For many elected officials and managers in the public sector, August 2005 was the date when "interoperability" stopped being a buzzword and became a matter of life and death. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, first responders were hampered by their inability to communicate with one another. After power and telephone lines were struck down, different groups of responders, relying on incompatible radio systems, were left in the dark. As David C. Walsh noted in National Defense magazine, "Police could not talk to firefighters and emergency medical teams. … Sometimes, police and other first responders were out of touch with comrades a few blocks away. National Guard relay runners scurried about with scribbled messages as they did during the Civil War."
National emergencies like this have made it dramatically clear that interoperability — in essence, the ability to share information quickly, efficiently, and widely — must be a priority on the federal, state, and local levels.
Interoperability is critical to maintaining safety and preventing threats to national security in the face of an emergency. The most recent Unisys Security Index, which measures consumer perceptions of security issues, found that Americans are concerned about security more so than people in other countries. They feel that government is not doing enough to protect them and must step up efforts beyond what is being done today. A majority of respondents (62 percent) are very concerned about national security threats.
The good news is the public sector has become increasingly aware of the need. In 2005, for example, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security launched the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), which supports the sharing of critical information both in emergency situations and in the day-to-day work of agencies throughout the country. In another example of federal initiative, the Federal Communications Commission is now seeking to spur the development of a nationwide broadband wireless network, which will provide commercial service for consumers and a nationwide network for public safety. The new network will offer tools rarely available to first responders today, such as live video from disaster areas and telemetry channels that will monitor firefighters' vital signs.
States and local jurisdictions are also responding to the need. In Blaine County, Idaho, the county's disaster services coordinator, Chuck Turner, announced last December that the county had received a $1.1 million grant to improve the interoperability of emergency communications. He explained that in the wake of disasters, such as Katrina and Sept. 11, emergency officials throughout the country had been forced to take a fresh look at the way information was shared among disaster response agencies. Referring to Sept. 11, he said, "The fire couldn't talk to the law in New York City."
Clearly, interoperability is a crucial initiative, but its importance isn't confined to emergency-response procedures. Anyone who has had the experience of filling out redundant forms — for instance, when moving from state to state, refurbishing a property, receiving public assistance or starting a business — will appreciate the importance of improving information-sharing in the public sector.
In the state of New York, Governor Eliot Spitzer last spring established a commission to investigate ways to foster partnerships among local governments, a goal that includes the development of better systems for sharing information. Former New York lieutenant governor Alfred B. DelBello, a member of Spitzer's commission and the chairman of the Westchester County Association's Property Tax Reform Commission, recently spoke to The New York Times about the need to modernize Westchester County's systems for billing property taxes and recording assessments.
"A surprising amount of the paperwork is still being entered in ledger books and buff cards," he said. "We really need only one system countywide, which could send a single tax bill to the property owner. Banks can do this kind of thing in two minutes. Our technological capabilities are extreme, but most governments have not caught up with it."
The challenges that stand in the way of greater interoperability are both technical and organizational. IT administrators are often relying on technologies that were developed decades ago, and upgrades are often made on a piecemeal, case-by-case basis, with no regard for the larger picture.
But IT modernization that doesn't address the need for interoperability isn't really modernization at all. Officials and managers in the public sector must take a holistic look at organizational structure across agencies and build their modernization strategies around the priority of interoperability.
This is where the private sector can help — from evaluating legacy systems to determine which ones can be leveraged and analyzing security risks to full-scale integration of completely interoperable systems.
All across the public sector, agencies must strive for interoperability to serve the consumer of government services — the end user. The baby boomer generation now approaching retirement age will not be like yesterday's retirees. While their parents and grandparents would sometimes find it daunting to turn on the TV with a remote control, the boomer generation is accustomed to accessing information from all over the world — instantly, at the click of a mouse. These boomers have had the experience of interoperability in everyday life.
As they begin to use the public sector more frequently, these technologically savvy retirees will not find it rational to fill out many different forms that ask for essentially the same information. And the generations after them, generations that find it more comfortable to use a keyboard than to hold a pen, are even more impatient with redundancies and bottlenecks that hinder information flow. In the public as in the private sector, it's the consumer who makes the need for change impossible to ignore.