Interoperability: Why it works — or doesn’t

It turns out that successful interoperability doesn’t have much to do with funding


By C.F. Schermerhorn

Like many government funding streams, federal Homeland Security Grant Program funds are facing steep reductions. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the FY 2012 Department of Homeland Security appropriation bill. As it awaits Senate action, the bill’s $200 million-plus reduction (FY 2011 $1.2 billion to FY 2012 $1 billion) in state and local grant funds makes it clear that many localities will have less money to address homeland security and emergency management needs.

It was with this fiscal challenge looming that The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) brought Erica Chenoweth, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, to John Jay College’s campus in New York City to discuss her research on communications interoperability and Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funding.

Chenoweth and co-author Susan Clarke, professor of political science at the University of Colorado – Boulder, published their findings in a 2010 Political Research Quarterly article, “All Terrorism Is Local: Resources, Nested Institutions, and Governance for Urban Homeland Security in the American Federal System.”

According to Chenoweth, emergency managers looking to achieve better interoperability performance may have better results by investing time in institutional development rather than in pursuing additional grant funds.

The authors set out to answer this question: “How [could] U.S. cities achieve high interoperability performance?” By studying the Department of Homeland Security’s 2007 Tactical Interoperable Communications Scorecards (TICS), Chenoweth and Clarke sought to understand “the variation in quality of interoperability performance.”

As the government’s TICS Summary Report states, TICS “represent[ed] the first measurement of the maturity of communications interoperability in urban/metropolitan areas across the Nation” and evaluated urban areas in three categories: SOPs, Usage and Governance.

Chenoweth and Clarke examined the data, and created an interoperability measure by combining the SOP and Usage scores, for 48 urban areas (UAs) to answer four questions:

  • Money: Did more UASI grant money result in better interoperability scores?
  • Governance maturity: If a UA had strategic interoperability plans, prioritized leadership and multiple funding sources to promote interoperability, did the UA have a better interoperability score?
  • Nesting: If the UA had “formal ties across multiple levels of government,” did the UA end up with a higher interoperability score?
  • Coupling: If the UA had “formal agreements among different participants,” did the UA have a higher overall interoperability score?

By analyzing data from the 48 urban areas, as well as a deeper examination of Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, Chenoweth and Clarke concluded that:

  • Higher funding for an urban area does not equate to higher interoperability scores;
  • The greater the degree of government maturity (as determined by the TICS governance score), the higher the interoperability score; and
  • Urban areas that rated both as highly nested and tightly coupled had higher interoperability scores.

During the Q&A with an audience that included members of the fire service, military, law enforcement, private-sector and academic communities, audience members voiced concerns about a range of topics that included: the accuracy and consistency of the TICS scores, the perennial problems of communications and “Who’s in charge” at events and exercises, the accountability of grant monies, the biases of after-action reports, the problems of communities breaking away from regional cooperatives, and the potential impact of DHS mandates on funding streams.

In one exchange with the audience, Chenoweth discussed the challenge of information-sharing. Chenoweth emphasized that while sharing information is critical to interoperability success, it’s also a critical success factor to any organization in any endeavor. According to Chenoweth, one of the obstacles to effective information flow is a belief by all parties that someone else will transmit the information, something Chenoweth refers to as a “collective action problem.” It’s a problem compounded by the multi-organization, multi-jurisdiction structure of UAs.

In another exchange, an audience member expressed his frustration over an absence of government direction and mandates, and asked how a single town in a UASI could walk away from cooperative efforts without consequence. “Can and should the government mandate cooperation in order to receive funding?” he asked.

After initially rejecting the viability of mandates, Chenoweth conceded that mandates might be the only way to promote appropriate behavior, including addressing the collective action problem.

About the author
C.F. Schermerhorn is a graduate research assistant with The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) and pursuing his master’s degree in public administration and emergency management at John Jay College. He has a background in software development and technology.