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By Alisha Welch

The Australian Civil-Military Centre works to improve Australia’s effectiveness in civil-military-police collaboration for conflict and disaster management operations overseas. The centre’s new Executive Director, Alan Ryan, spoke to Defence about what this means in practice.

Officially opened in November 2008 and based in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, the Australian Civil-Military Centre engages with, and supports, government departments and agencies, non-government organisations and international partners, including the United Nations, on civil-military issues for the region and globally.

Executive Director Alan Ryan says the centre’s work is about creating the capability multiplier effect across government and Australia that is achieved when people and institutions cooperate.

“Like any team, government gets the best outcomes when each agency brings its particular strengths to an operation,” Alan says.

“The centre works with its stakeholders to build capability through agreed policy guidelines, by building collective and individual skills and awareness and by ensuring that, across government, we learn from the operations that we are involved in. Our focus is on knowledge, collaboration and capability.”

Alan says his team also works with international partners to identify best-practice in crisis response and peace operations and to build links between domestic and international partners.

“Our key role is as a facilitator, bringing an extra level of coordination to the whole of government plot,” he explains. “We are not operational in terms of operating in the field, nor do we make policy. We are outward focused, looking at humanitarian and disaster response and peacekeeping and peace building activities outside Australia.”

According to the Executive Director, the centre acts as an enabler for government, breaking down policy stovepipes across agencies, initiating and managing policy discussions that line agencies often lack the time and resources to do.

“We also link with the non-government sector, universities and industry partners to coordinate capability and capacity building across Australia,” he adds.

While the centre is a multiagency organisation with secondees representing its various stakeholder agencies, the centre is part of Defence and administered by the Vice Chief of the Defence Force (VCDF) Group.

Alan says the centre’s relationship with VCDF Group is integral to the successful functioning of the centre, providing for and supporting its governance and administrative functions.

“By virtue of VCDF Group being focused on the strategic-level coordination of joint and interagency capability, it is the best fit for us,” he says. “That being said, we answer in a very practical way to all of the stakeholders who have invested in the centre.”

He says the centre enjoys considerable autonomy and is able to identify, initiate and pursue activities and projects to meet the knowledge requirements of Defence and the centre’s other stakeholders.

Priorities

“Our priorities are utterly responsive to the strategic guidance provided by government to our stakeholder agencies,” Alan says.

“We work with agencies to ensure that, as far as is possible, national effort is integrated in a seamless way. We are reactive to the immediate requirements of disaster and conflict management, while also working to identify what our longer-term national capability requirements will be.”

The centre’s priority tasks include regional capacity and capability building by undertaking practical projects with Australian agencies and regional and international partners. These activities include producing interagency guidelines for disaster management, humanitarian and disaster relief overseas, security sector reform and for the protection of civilians in conflict zones.

“Work we are doing on the National Action Plan for Women recognises that civilians, and particularly women and children, are invariably the ones who suffer most in armed conflict,” Alan explains.

“Australia has signed up to ensuring that not only are civilians not targeted, but they are empowered to play an active part in the resolution and prevention of conflict. All agencies deployed in a conflict zone have a part to play in this.”

Alan says a key focus is the centre’s whole of government commitment to peacekeeping operations overseas and the path of transition.

“While managing transition across all participating parties is, in practice, very hard to coordinate, we work to ensure that all parties understand what each other is thinking and doing,” he says.

“Australia has made great strides in internal coordination of effort over the many operations we have been involved in since East Timor in 1999. We can’t rest on our laurels and need to be thinking about what an integrated national effort will look like in the future.”

Alan says the future of multi-agency operations also needs consideration.

“Australia has a long history of responding to calls for assistance in response to disasters throughout the Asia-Pacific region and contributing to peace operations around the world. Successive governments have committed significant resources to areas of need in our region and beyond. We need to identify the techniques, technologies and procedures that will make our responses effective and efficient. We have a number of lines of work looking at this, in the context of both conflict and disaster relief.”

Challenges

Alan says the centre’s biggest challenge is that, while everyone wants coordination, no one actually wants to be coordinated.

“Ministers and senior public service and military leaders understand the importance of coordination, cooperation and capability building,” he says. “They do it every day. Our greatest challenge is ensuring that those further down in their organisation realise that government is much more than the sum of its parts. Desk officers need to know their own organisation and their counterparts across government. We are not in competition in government, though it sometimes seems that way.

“Staff at the centre work quietly and patiently behind the scenes to build common understanding and make linkages across Australia and with partners overseas. It is a never-ending task and we don’t do it alone. We have already seen a qualitative improvement in comprehensive approaches to crisis management, but we think there is much still to do.”

Success

As a young organisation, the centre hit the ground running. Alan says that, within a very short time, the founding Executive Director, Major General Mike Smith (retd), and his team built an impressive international network and reputation with counterpart organisations.

“This was translated into a conceptual framework document Strengthening Australia’s Conflict and Disaster Management Overseas, which was our first attempt to capture principles and strategies for multiagency cooperation,” he says.

“This framework has been tested through the centre’s involvement in the biennial exercise, Talisman Sabre. The centre coordinates all interagency involvement and liaises with other government participants. This involvement has increased from single figure representation to over 70 in 2011. In 2013 the numbers will be similar. This civilian and police participation in Defence’s largest exercise, and other exercises like it, is essential if we are to move from one dimensional training for complex operations to recognising that, when Australians deploy on operations, the full suite of national capabilities will be used.”

Publications such as Same Space: Different Mandates, a field guide to civilian-military-police coordination, and Partnering for Peace: Australian experiences with peacekeeping in Bougainville, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands – which distills the cross-agency lessons learned from our experiences in these missions – are also contributing to building comprehensive collaboration across government.