Communications and Information Sharing in Public-Private Partnerships: Networking for Emergency Management

Communications and Information Sharing in Public-Private Partnerships: Networking for Emergency Management

Beverly Magda (Georgetown University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8159-0.ch009
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Communications and information sharing has been called the most critical function in emergency management. But whenever an exercise is held or an incident occurs then communications, and by association information sharing, is nearly always cited as a problem and often as a failure. This is true despite the communications technology/channels used, the size, scope, and complexity of the exercise or incident, and the best intentions of the people involved. Technology and/or the development of new technologies alone will not solve this problem. Communications and information sharing is an innately human function and always has been. This chapter focuses on the basics of human communication and then explores alternatives through networking that may contribute to the failure or success of information sharing in public-private partnerships in emergency management. Last, some suggestions are made for ways to enhance the communications and information sharing in emergency management.
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Establishing the Foundation for Information Sharing – Values, Decisions, Actions

Viestintä yleensä epäonnistuu, paitsi sattumalta (Wiio, 1978).

The English translation of this particular Wiio’s law is, “Communication usually fails, except by accident” (Wiio, 1978). There are myriad challenges for communications. Given in terms of “context,” challenges for communication exist in the psychological, relational, situational, environmental and cultural contexts, which unfortunately cover just about everything. People typically behave as “rational actors”. In a specific situation, a person’s response depends on their “rational” interpretation of that situation which goes beyond the facts of any “common operating picture” conveyed. However, their interpretation will always be biased. And worse, challenges abound for rational choice theory, e.g. “free-riders” who seem to appear everywhere apparently negating many tenets of rational choice theory (Buchanan, 1979). Complex organizations comprise individuals with values, groups with norms and their own organizational culture. Ignoring for the moment the many issues debated about rational choice theory, consider how individual values impact our interpretation of any communication. Martin Packer discussed the development of individual values as we age, arguing that once we reach a certain point our values are essentially set for life (Packer, 1992). These values can be set aside as we tackle life’s challenges in our professional and personal endeavors, at least temporarily. For example, we may give in to group norms in our work life in order to succeed or be viewed as a team player. However, over time our values will increasingly influence our behavior. They are an inherent part of our rational choice.

No single value is solely responsible for our behavior. We behave based on complex interaction of large numbers of values, i.e. value pluralism. Further, value pluralism and more specifically revised value pluralism add social learning in the form of social content and social context to our own myriad values (Tetlock, Peterson & Lerner, 1996). Schwartz (1996) postulated, from three basic human needs, that values vary in importance given the situation we find ourselves in. He described the value conformity as the “restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms” that supports the goal of obedience or self-discipline (Schwartz, 1996). On the other hand he described the value of self-direction as “independent thought and action-choosing, creating, exploring” which supports the goals of creativity, freedom and independence (Schwartz, 1996). Spanning these values Schwartz described the value achievement as “personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards” which supports ambition and success (Schwartz, 1996). Just considering these three values leads us to the conclusion that we can apply our values based on our perception of their relative importance to situations we find ourselves in. For example, as we work on teams to achieve a common goal does not necessarily mean that we are not individually ambitious. Rather, it means that as team players we downgrade the importance of self-direction in order to elevate conformity in order to ultimately uphold our (personal) achievement. After all, most of us bask in the glow of that pat-on-the-back when the boss says “the team couldn’t have done it without you”.

Organizational culture is an even more subtle influence on our behavior than our individual values and group norms. But, it affects us in many ways. For example, an emotionally charged organizational culture has the consequence of creating a collective identity and (individual) commitment; whereas a dynamic organizational culture may result in dual tensions, functional and dysfunctional (Simon, 1997). More recently than Simon penned his classic Administrative Behavior, several organizations have developed calamitous cultures, e.g. Enron, WorldCom and Arthur Andersen. These examples illustrate that an organization’s culture can cause even rational actors to behave irrationally, even immorally and illegally. Organization culture is something that is deeply held by members of the organization. At its core it is the unconscious perpetuation of a set of prior successful experiences. If an organization can substantiate that an action or set of actions consistently results in success it/they will become embedded in the organization’s culture. In this way no specific direction need be communicated. The “way we do things” is tacitly understood and followed (Schein, 2010). And, we will at least temporarily suspend our own personal values to conform to our organization’s culture.

All organizations have both formal and informal structures. Depending on the organization’s culture, work and communications may proceed along either the formal or informal structure, or more likely along both. An Incident Command (IC) Post has a very rigid, formal structure. This is to ensure goals are achieved; and, that safety remains a priority. Work and communications are expected to proceed along the formal structure, i.e. the chain-of-command. An Emergency Operations Center can be organized around major management activities, the Incident Command System (ICS), or by Emergency Support Function (ESF). Regardless of an EOC’s organization there will be many cross-functional requirements. This means that irrespective of the specific type of organization an EOC will have a matrix structure. This matrix structure might be formally established. But more likely, work and communications will proceed through informal relationships as well as the “formal” matrix.

Poole studied organizational communications as an “information task” (Poole, 1978). As noted previously by Katz and Kahn (1966), Poole postulates that communication in organizations supports productive work, supports socialization, aids in strategic decision-making, and supports innovation. Therefore, organizational communication can be viewed as an information task. Furthermore, to carry out the information task(s) work units will use and extend organizational communication channels, systems and/or networks depending on their availability, uniformity, and independence. As Poole concludes, “communication structures in organizations would be expected to result from any of three sources: (a) formal organizational structure; (b) transactions among individuals; and (c) transactions among work or task units” (Poole, 1978). This is very consistent with communications in emergency management. For example, when confronted with a deadline, in EM this is often a critical deadline, most people will contact whoever they need to in order to get the information they need to complete their work and meet their deadline. The “whoever” they contact first will likely be someone in their formal structure unless it becomes clear that whoever will not get them the information they need in time. Then, people may reach out to those they know who can get them the information they need. This process becomes more angst-ridden the more critical the deadline is. The process of reaching out to others has advantages and disadvantages, can have good results or bad results. It may be routine in EOC’s but could be disastrous in IC Posts if incorrect information is communicated that needs to be quickly acted on.

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