Reaching Across Boundaries

Even within an organization that might think of itself as an enterprise, such as a police department or a hospital, there are impediments to open communications and information sharing.   Tightly knit communities of interest within enterprises are generally regarded as places where information is freely and openly shared in order for the members of such communities to get their respective jobs done and perform well as a team.  But trying to create a path for such exchanges between communities of interest has been the challenge that most complicates our general thirst for better information sharing.  Particularly when there are conflicts in objectives or purpose that are either real or perceived, walls go up and information sharing gets blocked. 

We are now experiencing a new perception about information sharing objectives.  The world of cross-boundary information sharing is changing.  A number of exciting collaborations are beginning to energize inter-disciplinary information sharing.  For the right reasons, people are looking at information sharing in the context of the need to solve specific social problems.  One of the most impressive transformations is taking place around the purpose of reducing recidivism by improving offender reentry into the community.  Because of the recognition that 95% of inmates do return to the community, and that our ability to intervene in their criminal careers is dependent on our ability to re-integrate them into society better, the obvious and logical move to improve information sharing has begun.  Corrections administrators have realized that it is essential to share things like evaluations, medical needs and other information with the social services agencies that end up taking some level of responsibility for offender re-entry.  It is too early to prove that this new level of information sharing will have a direct consequence, but the intuitive attraction is very powerful. 
Another example is the improved communications and information sharing that has been developing in the effort to reduce youth violence, particularly in schools.  Smart managers are realizing that police, schools, and social services have to share information in order to promote the kind of family wellness that will in the end help solve this complicated problem.  
The potential for improving information sharing at least across the boundaries of justice, health and human services is huge, and attention is being paid to how such improvements can turn into solutions or at least contribute to solving serious social problems.  The IJIS Institute has a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to determine the exchanges that might be most productive between the justice and health disciplines, and is working closely with practitioners from these domains to define the action plan to improve information sharing.  The Bureau of Justice Assistance has fostered work at the IJIS Institute and elsewhere for many years to help the states exchange information on prescription drug abuse to help both substance abuse and law enforcement services.  Many of the programs and services of organizations such as the Vera Institute of Justice are centered on interactions between justice and human services.
Within the broad reach of the human services world, the field is alive with collaboration to build more intelligent services that are not isolated into stovepipes, sometimes around such common processes as eligibility.  Agencies are realizing that such common purposes are in dire need of overhaul in order to reduce costs and provide better service in times of budget constraints.   
Part of the momentum has been supported by the efforts of the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) PMO where the last few years has seen the fostering of new domains such as health and human services which are now separate and unique domains of NIEM. Having a common framework and vocabulary makes it much easier to create standards for exchanging information across communities of interest in very different enterprises, and NIEM has been the facilitation tool that has filled that need. Evolving architectures, particularly the notion of a service-oriented architecture, have also inspired better collaboration.
But all the best technology would not have created this forward motion in information sharing across communities of interest unless there was a will to do so.  It may well be that we are entering a new era where the Zeitgeist (loosely translated as the spirit of the times) is changing our cultural norms because of the coming together of the minds of who want to solve social problems of significance rather than just whine about them.  Technology can support this kind of progress when there is a will to make it happen.  Let’s hope the spirit of collaboration grows stronger.     
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