PSN Project Case Study (March 2013)

15, 2013

Let’s assume you have a big problem that your one organization cannot address alone - or that you interact so much with a set of other agencies that it makes operational sense to establish some joint / common venture. There are numerous models for creating a joint venture, but if you want to retain decision making authority in the member organizations themselves (networked governance) you have three – shared, lead-organization, and network administrative organization (NAO).  With the shared model member organizations make decisions collectively by building consensus.  With the lead-organization model a single member organization commits to orchestrating the network’s activities. With the network administrative organization model a separate entity is created that the network members govern or own, and this entity provides communication and coordination services to member organizations (but does not eliminate the need for member-to-member interaction and does not execute operational transactions – e.g., does not investigate a specific crime). Nlets falls under the NAO model of network governance.


So what?

An NAO-type structure yields particular benefits for member organizations. Nlets as an NAO does more than just provide training and collective bargaining power.  As a central network organization Nlets helps its members balance three critical tensions that larger, interdependent organizations face – governance, credibility, and sustainability.


The first tension involves governance, and the balancing act is between inclusion and efficiency.  You want all members involved in making decisions, but you don’t want the process to take forever. New threats arise and require fast and appropriate responses. Yet, ignoring stakeholder input breeds distrust and disenfranchises members.  Through special projects communications, annual meetings, sub-committees, and a five-year forecasted strategic plan, Nlets provides a vehicle to efficiently and broadly capture member views and incorporate those views into actions.


The second tension involves credibility, and the balancing act is between internal and external legitimacy. You want a high degree of member satisfaction, but ignoring external stakeholders (e.g., F.B.I., DHS, or BJS) will result in decreased grant funding and additional reporting requirements (stemming from increases in scrutiny and auditing). By staying mission-focused and yet also serving as a national leader for law enforcement information exchange, Nlets maintains a high degree of credibility with law enforcement officers and federal agencies alike.


The last tension involves organizational sustainability, and the balancing act is between flexibility and stability. Flexibility means the network organization responds effectively/efficiently to changes in regulations, crime trends, and technology capabilities. Stability means the network organization responds consistently/reliably to ongoing member demands for the long haul. Research would predict a reduced ability to be flexible the more formal the governance model (NAO being the most formal).  In other words, you would expect that creating a centralized network organization like Nlets would tend to slow the pace of change.  In the case of Nlets, it is the central network organization that is leading the charge to change, modernize, and expand. Nlets is also special because along the way it evolved from “follower” to “leader” as expertise, lessons learned, and design direction came more and more from Nlets central.  Developing competencies beyond those of individual members is a key success factor for network organizations. Nlets has demonstrated a passion for increasing its capabilities and therefore the value it provides to state members. Yet, Nlets remains fully committed to “core” functions in order to consistently meet the existing needs of member states as well.    



Interagency collaboration is challenging but becoming more and more required as threats to public safety increase. Going it alone is not an option, but how public safety networks govern themselves is and choosing the right governance model improves your likelihood of success.  Nlets provides inclusive decision making structured to respond quickly and appropriately to new threats and opportunities. Its strategic objectives attempt to optimize both internal and external credibility.  Sustainability measures are improved as next generation features are stood up and core services are provided consistently and reliably. Innovation and operational excellence objectives often clash and many Fortune 500 companies find managing this balancing act difficult – being pulled in multiple directions usually is. Nlets is more than just managing the balance, it’s leading the way to chart new directions altogether, and pulling members along for the ride.   


About the blog series:

This entry is part of a series of entries on a National Science Foundation funded research project examining public safety networks in the United States.  Nlets was one of several case studies and we focused attention on it as a result of a tip from a Curt Wood, Undersecretary for Forensic Science and Technology for the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety and current 1st Vice-President of Nlets. Other entries in the series cover a variety of topics including – dealing with assessing the success of networks, legacy systems modernization, the advantages of being a network organization, challenges Nlets has faced, and some challenges Nlets faces going forward.


About the authors:

Martin’s research examines the formation, operation, and evolution of IT-enabled public safety networks.  His expertise involves designing IT (from applications to architectures) that supports public safety inter-agency data sharing and collaboration. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University in Boston, MA.

Dax is broadly interested in the management and use of technology in organizations, particularly in the public sector. More specifically his research focuses on how governance influences technology and technology influences governance as they interact over time. He is currently an Assistant Professor at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, CA.