The Art of Networking Government

Collaborative networks are happening all over. A comprehensive new study focusing on public safety provides a roadmap for spreading them across the governmental landscape.
by | November 15, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

I was in Illinois recently and had an opportunity to talk with some town officials about their efforts to share the delivery of common services. They were quite proud about several efforts that struck me as fairly minor and commonsense.

That's when I remembered that real collaboration in government is hard work. And at the local-government level, collaboration is probably hardest in the area of public safety. The law enforcement culture is typically fairly closed. But it does happen, and it is increasing.

Plenty of evidence of that can be found in a new report, "Designing Collaborative Networks: Lessons Learned from Public Safety" from the IBM Center for the Business of Government. The report, by Jane Fedorowicz and Steve Sawyer, is based on a six-year-long, multi-university study, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and others, of 266 existing collaborative networks of public-safety organizations.

The authors define a public-safety network as "an initiative connecting policing with other public safety, emergency management, homeland security, or criminal justice agencies" They describe it as both a technological as well as an organizational effort. The technology challenges include developing common standards and security protocols for communication. The organizational challenges include governance and funding issues.

Some of these networks have been in existence for more than 25 years. Examples include:

The Capital Area Wireless Information Net (CAPWin). Members come from federal, state and local governments in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia and support routine emergencies, policing and incident management. The network began in 2003, and its technology includes GIS with live video for first responders. Its 7,000 users from 150 agencies exchange more than 15,000 messages a day.

Clermont County, Ohio's Communication Center. This network dates back to 1987 and is managed by the county's Division of Public Safety Services. It supports routine emergencies, computer-aided dispatch and incident management. It has expanded to include several neighboring counties.

Pennsylvania's Justice Network. This network, launched in 1997, provides support to law enforcement, the courts and probation officers throughout the state. Depending on the users' roles, they have access to searches for photos, warrants, court information, drivers' records and more.

Fedorowicz and Sawyer distill their research into a set of findings and recommendations that can be applied more broadly in other policy arenas, such as environment, health or land management. But the specific approaches to designing a collaborative network will depend on the historical context within a policy arena--what works in public health may not apply in transportation. In the public-safety world, for example, three factors shape how designers have to approach the creation of a network:

• The historically federated structure of policing in the United States, where there is a strong tradition of independence among more than 19,000 police agencies, each with its own organizational norms, funding streams policies and rules.

• The chronic lack of resources, especially in the information- and communication-technology areas.

• A strong legacy of resistance to sharing data and information.

But while each governmental arena has its own set of such context issues, the authors offer some recommendations that they believe apply generally:

• Involve all stakeholders in the design. Network designers need to "allow potential collaborators to interact and build trust with one another," Fedorowicz and Sawyer write.

• Create networks that stakeholders will value, participate in and use. Effectiveness is a critical element in a collaborative venture, because if voluntary participants do not see value for themselves, they will drop out.

• Pursue every opportunity to fund a network. A collaborative effort's governance design must put funding considerations "front and center" as it is being developed. Over time, this is especially critical for sustaining networks as leaders change.

• Develop a diverse set of performance goals. Each stakeholder group in a collaborative venture may have its own needs or goals, and they must have the means to voice them and be heard.

• Leverage technology. The authors list specific actions required to implement a network that is based on a technology platform, including designing information-technology elements to be flexible and modular; ensuring that data custodianship remains with the data's owners; and building on and incorporating legacy technologies.

Fedorowicz and Sawyer conclude that information-sharing networks "can greatly improve government's ability to operate and better achieve collective goals of serving and supporting the public." That's the payoff, and it's a big one for governments looking to leverage the power of collaboration.