Lessons in Designing Collaborative Networks

What works when developing a cross-agency collaborative network? A six-year long study of 266 existing collaborative networks of public safety organizations distills valuable lessons for how to design and sustain similar networks in other policy arenas.

Professors Jane Fedorowicz and Steve Sawyer have authored a new report, “Designing Collaborative Networks: Lessons Learned from Public Safety,” for the IBM Center. Their report sums up a multi-year, multi-university research effort sponsored by the National Science Foundation and others. The broader research effort examines the evolution of public safety networks in communities across the country. These ground-level networks link police, emergency responders, fire fighters, and others so they can better respond to safety and emergency incidents. Some of these networks have been in existence for more than 30 years. Examples include:

The Fedorowicz and Sawyer report distills this broader research effort into a set of findings and recommendations that can be applied more broadly in other policy arenas such as environment, health, or land management. Probably the most significant insight in their report is that the key principles are commonly known, but unevenly applied.

Context Matters. The specific approaches to designing a collaborative network will depend on the historical context within a policy arena. For example, in the public safety world, there are three factors shaping how network designers had to approach the creation of a network:

  • The historically federated structure of policing in the U.S., 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 not sharing data and information between public safety agencies.

Designing approaches that recognize these factors is critical. Each policy arena needs to first recognize what its particular context is that matters to potential members, and how to overcome barriers that are inherent in that context.

Recommendations. Even though the public safety arena has its own set of context issues, the authors identified some recommendations that they believe are generalizable to networks in other policy arenas:

  • Involve all stakeholders in the design of a collaborative network. Network designers need to “allow potential collaborators to interact and build trust with one another.”
  • Create networks that stakeholders will value, participate in, and use. “Systems designers’ work should allow users access, provide them services, enhance data quality, encourage routine usage, and maximize reliability.”
  • Pursue every opportunity to fund a collaborative network. Funding will “shape both the technologies and the ways in which the collaboration is governed.”
  • Develop a diverse set of performance goals. System designers need to focus attention on users, their operational needs, and be user- not feature-oriented.
  • Leverage technology to advance a collaborative network. There are six actions required to implement this recommendation:

o Design the collaboration’s information technology elements to be flexible and modular.

o Ensure that data custodianship remains with the data’s owners.

o Ensure standard security and access approaches are used to frame both technology design decisions and related governance processes.

o Plan to build on and incorporate legacy technologies.

o Design collaboration and information-sharing processes and technologies to support routine use, as this will help increase system usage.

o Emphasize system reliability and stability when designing technology, so that usage will increase.

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