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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Broken government, Part II: 'interoperability'

On Sept. 11, 2001, professional, well-trained and dedicated police officers, firefighters and EMS workers responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center. Despite their talent and dedication, many lost their lives because, in addition to the other tragedies that day, their radios were not “interoperable.” They couldn’t communicate with one another from department to department.

This is a symbol of what happens every day in large organizations, especially government. An investigation found that leading up to Sept. 11, the CIA wasn’t talking to the FBI, and those agencies weren’t talking to what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or the Federal Aviation Administration, and so on. Agencies weren’t sharing information outside their department, or “silo.” A lack of “interoperability” is a common government problem.

In my last column, I discussed the fact that many governments are larger than Fortune 1000 companies, yet have unique challenges related to civil service rules, the lack of a profit motive, the press and politics that make them very unlike private businesses. In government, it’s even harder to get people to work with others outside their silos because of the lack of incentives or enforcement mechanisms to get people to do so. Government is tough.

Our goal should always be to improve government performance without spending more money. Addressing the problem of interoperability will go a long way toward solving some of our thorniest (and most expensive) problems. Let’s look at one of them.

Seventy-five percent of people in jail or prison have a drug, alcohol or mental health problem. The law enforcement community is not well equipped to address these problems on top of their enforcement duties. Furthermore, social service agencies (of which there are many) dedicated to addressing these issues are hardly interoperable with law enforcement agencies (of which there are also many). Moreover, drug, alcohol and mental health issues often emerge during adolescents’ school years, and here on Long Island, the education system (also large and complex) is not interoperable with law enforcement or social service agencies.

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