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Leadership webinar #3: Coordinating for effective humanitarian action: Lessons from unified command systems

Wednesday 1 April 2015

The audio of this webinar is also available below.

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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:

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 organizations are willing to participate in actually reduces the costs of coordination and makes it easier.


Arnold M. Howitt

Executive Director

John F. Kennedy School of Government

Joseph W. Pfeifer


New York's Fire Department

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