Former Associate Professor of Public Policy
(Faculty member no longer at HKS)
Emergency Communications: The Quest for Interoperability in the United States and Europe.
Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. "Emergency Communications: The Quest for Interoperability in the United States and Europe." KSG Faculty Research Working Papers Series RWP02-024, March 2002.
When on September 11, 2001, the Pentagon stood ablaze, responding fire companies from Maryland could not communicate with those from Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia. Runners had to be used instead, stalling rescue efforts: a powerful reminder that even in the age of digital networks and ubiquitous cell phones, communication interoperability, the ability of public safety personnel to communicate by radio with staff from other agencies, on demand and in real time, remains an elusive goal. As almost 60,000 federal, state and local public safety agencies plan to upgrade their communications systems in the wake of 9/11, this essay takes a hard look at communications interoperability and its implementation, here in the United States and in Europe. Three steps have been seen as requirements for interoperability: inventing the appropriate technology, setting common standards and frequencies, and providing adequate funding. This essay looks at each of these steps in the U.S. and European contexts and analyzes successes and failures, rendering a fuller picture both of the challenges for interoperability and of best practices to meet them. Over the last few years (and surprisingly given the complex political structures) the Europeans have pulled ahead of the U.S. in implementing interoperability, although with determination and the right set of strategies, U.S. policymakers can easily make up lost ground. Enhanced Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leadership in defining frequencies and standards and a clearly formulated and thoroughly executed comprehensive funding strategy, based either on public funds or innovative public-private partnerships, would go a long way toward enabling communications interoperability to take hold. Yet, this essay is not simply about how to overcome obstacles on the path to interoperability. The case of interoperability, its elusiveness in the United States and its successes elsewhere, reveals a deeper, more troubling story - a story not so much of technical hurdles, as of structural and political hurdles, as more of perceived than actual constraints, unduly limiting the nation¹s ability to cope with an important public policy need in these uncertain times. There are no abstract silver bullets to overcome the problem. Instead, policymakers have to look carefully at how well the policy strategy they select is aligned with their means and the policy context. In the United States, interoperability has suffered from strategic misalignment and haphazard implementation. European interoperability policies have fared better, not because of a general advantage in the strategies chosen, but because of a better fit between means and ends. Thus interoperability also provides an intriguing test case, highlighting the transcending importance of strategic alignment, agency innovation, and leadership.