COMMENTARY

Tear down self-imposed, bureaucratic hurdles to trust

The Justice Department is working on a secure way to allow police in different jurisdictions to share information

In my recent column in the Feb. 8 issue (“Google Gets It: Trust, But Verify”), I discussed how Google’s software developers were building a model for sharing and trust inside the Wave application. Wave and other collaboration platforms aim to use digital means to enable individuals to work together.

That makes a great deal of sense to free/open-source software developers such as those who built and continue to refine Linux, Apache and MySQL. In free/open-source software development, the idea is that individuals who are scattered across the world work on the pieces of the project they are best able to tackle, a sort of specialization by self-evident expertise. In addition, the entire community reviews the work and decides which pieces are desirable and what can be jettisoned. Furthermore, many people are looking at the software code, which helps with quality control.

Not surprisingly, the business of government does not function like a free/open-source software project. In government, there are clear divisions of power between branches, levels and agencies. Anyone who spent time in government is used to hearing, “That’s best left to the states,” or “Treasury’s the lead agency for that.”

Large companies often function that way, too. Division of labor and specialization are classic 20th-century concepts that were adopted because they worked pretty well. However, Henry Ford never figured there would be a community of practice for windshield installers or exhaust system engineers at his company’s plants. Yet that sort of horizontal activity, enabled by information technology, is exactly what’s going on in large organizations today.

The 2001 terrorist attacks were the impetus for the transformation of thinking in U.S. law enforcement and the intelligence community. After the attacks, agency leaders were criticized for not sharing information, and they pledged to do something about it.

The subject of information sharing in government deserves many book-length studies. But the key point to understand in making cool, collaborative work happen is that the most formidable obstacles are organizational, not technical. We’re getting pretty good at making information systems do some interesting things, but rewiring bureaucrats is much, much harder.

At the Justice Department, officials have been trying to correct that. They have been working on a tool to facilitate cross-organizational information sharing for law enforcement agencies — from the FBI and Secret Service to state and local police departments. The label is an awkward one, even for government, but Global Federated Identity and Privilege Management is a set of rules for allowing police in different jurisdictions to share their information resources. Although the tool naturally has some people concerned about privacy, GFIPM managers have been sensitive to those concerns from the start and have gone to some lengths to keep data resources with their rightful custodians rather than creating a central data repository.

If law enforcement agencies can make GFIPM work, they will move one step closer to the goal of knowledge management: delivery of the best possible information to decision-makers at the right time. Achieving that goal will help law enforcement professionals connect the dots on cases ranging from electronic fraud and car theft to gang violence and terrorism. GFIPM will allow them to make useful contributions by bringing experience into the policy process.

About the Author

Chris Bronk is a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an adjunct instructor of computer science at Rice. He previously served as a Foreign Service Officer and was assigned to the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.

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