Policy Brief - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Homeland Security: How to Improve Interoperability for State and Local Responders

| March 3, 2008

A Memo to Homeland Security Officials


Issue: How can U.S. cities achieve high interoperability performance? How can federal funds be used most effectively toward that objective?

Background: One of the most important lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is that, in order to respond successfully, local agencies must be able to exchange information in real time. In the years that followed, interoperability programs have become one of the Department of Homeland Security's funding priorities in its allocations to state and local governments. In the past seven years, the federal government has given millions of dollars to state and local governments with the goal of improving interoperability programs. However, state and local politics often get in the way of effective use of the money. Our research provides insight and recommendations into how state and local governments can improve the effectiveness of these programs.

Importance: Local performance on homeland security is vital to the public interest. Maintaining effective local cooperation across policy sectors is necessary to create resilience in the face of terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Effective national security strategy is contingent on local policy, but local cooperation cannot be assumed. This is especially true given the political issues related to allocation of homeland security funds.

Objectives: Communications interoperability is vital to achieving community resilience given a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Moreover, achieving high performance on interoperability can inform how to secure other sectors such as critical infrastructure given similar political and economic constraints.

Discussion: Substantial federal funds are directed to local jurisdictions to address homeland security concerns, but results to date are uneven and inconsistent. How can local jurisdictions achieve high, sustained performance on homeland security goals? Comparing 48 U.S. cities that have received Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funds between 2003 and 2005, we examined the resources, institutional context, and governance features associated with local communications interoperability performance. Our analysis indicates that high local performance on interoperability is not associated with greater funding levels. Instead, governance attributes — particularly characteristics of multi-level engagement with strict, formal rules and procedures — are important intervening factors shaping interoperability performance. Cities judged to have "advanced" governance arrangements (i.e. Washington, D.C., the Twin Cities, San Diego, and Columbus) are 60% likely to perform best on interoperability performance regardless of UASI funds (see Figure 1 in Methodological Appendix). Cities judged to have "early" governance (i.e. Chicago, Baton Rouge, Cleveland) perform lowest on interoperability, even when UASI grants have been substantial. Among high-performing cities, governance arrangements with multi-level/multi-jurisdictional partnerships and formal rules have discernable performance advantages over loosely structured relationships with more autonomous units (Figure 2).

Strategic Options: Several options are possible to improve local interoperability performance among other homeland security priorities.

  1. First, continue with status quo policies, since local performance coalitions sometimes form out of pre-existing institutions without state intervention.
  2. Second, invest in creating multiple public-private partnerships, producing multiple informal coalitions. This option reflects the conventional wisdom about how local polities should cope with coordination dilemmas.
  3. Third, facilitate local attempts to create and maintain the incentives for multijurisdictional cooperation and formalize rules and protocols across jurisdictions. As distinct from current Investment Justifications requiring how funds will be used, this option involves contractual relations indicating how stakeholders will perform different functions.

Recommendation: Option C. Performance is enhanced when formal rules and protocols establish durable coordination among multiple stakeholders. Federal funding is most effective when such rules and protocols exist, and when local coalitions are nested in multiple levels of governance. Creating the incentives for such multi-level cooperation and formalization of rules and protocols are important policy priorities. This strategic option involves the following three specific recommendations.

  1. Homeland security officials should bring together stakeholders from multiple levels of government (local, state, and federal) across multiple policy sectors.
  2. Partnerships among the different levels should be codified by formal, enforceable rules and protocols — as opposed to informal agreements — to maximize the utility of federal funds to cities.
  3. State officials should require formal protocols among cities to specify the use of federal grant funds for homeland security. Specifically, cities should develop contractual agreements indicating which stakeholders will perform different functions prior to the distribution of funds. Cities with advanced governance, multi-level partnerships, and formal institutional linkages will be the most effective in using federal funds to improve interoperability.
For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Chenoweth, Erica and Susan Clarke. “Homeland Security: How to Improve Interoperability for State and Local Responders.” Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 3, 2008.

The Authors