Cover: Coordinating Drug Policy at the State and Federal Levels

Coordinating Drug Policy at the State and Federal Levels

Published 1997

by Patrick Murphy

Research Brief

In contrast to such high-profile policy domains as education and criminal justice, the responsibility for drug policy in the 50 states is typically spread over a variety of agencies, with no heavily funded leader. The same is true of the federal government. Given this situation, the potential for uncoordinated action is obvious—and with it, the potential for duplication and for missed opportunities to gain leverage from the work of others. It should not be surprising, then, that journalists, government officials, and academics have joined in a chorus of calls for improving the coordination of the nation's drug-control programs. Enhancing interagency cooperation, in fact, may be one of the few points upon which proponents of differing policy prescriptions can agree.

Many researchers have concluded that coordination should be improved, but few have investigated how administrators might build these desirable linkages. This brief summarizes the findings of DPRC research by Patrick Murphy into how and why some agencies can coordinate their efforts while others have not or cannot. Specifically, Murphy asked what effect elements such as organizational structure, resources, trust, and political saliency have on improving interagency coordination.

Murphy concludes that, given the constraints on efforts to establish interagency ties, administrators should resist the temptation to "coordinate everything." He recommends instead that a drug czar or committee coordinate strategically, focusing their efforts on relatively small groups of agencies for which the potential benefit from coordination is high. Once these targeted groups are identified, administrators can take an active role in constructing a cooperative relationship between agencies by using the incentives that resources afford and by seeking to build trust.

Comparative Case Studies

Murphy compared the administration of drug-control programs between 1989 and 1994 in four states—California, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin—as well as in the federal government. To identify which agencies were working with others and which factors contributed to coordination efforts, he conducted semistructured interviews with approximately 75 representatives of drug-control agencies, at the federal level and in each of the states. Knowledge gained from the interviews was supplemented by information obtained from official publications, legislative hearings, auditor reports, commission findings, budget documents, and newspaper articles documenting the implementation of programs.

Figure 1 summarizes the coordination observed in five areas:

  • in the determination of government-wide priorities (strategy writing)
  • between the providers of prevention funds or services
  • between drug treatment programs and mental health services
  • between drug treatment programs and correctional institutions
  • among criminal justice organizations.

Figure 1. Domains of Coordination Across Five Sites

The shading of the cells represents the degree of coordination found in each case. In Minnesota, for example, prevention programs at the state level were highly integrated (dark gray): State agencies distributing prevention resources to local governments and nonprofit organizations had developed a consolidated application process; groups seeking support for prevention activities could tap into 17 possible funding sources in 11 state agencies by filing a single application.

Prevention programs in Texas (white) represented the other end of the spectrum. There, prevention administrators had begun to share information but not resources. There was no evidence of joint planning across agency lines.

Wisconsin's prevention programs (light gray) represented intermediate coordination: The state's education department, for example, agreed to transfer $90,000 in federal Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) funds to the Department of Health and Social Services. The coordination of drug prevention efforts in the state was relatively limited, however.

The final column presents an overall assessment of the level of coordination across agency lines within each state.

Contributors to Coordination

Murphy sought to explain this variation in the degree of coordination observed by means of the following variables: structure, resources, trust, organizational mission, professionalism, and political saliency. This collection of variables accounts for the influence of resource dependency and structural forces (depicted on organization charts), but reconciles it with the fact that the structure is occupied by individuals. These individual administrators bring their own professional background, sense of organizational mission, and assessment of trust to the process of forming interagency linkages. Finally, this collection of organizations and individuals does not function in a vacuum. It operates in political environments in which the issue of drug policy rose and fell on the policy agenda during the period studied.

Figure 2 summarizes the effect of these variables on overall coordination efforts in each of the cases in Figure 1. The shading in each of the cells represents variation in the degree of effect that each variable had, from dark gray (a major contributor to coordination efforts) to white (no contribution). In most cases, political saliency was found to both contribute to and hinder efforts to coordinate. The split cells in Figure 2 represent this dual effect. The degree to which these different elements contributed to or, in some cases, hindered efforts to coordinate varied across the jurisdictions.

Figure 2. Contributors to Coordination

Structure. In terms of organizational structure, for example, the five cases represent an interesting cross section. Two had established drug czars to coordinate drug policy (the federal government and Minnesota). Wisconsin and California created interagency committees to manage their anti-drug efforts. In Texas, no entity was responsible for coordinating drug policy. In general, the effect that these different structures had on efforts to coordinate was predictable: Some structure was found to be better than none at all. The federal government's drug-control apparatus possessed what might be called a "textbook" organizational structure (see Figure 3) with a clearly defined hierarchy. This structure contributed to a greater degree of integration across programs than in Texas, where interagency linkages were all but nonexistent.

Figure 3. "Textbook" Organizational Structure of Federal Drug-Control Apparatus

Minnesota, however, presented a counter example. There, coordination emerged in spite of the presence of three organizations having statutory responsibility for overseeing drug policy. Compared with the federal case, Minnesota's drug policy structure was a muddle of redundant and overlapping lines of authority out of which none of the respondents could clearly differentiate specific responsibilities. The state, nevertheless, demonstrated one of the more integrated approaches in terms of administering drug policy.[1]

Resources. Murphy also found that resources had the potential to promote coordination, but noted only a few instances in which they actually did. The relatively minor role that resources played in promoting interagency coordination stemmed from the fact that drug czars or coordinating committees rarely had direct control over the distribution of resources to other agencies.[2] Structure and resources, therefore, created opportunities and incentives for coordination to emerge, but their weight was insufficient to guarantee it.

Mission, Trust, and Professionalism. An agency's mission and the professional background of its personnel also influence efforts to build linkages across organizational lines. The more compatible agency missions are, the fewer the barriers to coordination. In much the same way, individuals are more likely to be able to work together if they share a perspective of the world as a result of their training and experience and can enunciate it.

Administrators in Sacramento discovered that differences in vocabulary can pose significant obstacles for agencies seeking to work together. In 1994, the Governor of California directed the state's Department of Mental Health and Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs to improve the provision of services to individuals suffering from both substance abuse and mental disorders. One respondent described how, during the initial meeting between the agencies' administrators, substance-abuse professionals preferred to speak in terms of assisting their clients' "recovery" as opposed to "treating" clients. These vocabulary differences represented divergent professional training and contrasting philosophies. If the two agencies were to be successful in removing the administrative barriers to coordinating mental-health and substance-abuse services, these basic professional differences would have to be overcome first.

Those two departments at least fall under the general category of "providing drug treatment services." The obstacles that different professional backgrounds create grow in both size and complexity when agencies attempt to bridge the gap between, for example, drug treatment providers and law enforcement officials.

Trust emerged as the most-often-cited explanation for the presence or absence of interagency linkages. Trust, defined as expectations regarding future behavior, was a necessary condition for successful coordination. Correction officials in both Wisconsin and California explained their close relationship with their respective state treatment agencies in terms of trust. In both cases, prior to working for their state's Department of Corrections, these individuals were employed by the state's treatment agencies. Consequently, they had already established a trusting relationship, cultivated over the prior period of working side by side.

Political Saliency. Political saliency is a double-edged sword. An issue's rise on the policy agenda can set in motion forces that both promote and discourage improved management and greater coordination. In September 1989, a record 60 percent of the respondents to a Gallup poll stated that illicit drugs constituted the most important problem facing the country. Coordinating entities in Minnesota, California, Wisconsin, and the federal government were established within 13 months of that response peak. At the same time, the "heat" of the topic also opened the door to further fragmentation of policy. While waving the "war on drugs" banner, the U.S. Customs Service, for example, proved particularly adept at securing a share of limited additional resources and further responsibilities—an allocation of funds that was not part of any coordinated strategy. The agency's success was especially impressive given the intensity of competition for constrained resources.

Strategic Coordination

Murphy concluded that administrators seeking to improve coordination between drug-control agencies should proceed strategically, weighing the costs and benefits of attempts to coordinate policy. These costs and benefits are likely to vary from one situation to the next. Administrators and policymakers should thus resist the temptation to coordinate everything; instead, they should attempt to identify existing or potential "coordination clusters"—small groups of two to five organizations—for which the benefits of building linkages outweigh the costs.

The first step in such an effort is to identify and assess the anti-drug programs being implemented in a particular jurisdiction. Those responsible for coordinating anti-drug programs should then focus their efforts on two types of coordination opportunities:

  • When an existing interagency effort may have already overcome some of the obstacles to coordination and can serve as the catalyst for integrating other organizations into the effort. The marginal cost of strengthening or expanding an existing cluster may be fairly low compared with starting from scratch.
  • When improved coordination is expected to yield a relatively high return. The drugs/crime nexus suggests that bridging the gap between a drug treatment agency and the corrections department is one such example. Coordination between these two organizations has the potential to reduce both criminality and drug use in a population that accounts for a disproportionate measure of both.[3]

Once these clusters have been identified, administrators should take advantage of what leverage is available, to build trust. They need to acknowledge that factors such as saliency, organizational missions, and professionalism are beyond the control of a czar or coordinating committee. But the leverage afforded by the dependency on, or desire for, resources is considerable. Although the use of resources to encourage or coerce interagency coordination was found to be rare, money proved to be a very strong motivating force. If a government is serious about improving coordination, its seriousness would be communicated to all its components if it allowed a czar's office or coordinating committee to use discretion in the distribution of some subset of funds.

Finally, individuals or organizations working to improve the coordination of anti-drug efforts should seek to build trust across agency lines. Methods of building trust revolve around bringing different representatives from different agencies into contact with one another. Assessments regarding an individual's or agency's trustworthiness are essentially expectations about the future, based on past behavior. Therefore, the building of trust can be thought of as establishing a "track record."

Colocating personnel assigned to an interagency effort, for example, can provide an opportunity for representatives of different organizations to work side by side. These experiences provide opportunities for direct interaction and may also enable the participants to better understand the priorities and missions of other agencies. Even simple sociability can make an important contribution to building trust. Sharing meals, coffee, or cab rides may seem trivial but can make an important contribution to establishing an interagency relationship.

The Challenge of Coordination

Seeking to improve coordination is not new, and the problems and challenges of administering drug-control programs are not unique. In fact, the list of major cross-cutting policy problems that have found their way onto the public agenda in the past 10 or 15 years is quite lengthy. It includes AIDS, homelessness, illegal immigration, and disaster relief. In each case, it is possible to recall inefficiencies and difficulties that were deemed to be the product of poor coordination. It simply is not an easy task to coordinate programs that cut across both functional lines and government jurisdictions.

If administrators can resist the temptation to coordinate all anti-drug efforts and act more strategically, it may be possible for drug-control programs to avoid joining the long list of well-intentioned, though failed, efforts at improved coordination. And it may be possible for those programs to take advantage of the efficiencies and synergies that better coordination may provide.


  • [1] It could be argued that Minnesota's willingness to coordinate was simply the product of a social and political culture that encourages cooperative behavior. A comparison with its neighbor to the east, however, refutes this premise. Wisconsin has a culture similar to Minnesota's yet did not demonstrate the same level of interagency coordination.
  • [2] However, the federal government used resources effectively in intergovernmental settings to induce coordination among state agencies. State agencies reported that the "carrot" of additional resources, if it was of sufficient size, provided enough incentive to begin to bridge the organizational gap between agencies.
  • [3] For example, a recent evaluation of a program that brodged local criminal-justice and drug-treatment agencies found that offenders assigned to the progam used fewer drugs, committed fewer crimes, and were less likely to engage in unprotected sex than were those in a control group. See S. Turner and D. Longshore, "Evaluating Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime (TASC)," in J. Petersilia (ed.), Community Corrections, Probation, Parole, and Intermediate Sanctions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Research conducted by

This report is part of the RAND research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.