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How the Interagency Process in Washington, D.C., Works

An example of checks and balances in Washington, D.C., is the way in which the different parts of a single branch of government interact. In the executive branch, agencies that have overlapping jurisdiction over a policy issue must coordinate with one another through the interagency process.

An example of the interagency process is the multilayered decision-making process of U.S. foreign policy. In the role of central foreign policy coordinator is the National Security Council (NSC). The National Security Advisor (NSA) is the personal presidential advisor responsible for the NSC agenda, meeting preparations, records, and distribution of NSC decisions.

In a larger capacity, the NSA is responsible for ensuring that the president has the resources to make a fully informed decision, providing him (and someday her) with not only the available policy options but also the risks, opportunities, and political and practical feasibility associated with each option.

At the most senior level, the interagency process is reflected by the Principals Committee (PC), which is chaired by the NSA.

PC membership is up to the president; under the Obama administration, it has included the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security; the Attorney General; the Director of the Office of Management and Budget; the Ambassador to the United Nations; the president’s Chief of Staff; the Director of National Intelligence; and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Often, other key Cabinet-level officials are invited to attend PC meetings when their issue of responsibility is being discussed.

For example, when international economic or trade policy is on the agenda, additional participants may include the Secretary of Commerce, U.S. Trade Representative, or Secretary of Agriculture.

However, the interagency process is much more complex than just holding meetings among the top Cabinet-level officials. Immediately below the PC is the Deputies Committee (DC), made up of the deputies or relevant undersecretaries of the executive agencies.

The DC is responsible for managing the work of the interagency working groups at the staff level and making sure that the issues that are finally raised for PC and NSC review have been thoroughly evaluated.

Historically, the DC level is where most policy decisions are made before the PC’s review and president’s decision. Usually, the issues that are raised to the PC level are very controversial or have major national security implications.

Beneath the DC (adding more layers to our already-multilayered process) are interagency working groups or policy coordinating committees. These working groups are made up of issue experts, often with a regional or functional focus. Depending on the nature of the issues and responsibilities, these working groups meet regularly or only when an issue requires reconciliation or more than one agency’s involvement in implementing decisions.

Making and implementing policy through the interagency process involves shifting factions and coalitions, just as you find in Congress (although party labels may not be at play in the interagency process). This reality creates built-in checks and balances within the executive branch — and, on occasion, gridlock.

It also gives lobbyists the opportunity to insert themselves into the process by staying in touch with the agencies involved. Smart lobbyists find out where interagency players stand on a specific issue, identify who is driving that issue, and launch targeted advocacy to support or stall it.

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