Collaboration makes good neighbors

Necessity is the mother of collaboration.

For more than two years, officials at the Homeland Security Department have been trying to convince state, city and county leaders to work more closely on major technology projects, pooling their resources and coordinating their plans so they end up with systems that can exchange information.

Neighboring cities or counties, for example, should be able to combine their efforts when they need new systems, and officials should be able to agree on standards for linking those systems. Better yet, a county could coordinate among the major cities within its jurisdiction, or a state could be the go-between among counties.

However, such regional initiatives often run into problems. Differences in technical communications — the focus of many interoperability efforts today — are only the start. Culture clashes, disputes about goals and priorities, and even existing laws get in the way.

The impetus of homeland security has not always proven strong enough to overcome such obstacles. Budget shortfalls, on the other hand, are a different story.

Homeland security provides a compelling case for regional collaboration, but fiscal pressures sometimes force some cities and counties to abandon such efforts. And DHS officials are sensitive to such issues.

In the grants program for first responders, for example, DHS' Office for Domestic Preparedness gives preference to proposals for regional initiatives.

By essentially making it a requirement, the federal government is forcing agencies to collaborate, said George Foresman, Virginia's deputy assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness. And that is the right tactic, he said, because it ensures that everyone is thinking of regional efforts from the beginning of every initiative, not just once the technology needs to be purchased.

First responders actually asked DHS to take that approach, according to John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of PSComm LLC, a consulting firm that many states and cities turn to about homeland security issues.

"Not everyone at the state and local level thought this was the way, but enough did and they made enough noise that they got the attention," Cohen said.

Crime knows no bounds

Public safety has proven fertile ground for collaboration.

Law enforcement, in particular, was the starting point for many initiatives, simply out of necessity. Just because a crime is committed in one city doesn't mean the suspect can't flee to another.

Public safety concerns have remained the driving force as homeland security has come to the forefront. After Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI set up Joint Terrorism Task Forces in major cities nationwide to serve as the primary links among federal, state and local agencies in a given region.

Local law enforcement agencies often are the primary first responders, and their connection through the task forces will be critical, even once DHS has established its own internal regional structure, Cohen said.

The public safety task forces put in place around Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics — including the All Hazards Council, which included state, local and federal first responders — have served as examples for cross-jurisdictional collaboration within the state, said Bill Hitchens, director of the Georgia Office of Homeland Security.

However, a lack of trust among governmental levels often undermines such partnerships, according to a panel of public- and private-sector experts convened by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).

"Some distrust arises from competition, previous cooperative experiences, or constitutional and legal issues, but much of

it comes from inexperience and uncertainty," NAPA President C. Morgan Kinghorn told the House Government Reform Committee during a hearing last month about DHS' regional structure.

Identifying that a lack of trust exists, the causes of it and possible solutions are all tasks that DHS officials can and should take up, but the cooperation of everyone involved at all levels is ultimately necessary, the panel concluded.

Drawing new lines

One of the first steps in regional engagements is deciding how to define a region. Which counties or cities should work together?

Massachusetts officials, for example, have split the state into five sections, based on urban areas, for emergency planning and response. The lines were drawn to ensure that each area had an adequate pool of personnel and equipment, without being so large that response time became a problem, according to Cohen, the state's homeland security director.

Georgia officials also set up that state's eight homeland security regions based around major cities because "we feel that a regional-based approach can really meet any need in hours," Hitchens said. The groups heading each region are made up of mayors and county commissioners to make sure that all parts of government are represented in the planning, he said.

But how a state defines a region often reflects its political structure. Arizona has an extremely strong county system, so state officials used the counties to define homeland security regions.

They have also set up a statewide "fusion center" for intelligence sharing across all levels of government, including representatives from the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. State officials are working with New Mexico officials to bring them into the fusion center, said Frank Navarrete, Arizona's homeland security director.

Collaboration that crosses state borders in such a way is becoming more common. In the Washington, D.C., area, for example, DHS officials have created the National Capitol Region, bringing together Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia for homeland security planning purposes. A big concern is communications because an event such as the attack on the Pentagon is likely to involve first responders from all three regions.

The region, though, predates DHS. Local officials had come

together in 1998 to tackle communications issues, said George Ake, program manager for the Capitol Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN), a common wireless infrastructure being built for the region.

One of the major drivers behind CapWIN was simply to create a single governance structure that would give every part of the region "a sense of ownership" no matter who was involved in a particular event, Ake said.

Local officials in the Kansas City, Mo., area built a similar structure to deal with their homeland security needs, from communications to hazardous-materials handling.

The Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) is one of 19 regional planning organizations established by the Missouri legislature in 1965 to address regional planning and development issues. Recognizing that homeland security funds would be flowing unevenly among the cities, towns and counties, officials decided that the MARC structure would help keep them away from finger-pointing and biases that could hamper cooperation.

"It's kept everybody playing fair," said Richard Noll, Kansas City's assistant city manager and co-chairman of MARC's Regional Homeland Security Coordinating Committee.

Beyond homeland security

In many places, budget problems are impetus enough to foster collaboration, even without the pressure of homeland security.

Deficits were a hot topic in the State of the State speeches that governors made in January and February, but in Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm highlighted the need to cross traditional boundaries in order to find solutions.

"There will be more cuts in the coming budget, so now is the time for quiet, courageous local leadership to get beyond turf and politics to promote efficiency and stretch dollars to maximize services to the public," she said. "Therefore, local governments should be compelled to consider new partnerships with one another: pooling resources, sharing services, technology, office space, even employees."

The Michigan Suburbs Alliance is one of many organizations nationwide that has grown out of the need to pool resources. Established in 2002 as a nonprofit corporation, the alliance brings together mayors and city managers looking to work together to do everything from improving infrastructures to developing common fiscal policies.

Snohomish County, Wash., took the lead in helping county and city agencies pool their resources to buy wireless technology so managers could keep in touch when out of the office. The county has 23 departments and encompasses about 20 cities.

In many cases, the county was already helping cities pool resources. For example, the county health service works with hospitals and public health officials within multiple cities. Providing a communications infrastructure to serve everyone on top of that only made sense, said Bob von Wolffradt, director of the county's Information Services Department.

Officials chose BlackBerry devices from Research in Motion Ltd. Users can access e-mail and several applications on the servers of various agencies' networks. And being able to collaborate across entities within a single function — such as connecting all of the health organizations for multiple cities within the county — has given administrators a lot more than they could have gotten on their own.

"Now they can leverage [wireless service] without taking the time and the money to duplicate the infrastructure," von Wolffradt said. "You just can't reinvent the wheel in every municipality, especially when it's infrastructure."


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected