Coalitions need to make decisions collectively and stick to them collectively. The structure of the coalition is fundamental to getting decisions made and, in turn, effective decision making is critical to successful coalition work. Decisions will relate, at different levels, to such things as the common call (what is the coalition working for?), strategy, specific policies and documents, statements, logos and structural questions about decision making itself.
Coalitions are first and foremost networks of communication. This section looks at how coalitions can be structured – the formal roles of membership, steering groups and coalition staff – but binding any of these structures together are the processes of communication that really form the coalition ‘in action’. It is important to emphasise this now because when looking at structures in detail we tend to focus on formal arrangements and while these are important they are not nearly so important as the flow of communication.
In order to make decisions a coalition will need some internal structures beyond simply membership. Likely additional components of structure include a steering group and perhaps some part- or full-time coalition staff. There are also important issues to consider of legal and financial identity (although these tend to be more significant considerations later in the life of a coalition).
Some general issues to consider:
- Over time structures may need to change in response to external context and the dynamics of resources and need
- North/south balance and pressure for regional representation, as well as different policy approaches, may be issues within structures and representative roles – and a leadership group will need to find ways to resolve these tensions
- Consultation and communication is important to ensure good decisions are made but also as a process, to ensure people feel part of the coalition
- Whatever structures are adopted, it is important that the members continue to feel a sense of ownership of the coalition. A leadership group therefore needs to bring the membership with them and promote a sense of inclusiveness
- It is important also to understand what coalition members want from the coalition’s central structures. Too little in the centre can leave people feeling that the coalition isn’t meeting their needs
- The coalition should be wary that the movement towards greater structure might drain energy away from a focus on activities. This doesn’t have to be the case, but there is always a danger that too much concentration at the centre leads to people losing touch with the wider community
- Whatever structures are put in place, they must not compromise the ability of the coalition to respond with agility to changing external circumstances or opportunities. Relationships built on trust will be the key to making this possible