Trust is the foundation of any successful team. In a disaster, trust can make the difference between lives saved and lives lost. As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, trusted networks and trusted information are more important now than ever.
True community resilience requires trust and teamwork across a multi-agency and sometimes multi-jurisdictional network, whether the hazard is a communicable disease or a bioterrorism attack. Trusted networks are a cornerstone of effective resilience building.
There’s an old chestnut in emergency management: “You don’t want to be trading business cards during a disaster.” Although this may seem self-evident, a crisis like COVID-19 makes clear the importance of these connections, as emergency managers call on and pivot existing networks from one threat to another. This article discusses the value of these networks in theory and describes how a trusted network program developed for the biodetection space can improve mission efficiencies and operational readiness and contribute to the broader causes of public health and resilience.
Jurisdictional Coordinators as Trusted Partners in Building Resilience
As one expert told us, “Emergency management is about relationships…. Being that bridge to help our partners know their different capabilities, their names, their backgrounds ultimately means they are going to be able to better utilize their strengths.” Trust is the foundation of those relationships. Another expert said, “Building trust takes considerable time and effort, but it has immense value in successfully enhancing preparedness.”
One measure of trust is the level of connectedness in a network of actors (i.e., people and organizations). Over the past 10 to 15 years, a good deal of research has explored connectedness between people and organizations involved in emergency preparedness, response, and recovery as a measure of community resilience. For example, a 2009 National Academy of Science (NAS) Workshop commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security focused on using social network analysis to measure and improve community resilience. As NAS wrote: “A community’s ability to respond to and recover from natural or human-caused disasters is in part dependent on the strength and effectiveness of its social networks. Effective interventions – activities designed to change or improve conditions in the community – during all phases of a disaster can be facilitated by community leaders taking advantage of existing social networks to send and receive information. Conversely, a community may be at risk if the relationships across the economic, cultural, social, and political sectors of the civic infrastructure are not understood.” (National Research Council 2009. Applications of Social Network Analysis for Building Community Disaster Resilience: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.)
We believe that the trusted social networks that emergency management professionals develop across agencies and jurisdictions for a particular hazard play a key role in the bigger picture of community resilience.
We’re interested in what these networks look like in practice, how they increase mission efficiencies and boost resilience, and how they can be used to pivot from one hazard to another. The Jurisdictional Coordinator (JC) program, part of a federally funded and locally managed biodetection effort under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, is a good example of how trusted social networks benefit preparedness and public health far beyond the scope of a single mission space.
The JC program is an unsung DHS success story, because averted threats are invisible to the public. “This work isn’t splashy or glamourous,” as microbiologist Katie Ballering put it. Instead, “It’s the roll-up-your-sleeves, get-in-the-trenches work of preparedness.” The program uses Jurisdictional Coordinators (JCs) to establish and nurture social networks in the service of the biodefense mission. And the program serves that mission well, creating efficiencies and improving coordination across the board. But its positive impact in the wider spheres of public health, community resilience, and CWMD operations has gone unexplored.
To illustrate the reach and value of these JC networks, we drew on social network analysis, the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows between people and organizations. The nodes of the network are the people, groups, or organizations; the links show the relationships or information flows between the nodes. By measuring the location and grouping of nodes, you can identify the role that each person or organization plays in the network.
At different times, JCs may play three roles in their social networks:
- Central connectors. Theseare people linked to the greatest number of people. In Figure 1, the mayor – the red node – would be the most central connector, but in reality, JCs often have direct connections to each of the jurisdictional actors as well.
- Boundary spanners. Theseare people who connect one network to another within a single organization or across organizations. This is perhaps the single most important role of JCs in that they serve as critical connectors across agencies within a jurisdiction and between their jurisdiction and representatives of federal, state, local, and tribal and territorial governments. Figure 1 illustrates this role.
- Peripheral specialists. These professionals have special expertise that can be drawn upon even though they often work independently of the group. With backgrounds in epidemiology and other public-health fields, JCs are trusted subject-matter experts who often play the peripheral specialist role.
Figure 1: Jurisdictional Coordinators as boundary spanners
The Jurisdictional Coordinator networks include scores of contacts that emergency managers, first responders, and local officials can call upon in a disaster. These networks include more than 2,000 direct connections to key personnel in federal, state, tribal, territorial, and local organizations. JCs use these connections to:
- Help build intra- and inter-organizational trust at the local and federal levels
- Connect and build trust across disparate horizontal government organizations
- Connect state and local jurisdictions to federal planning and response organizations and activities
- Serve as technical experts and independent contributors to the biodefense networks in their jurisdictions
What we learned from talking with Jurisdictional Coordinators is that their trusted networks add public-health value far beyond their importance in the biodefense space.
How does this play out in practice? How do these professionals see their roles within the public-health landscape? We spoke with some Jurisdictional Coordinators to learn more about how their networks benefit broader resilience efforts in their communities.
Connectors, Boundary Spanners, and Specialists: Voices from the Jurisdictions
The themes of relationships, collaboration, and communication continually surfaced when Jurisdictional Coordinators talked about their work. JCs clearly view themselves as connectors and boundary spanners, bringing together stakeholders with diverse backgrounds, portfolios, and missions to improve outcomes for their communities.
Because of their backgrounds, Jurisdictional Coordinators are ideally qualified and situated to play a boundary-spanning role in their networks. This can open up new avenues for collaboration across agencies and jurisdictions. For example, Gabrielle Bullman was a communicable disease epidemiologist for the District of Columbia Department of Health. “When I transitioned to my new role as a JC, I found myself, crossing paths with a lot of the same folks with whom I had worked previously,” she said. Now she’s “in a position to connect local stakeholders that would otherwise not necessarily have a direct line of communication.”
These lines of communication help build trust and break down barriers between stakeholders. Ebony Lampkins, a JC in the Midwest who was an epidemiologist for the Cleveland Department of Public Health, emphasized the value of open communication in improving collaboration and, ultimately, building resilience. She also spoke of the importance of valuing differences, a key element of building equity into the resilience mission. “Resilience is based on flexibility and respecting differences,” she said.
The boundary-spanning role means JCs often serve as communication and relationship hubs, making new connections and providing trusted information across their networks. This creates mission efficiencies, too. Lampkins said, “Stakeholders like it when they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They appreciate it when I can provide the name of another stakeholder in a different jurisdiction who they can talk with about a similar issue.”
Drew Downing, who worked for local governments in Orange County, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio, before becoming a JC, also sees himself as a connector, boundary spanner, and communicator. He said, “When I’m doing my best work, I’m a conduit of information in so many different ways to our partners.” He helps bridge knowledge gaps and align priorities across disparate groups of stakeholders, creating mission efficiencies for not just DHS, but for each entity in his network.
Tom Hunt is a hub for sharing local and regional information across his network of more than 400 local, state, regional, and tribal contacts. His boundary-spanning work includes breaking down organizational silos and helping “deconflict issues between partners at different levels of government, improving coordination between stakeholders.” Hunt’s role as an honest broker improves collaboration across the jurisdiction, helping ensure coherent, coordinated preparedness and response efforts.
The trust that JCs have developed across their networks helps stakeholders feel their concerns are heard and understood. Lampkins said, “I am able to assist [local stakeholders] with effective decision making and sound judgment in complex issues for better outcomes.” This is important at every level of government. Bullman said, “The working group for our program has almost as many federal representatives as it does local representatives. Communication and coordination with locally deployed federal partners is discussed with the same level of care and concern as that between local agencies and organizations. Our protocols reflect this necessary interconnectedness.”
The connector and boundary spanner roles also reach across disciplines and mission spaces. Jurisdictional Coordinator networks span everything from public health to environmental protection to law enforcement to veterinary surveillance. For example, a recent meeting included updates not just on biodetection, but on a communicable disease outbreak, an upcoming radiological incident exercise, and an Emergency Operations Center training opportunity. This ability to expand across disciplines and mission spaces is an underleveraged asset.
On top of their work as connectors and boundary spanners, JCs are also called upon to act as peripheral specialists. Because of their subject-matter expertise, Jurisdictional Coordinators often serve on workgroups, panels, committees, and other bodies within the biodefense mission space and in the broader preparedness and resilience sphere. And because they’ve held visible leadership roles within the public-health community, their voices and perspectives are sought out and valued outside the biodefense arena. JCs are particularly effective at the intersection of subject-matter expertise and communications. It’s this blend of expertise that helps them reach outside their program to build wider resilience.
Ebony Lampkins, for example, led the H1N1 Planning Committee for public health in her region. Her experience as an epidemiologist dealing with communicable diseases, combined with her communications skills and the trust she has developed among her networks, “created new opportunities for engagement across entities and ultimately gave a stronger and more positive voice to the role of public health locally.” This wider reach benefits the DHS program she serves as well as her local community.
JCs have a long history of using their subject-matter expertise and communication skills to pivot to challenges outside the biodetection space. In one case, for example, a JC called on his networks to help establish environmental testing after a biosafety containment incident in a neighboring state. In another instance, a JC provided ongoing biological incident planning while public health and emergency management officials responded to Hurricane Harvey.
Most recently, Jurisdictional Coordinators have lent aid to COVID-19 response efforts. Through sharing best practices and lessons learned from other parts of the country, their coordination support has expanded lab capacity for testing, enhanced epidemiological systems, and improved decontamination processes in their local jurisdictions. Each JC shares trusted information and critical COVID-19 updates with stakeholders across their jurisdictions and regions. One JC is on his third deployment with the National Disaster Medical System. Another supports the opening and operation of an alternate care site for COVID patients, as well as the deployment of nursing strike teams supported by U.S. Navy personnel in skilled nursing facilities. Other JCs volunteer their time to help with COVID-19 response.
A Proven Model for Building Resilience
Jurisdictional Coordinators’ work is part of a tapestry of detection, prevention, and response that goes on quietly. There’s no clickbait value in stories about their efforts behind the scenes. As Katie Ballering said, it’s the kind of work that no one notices when it’s done well.
But there is exceptional value in the trusted social networks the JCs build and nurture across mission spaces and disciplines. The value of those networks becomes even more clear in a crisis like COVID-19.
The Jurisdictional Coordinator model, with subject-matter and communication experts acting as connectors, boundary spanners, and specialists across trusted networks, creates mission efficiencies and better operational outcomes not just in the biodefense space, but beyond it. It’s a model that could be applied in adjacent mission spaces like chem or rad/nuc to serve the public health – and even build greater public trust. As Drew Downing pointed out, when a disaster strikes, people and communities look for coherent, collaborative responses: “At the end of the day, the public expects one coordinated effort to meet the challenge. Which agency is doing what isn’t their priority – they want to know that their families and community are taken care of.”