A Bridge to Somewhere

As Robert Frost continues to remind us, we have “miles to go before we sleep” when it comes to there being full information sharing just within the individual domains of law enforcement, justice or human services. But we might see even more powerful rewards as we begin to introduce a strong capacity to share information across communities of interest. We are only beginning to build a bridge, for example, between the justice,  health and human services worlds and there are so many intersections of these worlds where a solid and enduring pattern of information sharing might have tremendous impact.

The intersections are plentiful. Just to excite your imagination, there have been research projects that tell us that teaching a single mother to read might have a greater effect on crime reduction than any other single program, as children whose mothers read to them are less likely to become engaged in a life of crime. Experts on juvenile violence have speculated that careful but better information sharing between law enforcement, schools, and social services about the signs of potential violence in troubled youth might allow us to prevent some of the school shootings that we have experienced throughout the country. Creating innovative ways to address the narcotics and dangerous drug addiction problems such as the opiod overdose calamity we face certainly require collaboration between substance abuse programs and law enforcement as well as health care and other social service agencies. Reducing recidivism rates by doing a better job of handling offender re-entry into the community requires a collaborative community effort of health, justice and human services to be successful.

It is intuitively obvious that information sharing is at the heart of any of these collaborative efforts to attack a serious societal problem. It is also the case that these disparate agencies start from a position of distrusting any other component, so the willingness to share information has to be built upon a new paradigm of collaboration based on mutual trust and a recognition that collaboration is essential. We have to accept the reality that no single agency is capable of having a significant success in dealing with the most important social issues of our time. Instead of drawing organization charts to formulate a solution to a social problem, we should be constructing the workflow in a process to which multiple organizations can contribute.

Cultural impediments are often cited as the obstacles to building trust and true collaboration, but it seems to me that this is more than a cultural block. Leaders can decide to build bridges across the chasm of justice and health and human services regardless of the cultural shortcomings. It may take time, but companies and government organizations have shown that they are quite capable of reinventing themselves once their leadership is convinced it is time to do so.

Technology will not solve this problem of creating the will to change but what we can do is to make very sure that the technology will support the information sharing once the organizational leadership opens the door to doing so. If we can build the tools for information sharing, foster standards-based innovation, consider the real production needs of all stakeholders on both ends of an exchange, and create a state where, once there is a green light for information sharing, the technology will be ready and will in fact stimulate the exchange of information that is the infrastructure on which better decisions and policies can be made…then we can build the bridge to somewhere useful.