When I was an Assistant Commissioner for foster care for a large city in the United States, I spent my days primarily doing one of two things: 1) putting out fires; and 2) trying to change the system so those same fires didn’t rekindle when I turned my back to extinguish a different fire. All of this was in the service of the approximately 17,000 children in foster care and their birth, kinship, foster, or adoptive families.
Many times during my tenure with the city I found myself frustrated by the silos both inside the agency and with the agencies across the city, state, and country who served the same children and families. For example: The mother at the end of her rope who had to travel to vital records again because she could no longer find her child’s birth certificate. The family who sat all day filling out housing forms only to wait for weeks to learn if they qualified. The hours spent on the phone searching for an appropriate hospital bed for a mentally ill teen who had run away to another state. The infant whose life might have been spared if homeless service staff knew his mother had an open child protective case when she entered the shelter.
When problems arose, I tackled the problems. And then I set my mind to breaking through the silos that had made the problem more difficult to solve. Repeatedly I ran into data sharing walls—either people believed data could not be shared because of confidentiality rules or, more often inside the larger human service system, two agencies were willing to share data but there was no easy way to move the data because the systems were just not designed that way.
Last year, in my role as a consultant to Stewards of Change, I began to assist the primary federal human service agency, the Administration for Children and Families, start up the Human Services Domain for the National Information Exchange Model, or NIEM. Somewhere along the line I realized NIEM’s potential to profoundly change the way we, in human services, do our jobs—both in the day-to-day putting out of fires and in the larger systemic changes that have the potential to improve so many lives.
According to its official website, NIEM connects communities of people who share a common need to exchange information in order to advance their missions. It uses extensible mark-up language, or XML, as its foundation and has been building a repository of data elements and exchanges to ensure common vocabulary between users. By providing this common vocabulary to facilitate information exchange, NIEM enables diverse communities to “speak the same language” as they share, exchange, accept, and translate information efficiently.
If you are still confused, NIEM is not about rebuilding legacy systems. It is the bridge between those systems. To those who have experienced its power, NIEM is simply about putting data in perfect motion. Through NIEM:
- A growth in pharmaceutical drug abuse across state lines was slowed when law enforcement officials and pharmacies in California and Nevada began to electronically share information about the illegal abuse of prescription drugs.
- The state of Massachusetts moved from mostly paper-based tracking of gang activity in to MassGangs, a web-based repository and intelligence and investigative tool that allows authorized users to electronically exchange, store, and use real-time gang-related data maintained by public safety and law enforcement agencies statewide.
- By galvanizing entire communities in the search, a missing child can be more quickly and safely recovered through perhaps the best known NIEM exchange, Amber Alert, which is a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies, and the wireless industry to send an urgent bulletin in child-abduction cases.
As a bonus, we can all benefit from the work already done by other states and counties. NIEM’s data elements and exchanges live in a publicly-accessible repository. Want to try California and Nevada’s solution? Go right ahead. While each new creation or reuse of a NIEM exchange may require a coming together of involved subject matter experts, information technology professionals, and decision makers, you are free to learn from and use what others have created.
Those of us in the business of human service have very lofty missions which, I would argue, cannot be accomplished without cross-silo collaboration and information exchange. NIEM is new to the human service arena, but should not be considered a new mandate. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. It is a tool that belongs to all of us. And if employed wisely and broadly, will help all of us to greatly improve our outcomes for children, families, and other vulnerable populations.
Can anyone out there speak to use of NIEM in their state or county? Has it bettered outcomes? Reduced system development costs? Improved relationships with industry partners? Please share your NIEM experiences.