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Governing by Silos

Summary and Keywords

Government organizational silos have been blamed for a multitude of sins. Yet they have proved to be resilient, principally because they provide opportunities for centralized government, political control over the bureaucracy, and the prospect of rapid decision-making, effective implementation, and support for economic development. But silos often also suffer from serious dysfunctions that impede smooth progress from decision to action. Their relationships with other government, private, and third-sector organizations frequently reflect inadequate horizontal coordination, a failure to communicate and to share information, and disputes over funding and jurisdictional responsibilities.

It is instructive to compare how countries in Europe and Asia view government silos and attempt to deal with their shortcomings. Radical reforms in Europe have mitigated some dysfunctions by creating flatter structures, decentralized organizations, and improved horizontal coordination within government and between government, the market, and society. But the reforms have not entirely overcome the “silos mentality,” which may result in failure to share information and may affect implementation. Nor have European governments entirely overcome the tendency to reintroduce centralization and more rigid hierarchies when faced with problems. In Asia, silos continue to be a dominant and valued organizational feature of most governments because they are seen to have an important role in maintaining political stability and promoting economic development. Although political leaders acknowledge their weaknesses and there have been some efforts to improve horizontal coordination, particularly in crisis management, the macro-level public sector reforms that dismantling the silos would entail has not been on the agenda. On both continents, resolving the problems of the silos and finding the right mix between vertical and horizontal coordination remain major challenges.

Keywords: silos, bureaucracy, hierarchy, vertical coordination, horizontal coordination, crisis management, public administration and policy


The term “silo” was first used by Phil Ensor in 1988 as a metaphor for a particular kind of organizational configuration. He describes a “functional silo syndrome” as a self-contained organization that is based on a “deeply layered” vertical hierarchy with highly specialized and easy-to-supervise jobs and a decision-making process that is “heavily top-down” (Ensor, 1988). As Myers notes, silos are closed cultures that suffer from a “learning dysfunction” (quoted in AME Study Group on Functional Organization, 1988). They cannot engage in proactive problem-solving, and their employees are bored and mistrustful (Ensor, 1988). Horizontal coordination with other organizations, both inside and outside government, is perceived to be a threat and is consequently intermittent and often ineffective (AME Study Group on Functional Organization, 1988). Ensor’s metaphor quickly became the catch-phrase to describe a wide range of organizational and policy dysfunctions. In public organizations, silos were seen as the reason why governments failed to respond rapidly to terrorism, epidemics, and natural disasters; to provide appropriate coordination for the effective delivery of goods and services, especially social policy outputs; and make best use of new technological developments, particularly accessing big data held in impenetrable information banks (Tett, 2016, p. 14; Wilder-James, 2016). There have been a chorus of calls for the silos to be torn down, broken, blown up, or otherwise destroyed (AME Study Group on Functional Organization, 1988; de Bri & Bannister, 2010; Lencioni, 2006).

Comparing European and Asian Governments’ Responses to Silos Problems

It is instructive to compare the very different responses of European and Asian governments to the problems posed by the silos. This article consider, first, the system-wide reforms of many European governments, contrasting this with the more limited reactions of their Asian counterparts. In subsequent sections, it analyzes the reasons for the resilience of the silos, discusses their dysfunctions, and reviews their efforts to resolve problems by means of improved horizontal coordination. The article concludes with a comparative assessment of the methods used, and the progress made, to try to resolve the problems of the silos.

In Europe, awareness of the problems caused by silos has been one of the most important drivers of administrative reform. Large government departments have been dismantled in favor of smaller, more specialized or decentralized agencies, flatter structures, and more horizontal coordination. Much greater effort has been made to deliver public goods and services in collaboration with the private sector and with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Yet there is no single model answer to the question of what to do about the silos. Europe presents an array of different structural arrangements. Verhoest, Van Thiel,Bouckaert, and Lᴂgreid (2012), in a study of 30 countries of which 23 were in Europe, found that most systems were “a complex combination of old public administration, new public management and post-NPM features” (p. 415). While there are still examples of silos in public organizations in Western countries—for example, in Greece during the 2015 refugee crisis—most governments take the formal position that large, hierarchically organized departments are undesirable and that horizontal coordination should be promoted.

Yet structural changes have hardly met with unqualified success. Attempts to increase horizontal coordination and more collaborative governance, which are seen as antidotes to the problems posed by rigid hierarchies, have sometimes resulted in other organizational dysfunctions. Christensen and Lægreid (2007) note, for example, that attacks on the silos challenge “well-defined vertical and horizontal boundaries” (p. 1063) and cause confusion about jurisdiction. In some places, collaboration has become “a fad word in government circles: a cult . . . where everyone believes but few practice” (O’Flynn, 2009, p. 112). The replacement of large, top-down departments with smaller central governments and many specialized executive agencies has not always realized the expected benefits of cost reductions and better service at the point of delivery. Even where effective decentralized executive agencies have been established, there is no guarantee that the sins of the silos, such as inadequate horizontal coordination, tunnel vision, and a lack of information-sharing, will not be replicated in the new structures (Elston, 2013). A “silos mentality” may develop in any organizational setting; structural reforms are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to avoid these persistent problems.

In Asia, in marked contrast to Europe, government silos have long been embedded and even celebrated. As Cheung (2016, p. 134) observes, silos in Asia are underpinned by legacies of colonial, military, or one-party rule; by hierarchical values; by a strong tradition of paternalistic, authoritarian, and centralized bureaucratic culture; and by the predominant role and status of the bureaucracy in nation-building and economic planning. While there are differences between Asian states in their perspectives on how economic development, democratization, corruption control, and a participant civil society should or should not be achieved (Burns, 2015), the public service almost always functions through large, hierarchically organized departments (Cho, 2018; Mishima, 2017). Asian bureaucracies are normally closed organizations. The government does not usually make appointments from the private sector except for senior professional and political appointees. Young recruits are posted to a department where they will often spend their entire working lives in an administrative culture that has changed little over the years. When public-sector reform does occur, it is normally focused on incremental changes to the structure and control mechanisms within the departments. Radical surgery is rarely an option that is on the table.

Asian political leaders and senior civil servants formally acknowledge the need for more horizontal coordination, more joined-up government, and a whole-of-government approach. But the changes they are willing to make to achieve these goals are heavily qualified. In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly called for the silos to be broken (The Indian Express, 2017; The Pioneer, 2017), but, as one commentator suggests, he is actually “a manager-reformer focused on incremental efficiency gains, not structural upheaval” (quoted in Ruparelia, 2015, p. 775). In Singapore, a former head of the civil service has noted that, while a whole-of-government approach has been adopted, successful implementation would mean that the vertical silos should be broken down so that information can flow between departments. This, he said, would require a “Sisyphean effort,” a metaphor that seems to imply that the reforms are ultimately likely to be futile (Ho, 2017).

In Thailand, similarly, Bowornwathana (2012) observes that “[a]ny reform ideas that try to break [the] legacy of a single large hierarchy is faced with an elephantine task” (p. 387). In Hong Kong, successive Chief Secretaries for Administration have called for “joined-up” government and an end to the silos and the “compartmentalization” of government, but there has been little change over many years to the size of the largest departments or their hierarchical structures (Chan, 2000; Civil Service Newsletter, 2012). What many Asian political leaders and senior civil servants seem to want is more information-sharing and more bureaucratic responsiveness to public demands and complaints. But any proposal to achieve those goals by fundamental structural reform would probably be greeted, as they know, by opposition from civil servants and from those who see change as a threat to stability and to economic development.

What explains the continuing resilience of the silos? Do they have value that the metaphor fails to capture? Or have attempted solutions simply been inappropriate or insufficient responses to the problem? Or both? The argument presented in this article is that there are administrative circumstances in all governments in which structures maximizing the values associated with vertical coordination are entirely appropriate. Effective vertical coordination in achieving efficient outcomes as an ideal, however, should be distinguished from the many causes of failure in practice. Not all bureaucratic dysfunctions stem from a silos mentality or from strongly hierarchical structures, although there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that they are often a root cause of failure. If that is so, then some explanation of why governments cannot easily resolve these problems is necessary.

The Resilience of the Silos

In both Europe and Asia, silos have proved to be resilient, principally because of their historical and cultural legacies as the traditional, rational/bureaucratic form of government and because they offer politicians and public servants the prospect of maximizing important values: centralization; political control over the bureaucracy, rapid decision-making and effective implementation, and effective economic strategies. Asian governments have also seen the silos as the best way of delivering cost-effective social policies although, in Europe, cost overruns in this area was a major reason for radical reform.


In Europe, until the advent of new public management, a large centralized government was typical of most countries. Even in federal systems, the national government did not decentralize the provision of goods and services until the latter decades of the 20th century. New public management did present an alternative means of delivering services closer to the user. It sometimes came at the cost of considerable variations in the quality of provision and a loss of political control, leading to some rollback of the reforms, reaggregation, and a return to greater centralization (Talbot & Johnson, 2007; Van der Walle & Hammerschmid, 2011).

In Asia, the colonial legacy and Confucian traditions reinforced beliefs in the hierarchy both as an appropriate means of accomplishing goals and as a legitimation of the structure of power and authority (Park, 2018). Administrative systems have consequently been highly centralized, and central governments frequently intervene in local affairs. Silos, in both Europe and Asia, often seem to represent the default form of governmental organization, buoyed by time-honored traditions, beliefs in their rationality and efficacy over alternatives, and apprehension about the political and material costs of substantial reform.

Political Control Over the Bureaucracy

Organizational silos persist because they represent an important means of attaining values that, at least formally, most governments wish to see realized. What Frederickson, Smith, Larimer, and Licari (2012) call “the undemocratic values of administrative orthodoxy . . . efficiency, hierarchy and authority” (p. 46) are the most effective means of maintaining political control. In theory, decisions taken at the apex of the organization are rapidly transmitted through the hierarchy to enable the implementation of new policies and the provision of services. In practice, political control is often more of an aspiration than a reality. Government departments can use their autonomy to determine what they will or will not do. Consequently, the degree of political control will vary over time and from system to system. In Britain, for example, the creation of mega-departments in the 1970s and 1980s is thought to have resulted in ministerial overload, which led to a loss of direction from the top and a confusion of purpose at lower levels of the organization (Foster, 1999).

New public management practices did not provide a solution. Devolution, specialized executive agencies, and contractualism in various European countries meant reduced centralized political control. Many agencies soon developed lives of their own with only fitful central intervention in their affairs (Bouckaert, Peters, & Verhoest, 2010; Christensen & Lægreid, 2001; Elston, 2013). In East Asia, by contrast, political control over the bureaucracy has always been seen to be necessary for strong government and economic development (Wade, 2004, pp. 24–26). Even in those parts of Asia where recruitment is based on patronage and corruption, the public service has still been organized in large and unwieldy departments on the assumption that this is the best way to maintain political control (Rashid, 2014).

Rapid Decision-Making and Effective Implementation

Silos are also resilient because politicians and practitioners often share the view that efficiency, hierarchies, and the ability to exercise authority over the bureaucracy enable rapid decision-making and effective implementation. These beliefs are based on the premise that the ideal values and qualities of the hierarchy can be realized in practice. Weber (1970) wrote of the “[p]recision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material costs—these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially in its monocratic form” (p. 214). Scholars and practitioners subsequently made concerted efforts to improve the hierarchy and to devise optimal spans of control that would maximize speedy decision-making and effective implementation in the most cost-effective way. While those attempts were ultimately futile, they do have modern equivalents in some Asian administrative systems, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where often the first port of call when faced with significant problems is not to ask questions about the absence of horizontal coordination but rather to ask what has gone wrong with the hierarchy.

Hierarchies are probably the best way to maximize speedy and effective implementation, but this should be set in the context of administrative goals. Where the principal concern is with taking action that does not require the consent or consultation with other organizations and where there is relatively little outside “noise” or contentious alternative agendas, the hierarchy is an appropriate means of realizing objectives. In Asian colonial systems, for example, a skeletal administration achieved its primary goal of maintaining law and order with a top-down, authoritative organization. Despite aspirations for more rapid economic growth and more social policy outputs after the colonies became independent, the bureaucratic structure and the mode of delivery through the silos did not change.

In Europe, there has been a much more significant move to a different governing paradigm, from government to governance. New governance is seen as a “non-hierarchical mode of governing where non-state private corporate actors . . . participate in the formulation and implementation of public policy” (Mayntz, 2003, p. 18). This new system is not entirely institutionalized, however; it functions “in the shadow of hierarchy” (Héritier & Lehmkuhl, 2011, p. 48). Faced with a crisis or an intractable problem, there is always the possibility that a government will decide to reaggregate and reestablish the hierarchy to speed up decision-making and/or to increase the prospect of effective implementation. Hierarchies also come in various guises so that “if you scratch a ‘new’ mode of governance, you are quite likely to find an ‘old’ one” (quoted in Rhodes &Visser, 2011, p. 123). They are frequently present, too, as a constituent element of a mix of “government-cum-governance” (Rhodes &Visser, 2011, p. 123).

Economic Strategies

Prior to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008, many Western governments liberalized their economies. State-owned assets were sold, the provision of some goods and services was contracted out to private companies, and there was widespread deregulation, notably in the financial sector. The origins of the GFC lay in the laxity of controls over the financial sector and led to remedial government regulation to deal with the problem and the subsequent economic recession. Governments took control of some banks, introduced economic stimulus packages, and negotiated international agreements to increase the capital requirements of the banks and to reduce their excessive risk-taking. However, they did not reconstruct the silos as a longer-term solution to the problem. Rather, although further liberalization of Western economies was stalled by the GFC, there has been no basic change since then to the way in which governments devise their economic strategies (Bieling, 2014; Denk & Gomes, 2017).

Asian governments take a different view of the relationship between government and the economy. The success of the developmental state in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan left a legacy of support for government intervention in the economy which, if it is to be successful, requires a meritocratic bureaucracy with sufficient authority and knowledge of the private sector. Although the Hong Kong and Singapore governments were less enthusiastic about centralized planning and intervention in the economy, they were some distance from the laissez-faire approach that is sometimes attributed to them. Critically, both had highly efficient bureaucracies that could be employed in support of trade policies and in providing a favorable economic, political, and legal environment in which international companies could invest and operate. Elsewhere in Asia, predatory states, high levels of corruption, weak administrative capacity, patronage, and inefficient and badly organized bureaucracies meant that attempts to create developmental states ended in failure (Herring, 1999; Sun, 2018). Nonetheless, the developmental state remains a model for their politicians and senior civil servants who still see strong centralized government and control over the economy as the path to success. A silos-dominated bureaucratic system is an essential component of that view of the future.

Delivering Social Policies

Delivering social policy outputs is a litmus test of commitment to silos-type structures and to the values that underlie them. In Europe, reforms to dismantle the silos were strongly driven by expense and inefficiencies in providing social services. The governments’ response was to decentralize and establish specialized agencies and then to create coordinating networks between agencies. There has been a continuing struggle, however, to develop appropriate relationships. Specialization without coordination, as Bouckaert et al. (2010, pp. 2–3) put it, is centrifugal. Uncoordinated social policy agencies are likely not only to be inefficient but also prone to develop into small silos.

In Asia, social policies are often designed with the specific aim of supporting economic development. Welfare provision, for example, is regarded as acceptable only if it ensures that the able-bodied can be reintegrated into the workforce (Holliday, 2000; Kwon, 2005). Most social services are expected to be delivered either directly by government departments or through networks in a “lead governance” relationship. The government dominates, funds, and controls the network, which often simply becomes an unincorporated part of the hierarchy (Lee & Haque, 2008; Provan & Kenis, 2007, p. 235). NGOs are required to meet performance targets in exchange for continuing financial support.

A critical difference between Europe and Asia in social policy delivery is the role of the state and its bureaucracy. In Europe, reform has defined the bureaucracy as a “steerer” rather than a “rower” with a significantly reduced central administration. In Asia, the bureaucracy is both a steerer and a rower; it formulates and then implements social policy through the hierarchy. Although organizational diversity might be appropriate to realize different objectives, this runs up against the political objection that social policy should aid capitalist development and that the public service should have uniform structures.

The resilience of the silos can be explained largely in terms of the organizational and political values they are thought to possess. Even in Western countries that have explicitly sought to downsize their bureaucracies and provide for more horizontal coordination and decentralized, participative government, there comes a point where delivery and implementation become important and the value of hierarchies becomes evident. In Asian countries, the belief that governments should be centralized, that large government departments should be able to act authoritatively through their hierarchies, and that this is the appropriate way to achieve both political control and economic development has rarely been challenged.

The Dysfunctions of the Silos

Silos maximize the value of vertical coordination, but they are deficient if issues require horizontal coordination with other government departments, especially in communication and information-sharing, in devolving power to local authorities, and in matters that need attention but fall outside their formal jurisdictional authority. The development of more coordinating mechanisms through markets and networks may help reduce the dysfunctions of silos, particularly in crisis management, but the search for optimal structures to resolve dysfunctions is likely to prove illusory.

Organizational Dysfunctions

Organizational difficulties may result from inherent structural problems. Commonly, smaller silos develop within the larger organization and display similar dysfunctional characteristics, particularly in an unwillingness to share information (Briody & Erikson, 2014). Specific units—finance or legal units, for example—often assume veto powers and impede the speed and intended unidirectional hierarchical implementation. Information silos, where data is withheld from other parts of the organization and from other silos, may lead to decisions based on inadequate evidence (de Bri & Bannister, 2010; Wilder-James, 2016). Silos may also become victims of their own regulation. Rules tend to proliferate in silos, fueled partly by the organizational intention to ensure that every employee does precisely what he or she is expected to do. Red tape may delay implementation and perhaps even induce inaction (Moynihan, 2012). A related issue is that the hierarchy, and the expected compliance with orders that it entails, may seriously affect innovation.

These dysfunctions are frequently raised as specific criticisms of silos, although some may represent problems for any public organization, however it is constituted. Bureaucrats, for example, may be unwilling to share information for reasons that have little to do with the structure of the organization and more to do with confidentiality requirements, perceptions of the relevance of the information for other parties, or even tunnel vision. These situations affect organizational behavior. As Tett (2016) observes,

the word “silo” does not just refer to a physical structure or organisation (such as a department). It can also be a state of mind. Silos exist in structures. But they exist in our minds and in social groups too. (p. 13)

Although such behavior is difficult to detect and often met with denial, the silos mentality represents a major dysfunction even in organizations that have reformed their structures with the intent of ensuring more collaborative arrangements.

Crisis Management

The dysfunctions of the silos are particularly evident in the handling of crises. Terrorism, pandemics, uncontrolled migration, nuclear accidents, the effects of climate change, pollution, earthquakes, and typhoons all require effective horizontal coordination within government and with other networks for their successful resolution. No single government department or NGO is likely to have sufficient knowledge or resources to assist victims of a major crisis or to be able to undertake remedial action by itself. Effective communication and shared information are key ingredients for success, especially when circumstances require immediate coordination to resolve the emergency (Pasquier, 2018).

Large hierarchically organized departments tend not to share information unless there is an incentive or compulsion to do so. As a consequence, important information-sharing dysfunctions during crises often occur: for example, emergency services that have no common infrastructure through which they can communicate; bureaucratic procedures that result in damaging delays; and problems with generating and sharing new information necessary to deal with a continuing issue (Boin, t’Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 2017, p. 54). Although the fundamental weakness of silos in information-sharing and communication is often evident in crisis situations, social policy implementation, which may not always attract the same media and public interest as a crisis, is also frequently adversely affected in the same way. The quality of service delivery, in particular, may be compromised over long periods because silos do not always believe that they need to cooperate and coordinate to implement multifaceted policies.

Hybridity may provide answers in some situations. In a study of the crisis management systems of six northern European countries, Christensen, Danielsen, Lægreid, and Rykkja (2016) found hybrid relationships facilitated coordination between central ministries and networks in some cases and decentralized systems in others. This created response systems to crises that were able “to trump hierarchy and ‘silo management’” (p. 318). However, the appropriate crisis management structures rest on underlying political and administrative conditions that may not always be present. Success requires that the administrative apparatus be well functioning and effective and that it operate in a legitimate context in which there is a high level of trust in government (Christensen et al., 2016, p. 318).

The handling of the refugee crisis in Greece illustrates what happens when these necessary elements for success are not present. In 2015, faced with an influx of over 800,000 refugees while in the throes of an economic austerity program, the Greek government had neither the institutional capacity nor the time to develop a crisis management system that could combine the virtues of the hierarchy with the consultative, information-sharing qualities of the network. Government was highly centralized, but the hierarchy itself was not working well (Lampropopulou & Oikonomou, 2018). Resources were limited, and the extent of the crisis would have presented challenges for any crisis management system, however well-funded and organized. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Greek government sought to maintain control by restricting information to aid organizations and to refugees about their right to asylum (Carlson, Jakli, & Linos, 2018). The effect was to reduce trust in government and make the task of resettling the refugees more difficult. Resolving such tasks within a bureaucratic organization, as Blondin and Boin (2018, p. 462) note, is far from easy when uncertainty, threat, and urgency mean a departure from the more familiar routine work of “peace-time” public management.

How resources are distributed among central ministries, local governments, and nonstate actors is a critical factor that affects the ability to resolve crises. Some potential future crises, such as terrorism, are likely to receive government funding and training to ensure preparedness. With pandemics, it can be more difficult to identify the cause of the disease and forecast its likely effects. Government action to combat the spread of disease is consequently slower and may be compounded by the dysfunctions of the silos responsible for dealing with it. When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in southern China in 2002—a disease that eventually killed approximately 1,000 people, mostly in Asia—health authorities did not know what it was, and cases were not reported either to the World Health Organization or to other governments (Eckholm, 2003; SARS Expert Committee, 2003, p. 34). When a new threat occurs, there are often no rules in place to deal adequately with the problem. Emerging coordination mechanisms are fragile, ad hoc, and subject to volatile political agendas and pressure from multiple actors (Boin et al., 2017, p. 73).

When SARS reached Hong Kong, many of these difficulties affected the government’s response, which was slower and more disjointed than it should have been. The two major silos involved, the Department of Health (DH) and the Hospital Authority (HA), set up separate databases for public health and clinical treatment, but they were not mutually accessible and information could not be exchanged in real time (SARS Expert Committee, 2003, p. 36). There were also jurisdictional problems. The HA was formally independent and run by a board. During the crisis, however, the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food effectively took control after the chief executive of the HA himself contracted SARS. Lines of authority were further confused when two other high-level committees were created. The committees did help alleviate the crisis, but they could have been in place much earlier. The Hong Kong Legislative Council’s (2004, pp. 251–253) report on the handling of the crisis also found that the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, who subsequently resigned, had failed to communicate adequately with the public.

Such situations could well occur in other non-silo administrative systems if they were faced with new threats. But silos see the world through a particular lens. The large, self-contained Hong Kong government departments were not attuned to the need for coordination and sought to control SARS, at least initially, through the traditional hierarchical structure of the DH. Coordination, coupled with the efficiency of the hierarchy, brought the crisis under control, but it was a painful learning process. Nonetheless, the experience did help to make the process more efficient. Health reporting and the process of handling pandemics with increased coordination improved considerably in both mainland China and Hong Kong after the lessons of SARS were learned.

In other places, too, there have been attempts not only to create new horizontal coordinating structures to resolve future crises but also to link more immediately and effectively with local authorities. In earthquake-prone Japan, decentralized disaster management systems accompanied by widespread horizontal coordination have helped to minimize loss of life and ensure that emergency services function effectively. South Korea and Taiwan have also moved toward more decentralized, community-based disaster governance systems although control remains with their central governments (Bae, Joo, & Won, 2016; Tso & McEntire, 2011).

In other parts of Asia, long experience with typhoons has led to the creation of effective systems of forecasting, public communication, and emergency preparation, drawing on the resources of a number of departments. Internet and television services track the impending approach of the typhoon, schools and universities close, residents are warned to ensure that their houses and apartments are properly protected, and the emergency services are on full alert. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN has passed a law on disaster response that facilitates assistance from member states in the event of a disaster (Simm, 2018). In all of these cases, governments have moved some distance from the centralized silos-based model, recognizing the need for more horizontal coordination and the role that can be played by local governments, community groups, and outside assistance in delivering relief at the point of impact.

Silos-dominated systems face a stark choice when confronted with a national crisis. Such crises almost invariably require coordinated action to resolve them. For the silos, this means that they must provide other actors with immediate and relevant information, trust their willingness and ability to play an appropriate role, and accept that, in this process, they may lose some control over final outcomes. The alternative is to continue to rely on the hierarchy to resolve the problem. This has the advantage, as silos see it, of maintaining control over the process and avoiding problems of incompetent implementation, corruption in local authorities, and budget overruns. But it also reveals the consequences of defective horizontal coordination in silos and inadequate vertical communication and coordination with local authorities. The public wants a rapid and immediate response to the problem; the resources, scope, and skills of the silos are limited; and the political costs of failure are likely to mean future administrative disruption and reform. Under these circumstances, crisis management systems, even in Asia, have tended to move toward more coordinated, hybrid systems.

Funding and Jurisdictional Issues

In considering the dysfunctions of the silos, interdepartmental relationships are important in two respects. The first is the competition that occurs for funding and the related struggle for bureaucratic control over the policy process. Chibber (2002) notes that “as long as state agencies have to compete for resources, they have good and sound reason to employ noncooperative strategies vis-à-vis their rivals in the state” (p. 983). Even when there is effective political control over the bureaucracy, silos still need to seek funding for their activities. What they receive will depend on political priorities, but they may also reflect the success, or otherwise, of bureaucratic lobbying and the ability to ensure that new developments are under their control. For that reason, when a new related agency is created, an Asian silo will often lobby to ensure that it is incorporated within its own hierarchy. When political control is weak and the bureaucracy determines policy priorities, as in Japan, there may be internecine conflict over how policy formulation and implementation are conducted. Senior public servants are nonetheless likely to be united in resisting political efforts to wrest control from them (Downs, 1967; Peters, 1981).

A second area of interdepartmental conflict occurs in jurisdictional disputes at the local level. Nationwide problems attract attention from senior civil servants, politicians, and the media. At the local level, however, there are always issues that fall between the cracks because no silo is funded to deal with the problem. In many cases, a government department will refuse to take action, claiming that it is the responsibility of some other department or agency. These kinds of issues relate to circumstances where jurisdiction is unclear. For example, which department(s) should take responsible for cleaning up after a typhoon? Who should take ownership of the problem of washing hung up in a public park? What happens when a fallen tree blocks a road? This type of problem is common in all administrative systems but, in silos-dominated systems, it is compounded by the lack of horizontal coordination and the inability of departments to take responsibility for unfunded problems. Where no action is taken, the problem festers until it comes to the attention of the media, civil society organizations, or independent complaint-handling institutions, such as the ombudsman.

The dysfunctions of the silos affect a wide range of issues in policy formulation and implementation; solutions for these issues, however, mainly revolve around addressing the problem of horizontal coordination.

Horizontal Coordination and the Silos

Approaches to resolving the failures resulting from inadequate horizontal coordination have been treated in quite different ways in Europe and Asia. In Europe, attempts to increase horizontal coordination have largely been based on the new governance approach. While coordinated efforts may sometimes founder on such considerations as risk avoidance, secrecy, and the desire to protect resources and perceived costs (Peters, 2015, pp. 26–44), European countries have also shown a willingness to create the conditions for coordinated action involving government, markets, and networks. In Asia, by contrast, the impetus to improve horizontal coordination has been essentially reactive, based on a perceived political need, such as crisis management or a long-standing problematic situation. The following sections explore the differences between the two approaches in more detail.

Horizontal Coordination in Europe

Bouckaert et al. (2010, p. 35; see also Peters, 1998) distinguish between three fundamental coordinating mechanisms in social life: hierarchies, markets, and networks. Each of these mechanisms is based on different values and patterns of interaction. Hierarchies focus on the exercise of power and authority; markets use exchanges, price mechanisms, and competition to achieve outcomes; and networks display shared values, cooperation, and solidarity. Translated into a governance system, the relative importance of these various elements may differ considerably. In a silos-dominated system, it might be expected that the power and authority of the silos would be experienced in markets and networks. The drive toward greater coordination in Europe, however, has been aimed at reducing the impact of the hierarchy and in the process seeking a new approach to intractable “wicked problems” (Lægreid, Sarapuu, Rykkja, & Randma-Liv, 2014, pp. 2–3). Consequently, public goods and services have been delivered by joint departmental and agency programs and by markets and networks much more than in the past. It should be noted, however, that hierarchies remain an important feature of social services delivery programs.

The new approach has been backed by macro-level public sector initiatives such as the joined-up government and whole-of-government approaches (Bogdanor, 2005; Christensen & Lægreid, 2007). Within these approaches, there have been widespread attempts to reduce the problems of departmentalism and the silos mentality. These include the reorganization of the departments, the specific designation of individuals to facilitate coordination, many extra-organizational policy initiatives with the private sector and civil society organizations, one-stop shops, and shared performance targets between departments (Jones & Nakamura, 2015; Lægreid et al., 2014, p. 271). In the area of socioeconomic governance, market failures under the silos has led to a search for more constructive partnerships between government and the private sector through “negotiated contracting,” “cooperative regulation,” and the coproduction of goods that cannot be produced by the public or private sector alone (Rhodes & Visser, 2011, p. 165; Zeitlin & Verhercke, 2018).

It is difficult to assess the success, or otherwise, of such a diverse range of horizontally coordinated programs, but scholars have drawn some lessons from the European experience. First, matching goals and the appropriate form of coordination is important; what works in one environment may not necessarily be successful in another. In a study of the healthcare sector in two Italian regions, for example, Cuccienello, Guerrazzi, Nasi, and Ongaro (2015) found one region that was strongly based on a top-down hierarchical system while the other displayed most of the coordinating characteristics of new governance. Yet both could claim success in achieving their objectives.

Second, opportunities for introducing better coordinated programs across government, markets, and society may not always be taken, even if politically promoted. At the European Commission level, Davros and Leandro (2015) note that the recommendations of the European Semester for coordinated economic policy programs have not been widely implemented by member states. Country-specific social policy programs, similarly, are intended to promote dialogue and partnership through coordinated action (Clauwaert, 2018, p. 18), but the uptake by individual countries has been declining over the years. In many countries, politics on the ground present obstacles to the introduction of new governance approaches.

Third, perceptions of the costs of introducing coordination, not simply in monetary terms but also in the time required for bargaining and negotiation, may persuade decision-makers that implementation through a top-down hierarchy is the easier path to choose.

Finally, breaking down information data silos is expected to promote more coordinated action, evidenced-based policymaking, and better use of resources (Giest & Ng, 2018; Salas-Vega, Haimann, & Mossialos, 2015). While some advances in the use of big data have been made in healthcare in particular, on both continents there remain important conceptual, ethical, and technical issues to be resolved (Salas-Vega et al., 2015). Trust among actors is a critical element for coordinated use of big data, and conditions in this respect are far more favorable in Europe than in Asia (Giest, 2017).

Horizontal Coordination in Asia

In Asia, under certain conditions, silos can coordinate successfully. This seems less related to whether the country is a democracy or a more authoritarian system and more to the capacity of the bureaucracy to implement instructions. Asian countries can consequently be divided into those where political direction is sufficient to ensure coordination, those where the bureaucracy has control over the policy process and is able to ensure some measure of effective implementation, and those in which policymaking is incoherent and hierarchies do not function properly.

In some places—Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and in mainland China—there have been clear attempts to use political control over the bureaucracy to achieve better policy coordination and implementation. In Korea, for example, during the Park Chung Hee administration, policy coherence was achieved through the planning process. Departments were required to submit proposed programs to the planning agency, which then reported directly to the president (Chibber, 2002). This reduced the autonomy of the departments and ensured that national goals had priorities. In Taiwan, prior to democratization, the Council for Economic Planning and Development played a similar role (Tan, 2000).

Hong Kong and Singapore inherited an administrative grade, whose members are expected to act as coordinating agents, from the colonial government (Jones, 2018). Although they are public servants, their roles are highly political They are expected to fix problems and to take a “helicopter view” on issues affecting the public interest. To enhance their commitment to central rather than departmental objectives, they are subject to transfer to different bureaus and departments every few years. Another important element in the Korean, Hong Kong, and Singapore systems has been the control over financial provision. Budgets are tightly controlled, and proposed departmental expenditure is subject to very careful vetting. Centralized financial control consequently ensures some overall policy coordination and attempts to avoid duplication of resources. In itself, however, it does not resolve the problem of coordination at lower levels in the departments where implementation of joint programs is often less closely monitored.

In other Asian countries, control over policy, and the funding that goes with it, rests primarily with the bureaucracy. In Japan, for example, it has long been recognized that many policies are bureaucratically generated and that departments either alone or in combination can exercise a veto on what will go forward. Political endorsement usually follows the bureaucratic consensus (Johnson, 1975). Efforts to bring about more political control under public sector reform legislation introduced in 2014 seem to have been largely unsuccessful (Mishima, 2017). In India, there has been relatively little reform over many years and the central government finds difficulty in coordinating with state governments. Unlike Korea, the coordinating planning agency has not had sufficient power to keep the departments in line. Departments remain autonomous and follow their own agendas, sometimes at the expense of development goals (Chibber, 2002). Even in intended collaborative programs, bureaucratic perceptions of how implementation should occur stand in the way of coordination. In a study of what was supposed to be a collaborative program between Indian government departments, for example, one of Jagannath’s (2016) informants told him:

If [the program] has to be implemented as expected, then all departments have to take an interest. . . but this is only a medical topic . . . So that’s why all other departments have left this [to] the medical and health department. (p. 191)

The absence of effective political control over the bureaucracy may adversely affect coordination, but it also depends on whether government departments are able to cooperate with each other and arrive at a consensus, as in Japan, enabling joint decisions to be implemented.

In some countries, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, hierarchies do not work efficiently (Reyes, 2011, p. 350; Zafarullah, 2016). Although recruitment may be largely on merit, political patronage and corruption disrupt the classic virtues of Weberian bureaucracy so that departments cannot coordinate, even if they wanted to do so. In these places, the government cannot pursue economic development goals successfully or provide adequate public services. Coordination is hostage to much-needed public sector reform. And what gets done may be random, inconsistent, and unstructured rather than the intended consequence of bureaucratic rationality.

Whether a public service is under political direction or whether bureaucrats control the policy process, hierarchical governmental structures pose problems for coordination. Political and financial control may mitigate the worst problems at the top, but they do not resolve difficulties at middle levels of the bureaucracy and with decentralized local authorities and parastatal agencies. If political control and monitoring of coordination between silos is left unattended, major problems can occur and difficulties may worsen.

Improving Horizontal Coordination

Governments around the world increasingly employ professionals from different departments and use them in small teams in joint planning and working groups to undertake specific projects or to resolve particular social policy problems. The teams are usually dissolved once the project has been completed. If a problem is persistent and requires more permanent coordinating structures and additional resources, then more extensive consultation between participating departments and political endorsement is likely to be necessary. The value of these ad hoc arrangements is that they provide some flexibility and allow departments to continue to control their own resources. In Asia, this is particularly important because departments usually insist on maintaining control over their personnel even when a more permanent coordinating arrangement has been sanctioned. Potentially, ad hoc coordination offers a way of ameliorating some of the structural problems that silos encounter, but they are likely to work best in situations where there is strong political control over the bureaucracy. Problems may not be as easily identified if silos are more autonomous or where they have lost control over the implementation of a joint project (Yoseph-Paulus & Hindmarsh, 2018).

Major policy failures leave governments with little option but to write off the loss, salvage what can be saved, or engage in remedial measures. If implementation fails in crisis situations, the issue will rise to the top of the political agenda. In the Sewol disaster in Korea, an evident failure in interdepartmental cooperation meant that rapid remedial measures were taken to prevent a reoccurrence of such problems (Bang & Kim, 2016). Political action in such cases is likely to be swift, if not always appropriate. Where issues involve failures of implementation at the middle levels of government, outcomes are less clear and problems may fester. It may then require pressure from independent bodies, such as audit departments or ombudsmen, to bring about improvements. Interdepartmental coordination is usually a low priority because the silo is focused on its monopolistic delivery of specific goods and services rather than jointly produced outputs.

Hong Kong’s efforts to create a one-stop complaint-handling call center for government departments illustrates the coordination problems that this can cause. Some departments refused to participate at all in the work of the center, and cooperation and communication between those that did was poor. Although the call center did eventually function reasonably successfully, it required several investigations by the ombudsman to bring about desired changes (Office of the Ombudsman, 2003, 2008). Even then, some of the larger departments still refused to participate. In countries where there is less control over the bureaucracy, such problems are even more difficult to resolve (Yoseph-Paulus & Hindmarsh, 2018).

Remedial measures are costly and a political embarrassment if they fail. However, they do create an opportunity for silos to construct more permanent coordinating mechanisms and to provide more lasting solutions to problems. Unlike informal coordination between silos, which is sometimes based on vague agreements and misunderstandings, horizontal coordination, backed by political determination, can result in a more efficient process for problem resolution, a proper institutional framework staffed with people with relevant skills, and more effective monitoring of the performance of the new joint initiative.


Silos embody administrative virtues that every government requires. A hierarchy that works effectively is the best way to implement decisions as rapidly as possible. Without that capacity, important functions of government may well be compromised. But maximizing the value of the hierarchy comes at the cost of other important administrative values such as consultation with stakeholders and horizontal coordination with other organizations and networks. Governments need both sets of values, but there is no easy formula that can accommodate the best of each world.

In Europe, whole-of-government and joined-up government approaches reflect the belief that the greater coordination of government, market, and societal resources and a corresponding, appropriate institutional design can deliver goods and services more effectively than the traditional silo. Given the dysfunctions of the silos, this does offer an attractive, broad-based, potentially more democratic alternative to top-down provision. However, practical implementation suggests that the values that the approach seeks to maximize are not always achieved. The causes of failure are manifold, but they seem to revolve around the problem that the method of delivery across government, market, and society is far more complex than for those arranged neatly in a traditional hierarchy. In consequence, much of what eventually results from bargaining and negotiation is social experimentation, the search for workable arrangements that provide dialogue, partnership, and flexibility in the delivery of goods and services. In some cases, the European experience seems to be successful in others, rather less so. Always lurking in the background is the default option of reverting to the silo or developing a silos mentality that undermines any gains made through more effective policy coordination.

In contrast, the most successful Asian administrative systems are characterized by tight political control at the center and hierarchies that provide stability and support economic development. But control does not always stretch to the middle level of the departments where major problems of coordination with other departments and failure to exchange relevant information frequently occurs. This not only affect important joint initiatives but often results in the neglect of more minor issues. Some of these problems may be ameliorated by various types of ad hoc coordination and by legislating and implementing remedial measures. Where bureaucracies have been relatively autonomous from central political direction and from each other, as in Japan and India, silos need to reach a consensus before a joint policy agenda can be implemented. While it is possible to achieve this, if the bureaucracy fails to reach a consensus, policy will become less coherent, duplication of programs will occur, and national goals may be affected. In a third category are those countries that are afflicted by corruption and patronage to the extent that the hierarchy does not work well either in delivering services or in supporting economic aspirations.

In sum, silos are alive, well, and even flourishing in Asia while they remain under attack in Europe. Political leaders and top public servants in Asia may decry the faults of the silos and call for the introduction of the latest public sector reform initiatives from Europe, promising more horizontal coordination. But their protestations are largely rhetorical, and changes are introduced only if the reform can be smoothly incorporated within the existing top-down system. Other parts of Asia seem more likely to look for bureaucratic reform in improvements to their hierarchies rather than from the European experience with its stress on participative horizontal coordination and collaboration.


The work described in this article was supported by grants from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (Projects No. 11605917) and City University of Hong Kong (Project No. 7004734).

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