The Government of Canada (GOC) is constantly engaged in efforts to resolve complex situations both domestically and internationally. There is a growing acknowledgement that in current and future security environments, the nature of these issues is such that on its own, no single agency, government or regional organization is able to provide durable and sustainable solutions. While military forces will often be an important component of many engagements, it is evident that wider participation is necessary and these issues must be solved collectively.

Over the last few years, the international community has been vigorously exploring the utility of a new concept for addressing these situations, the comprehensive approach.

What is the comprehensive approach? The term is widely used and sometimes applied loosely to a range of different circumstances. For some it means whole-of-government or interagency coordination. For others, it is at times confused with simple tactical level coordination mechanisms. For Canada, the definition builds off the former 3D approach (defence, diplomacy and development) and the whole-of-government perspective.

The whole-of-government approach implies exactly what it states: the mobilization of GOC resources across its breadth and depth to the scale and scope necessary. A core group of stakeholders for any particular situation would consist of those departments and agencies directly mandated to deal with the specific issue, for instance, DFAIT, DND, CIDA and Public Safety for an international crisis. Other actors and functional specialists from across government would augment this core, as the situation dictates. An outer circle of important advisors and non-government actors supplements and supports the inner groupings: actors who need to be closely consulted to aid planning, implementation and monitoring of the collective response. This casting of the net beyond the confines of government structure underpins this more inclusive approach.

The comprehensive approach can therefore be described as the interaction of a diverse range of actors in a cooperative, collaborative and constructive manner to bring coherence to the planning, implementation and evaluation of efforts to resolve complex problems.

The comprehensive approach is currently being widely and intensely studied. Often cognizant that this is fundamentally a systems-of-systems approach, debate considering the concept’s formulation, application and implication is ongoing in many organizations including defence establishments. For instance, the systems approach is reflected in the “country assistance strategies” of the World Bank and members of the development community, as well as in the “fragile states” work of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Similarly, integrated mission planning as now practiced by the United Nations seeks to use similar procedures to bring greater coherence to its own efforts. Again, the concept is being debated in many international military fora including NATO, the Multinational Interoperability Council and in multinational experiments and scientific work.

This avalanche of effort has an inherent weakness in that many nations have not yet defined or crafted their own national concept. Therefore, the bulk of the Chief of Force Development’s Comprehensive Approach team’s endeavours over the last year has been to work closely with other government departments in the development of Canada’s national concept.

International and domestic crises are inherently complex. Canadian policy makers are confronted with a range of issues which are, by their nature, unpredictable. The activities, decisions and perceptions of a large number of diverse participants will have an affect on how the particular situation is managed and resolved. Whether in Afghanistan or Alberta, it has become evident that the larger dynamic of a situation must be thoroughly analyzed in order to help envisage a wider range of viable solutions. The priority and importance of the contribution of different actors changes over time depending on how the crisis conditions vary during the course of the intervention.

The commitment of Canadian national resources in multiple combinations demonstrates that the reaction to a complex crisis is equally complex. Given that an ad hoc response will typically have a more limited effect, a core hypothesis of the comprehensive approach is that its use will greatly enhance the ability of the government to respond appropriately and coherently, thereby achieving greater strategic effect. At the strategic level, the purpose is to establish a coherent strategic framework – including the common goals, intent and objectives of a GOC intervention – to allow for more effective and coherent implementation planning to aid in the formulation of national strategy.

The concept also has importance as it applies to field operations. The precursors of this methodology are evident in past campaigns such as the 1948–1960 Malayan Emergency, where layered coordination committees were used to great effect. There is evidence of the concept’s utility in Haiti as Canada transitioned and re-aligned its security commitments from a military contribution to one focused more broadly on police, corrections, and border issues. There is similar evidence of it being applied effectively in Canada’s support to the African Union Mission in Darfur. There is little doubt of the utility of the approach in Afghanistan as reflected through both the day-to-day actions of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), its transition to a civil lead, and the formulation of the Kandahar Action Plan.

As an aid to planning at all levels, use of the concept is influenced by the complexity of the environment, the type of operation being conducted and an awareness of the method by which integration and networking are carried out. It requires a clear recognition that a variety of complex adaptive systems must be understood to conduct modern operations effectively. As a minimum, these systems include those of the adversary, the social environment of the conflict, the dynamics of the coalition in which we are operating in, and our own strategic governance structures.

Applicable to most situations, the value in this approach is that the integration of efforts at all levels better leverages a multitude of strengths and capabilities to support friendly networks while precisely dismantling adversarial ones. Understanding the importance of integrating and concentrating on networks needs to become a culture norm of GOC agents based on mutual respect and trust between individuals and departments.

Progress in implementing the comprehensive approach will build off current practices, lessons learned and ongoing interdepartmental work. To a certain extent, the concept closely mirrors the domestically focused Canadian practice of horizontal management. These techniques will be fully explored as the concept is further developed. Additionally, best practices and lessons learned from all actors at both field and strategic level need to be examined and included where merited.

Understanding that this is not a purely military construct, ongoing interdepartmental work will permit a broader formulation of the concept. This includes further development of the existing discussion paper with the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force of DFAIT as well as a follow on concept paper and participating in the fragile states working group discussion in partnership with DFAIT and CIDA.

Internal to DND, much work can be undertaken to advance this concept. It needs to be embedded in the department’s own training as a starting point. Additionally, new and innovative ways to train individually and collectively with other government departments need to be explored. Information sharing mechanism will need to be enhanced to improve baseline awareness of the roles, functions and capabilities of our partner departments. Programs to aid and facilitate the collection, analysis and dissemination of lessons learned and best practices from all Canadians engaged in field operation could be developed. In Fall 2009, an outline strategy will be developed in Chief of Force Development to advance these and other initiatives.

Canada responds to situations to support and further its national interests. Every crisis or disaster requires its own context-specific engagement. These responses are conditioned by the policies and programs that have been used to build the capabilities and the capacity available as well as the normative reaction to the generic problems encountered in the conduct of national policy. The complexity of the modern international environment suggests that new methods, such as the comprehensive approach, must continue to be developed to improve the effectiveness of Canadian strategic engagement.

LCol Richard Roy is the Special Advisor on the Comprehensive Approach within Chief of Force Development. His most recent tour was with the African Union. He is working on a doctorate at Queen’s University in Kingston.