Government Task Forces as an Innovative Form of Cooperation in Estonian Public Administration*
Nearly ten years ago, Estonia’s first government task force began its work on the initiative of the Government Office.
It was an innovative solution in the Estonian governance system where the recommendation to use temporary broad-based working groups to address horizontal problems, originating from the OECD country governance assessment report, was used to solve coordination problems in the public sector. Compared with the usual forms of cooperation, task forces were different in five characteristics – they were formed to address trans-sectoral and strategically important policy problems, they were established under the mandate of the Government of the Republic, a designated head was employed to lead them, an independent budget was allocated and, to set their aims, the term of operation of task forces was limited to one up to three years. The aim of the article is to analyse the experience of eight task forces that operated in the period 2012–2018 and have terminated their work and to point out the major lessons. The analysis relies on the results of a poll conducted among task force participants in the course of the research project “Coordination instruments at the center of government: opportunities and limitations of temporary task forces (PUT1461)” carried out in 2017–2021.
In terms of theory, task forces can be understood as temporary organisations for the improvement of coordination that are suitable for addressing complex and horizontal political problems. The flexibility, less bureaucratic format and results-orientedness of temporary organisations makes them a suitable means in finding new solutions. An analysis of the current experience of the Estonian task forces shows that, in terms of the outcomes and impact of task forces, the qualities that are connected with the engagement of participants and knowledge, the harmonisation of common understandings and the improvement of mutual contacts have been assessed highly. Although the format of task forces has helped parties to reach substantive and jointly approved action plans, the practical implementation thereof is receiving assessments that are more critical. This reflects the essential dilemma related to temporary organisations – how to ensure that a temporary form of cooperation leads to a change in aims and functioning practices in permanent organizations. Responsibility and political interest are key issues in connection with outcomes and impact. In order to achieve success, it is necessary that, where an issue is addressed further after the termination of the activities of task forces, there would be a concrete “owner” and political interest to make weighty institutional reorganisations. It is necessary to think of the consistency and implementation of outcomes in the course of the preparation, working process as well as winding up of the work of a task force. The experience of task forces offers several lessons for designing and managing future task forces as well as network-type forms of cooperation different from the task force format.