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Should DHS Quantify Collaboration?

For years, in particular after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, public safety and emergency management professionals have shared the refrain that “after an event is no time to be exchanging business cards.” With the shift to a culture of collaboration that followed 9-11, agencies from all levels of government and their private sector partners began to share intelligence and come together for exercises to build the trusted relationships so critical to a good outcome during a real emergency response.

While still a work in progress, the change is dramatic enough that one local homeland security official cites the degree of collaboration between the different levels and agencies of government as the greatest game-changer in homeland security since 9-11. But as security professionals know, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

With that in mind, the independent watchdog U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently examined the degree of collaboration within the 49 major urban areas funded by the Urban Area Security Initiative. Through the program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have meted out at least $5 billion for the homeland security mission.

To gather data, GAO surveyed UASI regions and collected responses from all 49, focusing on actions that reflect concrete collaboration. For example, 46 of the regions have established formal mutual-aid agreements to guide multi-jurisdictional responses. Of those with the agreements, 38 told GAO that the arrangements have helped them build regional capability, either somewhat or greatly.

Thirty-nine UASIs have drafted charters or bylaws to govern their administration, and 26 of the regions told GAO the documents are beneficial. Conversely, 22 told GAO that a lack of written authorities and agreements poses challenges.

Thirty-six UASI regions told GAO that cultural differences among disciplines still pose obstacles to consensus, and 13 said that those obstacles were serious. Perhaps surprising, only 41 UASIs have intelligence-sharing capabilities, but the remaining eight reported that they were developing them.

GAO recommended that FEMA establish a system of metrics for assessing the quality of collaboration within UASIs. FEMA declined to respond to GAO’s report before it was issued, but FEMA spokeswoman Marlene Phillips tells Security Management that her agency “concurs with the recommendations in the report and is working to address them.” Practitioners, however, warn against singling out collaboration as an end in itself.

Nancy Dragani, executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency and 2009 president of the National Emergency Management Association, agrees with Darnell about the critical importance of collaboration in the homeland security mission, but she sees it as an inseparable piece of preparedness. Attain preparedness, and collaboration takes care of itself, she says.

In part because not all jurisdictions can achieve the target capabilities on their own, they work together, often regionally, to achieve them. Thus, improved collaboration is both a byproduct and a necessary factor in preparedness.

Chris Keisling, GAO assistant director for homeland security and justice issues—and a contributor to the report—agrees that the current system equates collaboration and preparedness, which might help FEMA develop metrics. “One might argue that effective collaboration could be measured in terms of enhancement of preparedness capabilities,” he says.

Dragani warns against directing energy and resources toward collaboration for collaboration’s sake. “You can have jurisdictions that are great at collaboration,” she says. “But they’re not prepared.”

@ Read thecomplete GAO reportvia “Beyond Print."