Bonnie Locke knows firsthand how frustrating it is for state and local governments to try to build critical infrastructure in a time of limited resources. But she also knows that by collaborating across borders through a consortium, they can overcome this hurdle and deploy technology that optimizes business processes, reduces operating costs and, in some cases, saves lives.
“More than anything, what keeps governments from being successful in deploying technology themselves is that they don’t have the time, staffing, budget or technical know-how. By pooling their resources into a consortium, they can be nimble and quick and get things done faster and cheaper than they can individually,” says Locke, who is director of program management at Nlets, the nonprofit international justice and public safety information sharing network owned and operated by state governments.
Phoenix-based Nlets was developed more than 40 years ago as a way for law enforcement to send and receive information over a secure network. Today, more than 78 core members, as well as strategic partners such as LoJack, share information over Nlets for everything from looking up driver’s licenses and registrations to conducting criminal background checks. Locke says Nlets supports more than 90 million transactions per month and has more than 600,000 devices connected to the network.
While this level of cooperation is not usually seen across government lines, let alone into the private sector, the secret to Nlets’ success has been in using a structured framework. “We’ve been extremely successful as a consortium. Every member pays dues and every member has an equal voice, no matter if you’re California or Rhode Island,” she says.
In order for a consortium to make the endeavor work and reap the results, experts say, participants must follow some ground rules. Those include knowing what you’re working toward, bringing in the right people, getting time and money commitments, assigning a champion and communicating with membership.
Have a Well-Defined but Flexible Goal
For years, Timothy King worked as a consultant, trying to help state and local governments, as well as businesses, work together on technology projects. He says he’d meet with the interested parties, create a three-ring binder full of suggestions for a public/ private consortium, and then, with the assignment completed, walk away, only to find that nothing would get done.
“In just about every case, the vision died at that point as a result of money and politics being at odds. It was driving me crazy,” he says.
King is vice president of the CitiState Resources Division of the Provident Foundation and director of the Center for Cooperative Innovation, a specifically chartered public/ private partnership business unit formed to facilitate aligning money and politics so that projects can more efficiently move forward. Previously King was executive director of Public Benefit Broadband in Lincolnshire, Ill., a nonprofit firm he formed to help communities create consortia that foster adoption of new technologies.
Now, when he meets with communities and the private sector, he delivers a 12-page report and four-page summary that clearly state the consortium’s goal as well as actionable ways to get to that goal. But he is quick to tell clients to use the goal as a guide, not the ultimate measure of success.
He learned this lesson working with city and community leaders in Fresno, Calif., and its outlying areas. Their goal was to develop a metropolitan area network with locally branded broadband service that would be an alternative to the established phone and cable companies. They wanted to spark competition, reduce prices, create jobs and improve their residents’ quality of life.
Once the consortium got under way, King says the cable and phone companies tried to block their efforts but failed. “Suddenly, their service began to improve, prices began to drop and the companies invited other local businesses to collaborate with them,” he says. Also, one of Fresno’s partner cities, Clovis, launched a broadband initiative based on the consortium’s legwork.
King says people get too caught up in achieving the result they set out to do. It’s important to have a well-defined goal to keep you on track and to reach benchmarks. But it’s just as important to recognize success when it happens. “You should create a consortium that is purposed to have a living, breathing outcome. If it happens to excite current providers such that they begin to improve, then you can still say ‘mission accomplished,’ ” he says.
Involve the Right Players
Another critical success factor for consortia is the involvement of the appropriate people, says Chris Dixon, manager of state and local industry analysis for Input in Reston, Va. “Membership for a consortium has to be drawn from the primary stakeholders,” he says.
Too often, he’s seen consortium efforts unravel because the wrong parties were at the table. For instance, a lot of consortia will try to get a big name on their roster, such as a governor or chief executive officer. “It’s a mistake to aim too high. Those people are spread too thin. They may dip their toes in the water of a lot of different initiatives, but they won’t want to get into the details,” he says.
On the flip side, he’s seen disaster strike when “ambitious underlings,” who want to participate in a consortium just to add something to their portfolio, are given the reins. He warns that these participants might not have the authority to make critical decisions.
Dixon says the best approach is to initially contact government executives and senior business leaders. “Give them an appropriate scope of your project and gauge what they feel can be done. They will tell you how empowered an individual they can send you. Then you’ll know you have a liaison with political capital at the table,” he says.
Nlets’ Locke says that although she has backing from governors, it’s the regional chairs of committees and members of technical operations committees that she relies on for day-to-day participation. “These are active participants who have a voice in everything we say and do,” she says.
Get a Commitment and Money Up Front
John Sharkey, executive director at UI Information Technology Support Center in College Park, Md., says before any software code is written, consortia leaders must secure a commitment of time and money from members. “If you’re going to start a consortium, you have to have everyone on board, money committed, and your plan of attack spelled out and agreed to before you start with technology development,” he says.
Sharkey, whose organization does research and development on technology for state unemployment agencies, recently proposed an updated method for adjudicating unemployment insurance claims. “When we first approached the states to join a consortium around this project, we had six or seven states interested, but only two states came through with funding,” he says.
His team proceeded but quickly ran into roadblocks because the funding for each state came in at different times. “This created serious problems in terms of keeping things in sequence,” he says. The team had to backtrack as new states came on board because they didn’t have a common baseline across all states for application development. “We wanted to make it configurable, not get bogged down in customization,” he says.
He says the way to ensure adequate participation and funding is to have a contract. “You have to agree how decisions are going to be made, what the funding levels are, what functionality can be developed for each of those funding levels, and what the staffing commitments are. You also have to outline what happens if there is a change order that requires additional funding,” he says.
Assign a Consortium Champion
Sean Crager, CIO for Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture in Harrisburg, has high hopes for his PAHerds project, a database that helps monitor animal health issues across the state (see case study, Page 37). He intends for it to become a national model for preventing, detecting and eradicating diseases among the country’s animals.
However, before that can happen, he has to expand the consortium, called USAHerds, beyond Kentucky and Indiana.
Crager says to gather more members, he has several champions talking up the benefits of USAHerds, which maintains a unified code base for the project. One is the developer his team hired to help build the software. “We had help from the commercial side who is out selling the system — and in turn, the consortium — because they want to be the integrator for each state’s implementation,” he says. (Go to www.statetechmag.com to learn how increased membership aids funding.)
At the same time, the state veterinarian has been pushing PAHerds from the animal health side to his peers in the industry. Crager has even developed a presentation and Web site so that the champions have a place to direct people for more information.
“A consortium can’t rely on just one person as a champion — that puts you in jeopardy. Instead, you need several people acting as a mouthpiece on the frontlines,” he says.
King agrees. But he says it’s important to craft the message for your champions. “Remember, you’re probably not going to be the one out there. It could be a politician or someone else, so make it concise and catchy like an elevator pitch,” he says.
Communicate Often With Membership
Dixon says that for a consortium to be effective, there must be two-way discussions and opportunity for offline feedback. “You have to make sure everyone is involved in the spade work. There can’t be any free riders who say, ‘I’m here just to get an idea of what’s going on’ or ‘I just want to sit and listen,’” he says.
“Anyone who comes to the group must engage in serious and robust information sharing. They have to show they have a stake in the outcome,” he says.
He advises consortium leaders to lay down basic rules and procedures for gaining consensus. And he insists that each meeting needs a well-planned agenda. “No matter if you’re meeting face to face or over the phone, you can’t have meandering discussions that don’t lead to actionable items,” he says.
Nlets’ Locke says she relies on multiple forms of communication to keep members apprised of consortium activity. “We communicate with our membership through electronic newsletters, our Web site, an annual report, and videoconferencing. We also have an annual conference with breakout sessions and plenary meetings,” she says.
She updates the group’s strategic plan on a regular basis to keep it fresh and to help members stay on track.
The common thread through all of these consortia efforts is transparency. “Transparency helps everyone be on an even playing field. After all, a consortium is not about one state, one city or one need, it’s about the greater good and everybody playing a part in putting the pieces together,” she says.
Consortia leaders say before you waste time on a go-nowhere project, survey your prospective membership to gauge their interest.
“We only form a consortium once a state decides it wants to participate and can commit dollars to the effort,” says John Sharkey, executive director of the UI Information Technology Support Center in College Park, Md.
For instance, his Common Systems group recently received funding from the U.S. Department of Labor. Sharkey sent a survey to state agencies to determine their level of interest, applications they were interested in, and ways for them to participate if a consortium were established. “We wanted to find out what applications they need and what the commonalities are,” he says. With this information, he’ll be able to help facilitate the formation of the consortium if a few states want to pursue an application.
Timothy King, vice president of the CitiState Resources Division of the Provident Foundation and director of the Center for Cooperative Innovation, takes a similar approach when helping communities understand the needs of their citizens.
“We use a series of survey tools and community outreach methods to identify if there is a business case or even a desire to embrace the cause,” he says. Sometimes, the surveys turn up little to no interest. “That’s when we know to walk away. I’m here to develop a program if it’s needed, not force something,” King adds.
Brand your effort with an easy-to-remember title. For example, names such as the California Broadband Consortium and Pennsylvania Broadband Consortium make their missions clear.