remain in place today, including rigidity in how ministerial and departmental roles and mandates are interpreted as well as many practical impediments to close interdepartmental collaboration on the ground, such as: financial management issues; civilian human resource issues; procurement issues; ponderous resource approval processes; and many more.

A solid legal and policy framework is required to enable seamless cooperation, unified planning, and integrated management of Whole of Government missions in conflict zones.  To offer only one example among many: we need to better align the processes for allocating and committing funds by cooperating departments;  where appropriate enable the pooling of funding; and create flexible pathways for collaboratively contracting and managing contracts for local projects.

Institutional Culture

For entirely understandable reasons, government departments develop unique cultures and corporate lexicons, and this influences the way they organize themselves and conduct business.  While perhaps bringing internal strength, in a Whole of Government context these variations can create problems – particularly in conflict zones.  They impede communications and the development of common understanding of issues, introduce confusion in the coordination of activities and administration of the processes involved, and hinder efforts to establish the unity of thought, purpose and action required to succeed in international missions.  These natural obstacles need to be removed before people are sent into a theatre.

Similar cultural variations occur within military forces and they deal with this through standardization of staff procedures and, at appropriate points in members’ careers, common staff and leadership training.  These are backed up by regular exercises that hone common skills and ensure the supporting procedures, information systems and other enablers work as intended.  This system works well, and a comparable solution would not be difficult or necessarily very expensive to adopt for civilian departments.  Indeed, National Defence could provide the initial framework for such a model, and in fact a few civilian employees of various departments already attend certain military leader and staff training courses.

The key is ensuring that the standardization of procedures and regular common training has vertical effect – that is to say, it is not enough for personnel on the ground in a Whole of Government mission to be adequately trained and indoctrinated; all of the offices above them having any material influence or control over its conduct also need to be.  Common procedures and training are only effective if they are used as intended at all levels.

Command, Control and Leadership

Effective conduct of any difficult and risky operation by a group of cooperating organizations demands good command and control with well-defined responsibilities and accountabilities in the pursuit of common goals.  It also requires competent leadership, including the ability of the leaders to plan and direct the necessary activities at each level of the mission.  All of this can only come together through prior intentional design.  It is not something that will naturally emerge in the middle of operations.

The Government of Canada needs to undertake that intentional design for how it will organize, manage and lead future unified Whole of Government activities in which it puts personnel on the ground in support of international efforts to reduce or end conflict.  A good initial design could be largely borrowed from the military – they have a model that works and is widely used by most nations Canada is likely to partner with.  However, other models are possible.


The Manley Report and Professor Coombs’ study provide a very good high-level diagnosis of the problems that hindered the effectiveness of the KPRT, and the same problems wold inevitably dog any new Whole of Government response to international conflict today.  Concrete action to correct this needs to be taken very soon.  A focused effort to document the lessons from that mission and begin building the structural foundations needed for effective interdepartmental collaboration in these complex conditions must begin now before the remaining first-hand experience fades completely from the institutions concerned.

Given that the priorities for the bureaucracy are set by Cabinet, any direction to undertake a program to operationalize the Whole of Government approach to international missions must come from political leaders, and it is fair to ask why they should take any interest in this issue, particularly in an election year.  It is, after all, not something that will resonate with many electors.

Leaving aside the obvious response that it is the “right thing to do,” the answer is twofold.  First, fixing the problem would be a gift to yourselves in the future.  It would provide future governments (of any stripe) with more effective machinery for planning, executing and managing both international missions and many domestic Whole of Government initiatives.  Second, it is a low-cost action in terms of both money and political effort.  It mostly involves providing direction to central agencies and monitoring progress, and is unlikely to be contentious within Parliament or among the public.  This may not be an issue to campaign on, but it is an issue that should be placed on the to-do list for whatever government takes office later this year.


Colonel Charles Davies (Retired) is a CDA Institute Research Fellow.  During his career in National Defence, he was personally involved in several interdepartmental initiatives aimed at resolving systemic impediments to the conduct of the Afghanistan mission, including the operations of the KPRT.  While these yielded some benefits, none succeeded in providing the effective strategic solutions required.

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