May 16 2007

Feds Can Work Together—And With Industry

Photo: Ron Aira

Bringing together people from different schools of thought and getting them to collaborate under a common goal is never easy. But it has been the key to the Justice Department's information-sharing initiative.

An important part of the Bureau of Justice Assistance's role in this initiative has been in providing collaborative leadership, building relationships, fostering mutual trust, listening, identifying areas of expertise, resolving conflicts and facilitating group decisions. My team at BJA, within the department's Office of Justice Programs, often finds that the heart of many of these issues is really more about people rather than technology.

The justice community has long recognized the need for better ways to share critical information. But the events of Sept. 11, 2001, brought the issue to the forefront at Justice: State-of-the-art technology was absolutely critical in meeting these information-sharing goals.

Major developments in the computer industry have solved many of the technical hurdles to information sharing in the last decade. Our major challenge then became overcoming people's concerns and fears of new technologies and processes.

"Until recently, information sharing among justice and law enforcement agencies had not kept up with the times."

In justice organizations, mutual trust is rare. That comes with the territory because prosecutors and defense lawyers are adversaries by design. Also, local, state, tribal and federal agencies have independent jurisdictions, funding sources, technology planning cycles and operational assumptions.

So while it's difficult to reach across independent law enforcement agencies, the problem is compounded when sensitive information needs to be shared among police officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation officers, the courts and correctional facilities.

BJA's Justice Information Sharing Team and Policy Office has found that it's worth the effort to simply provide an environment where we can facilitate the sharing of ideas among national leaders. Once mutual trust is established, partners are more willing to make creative contributions toward solving problems. They also are more willing to make policy recommendations that address collective national issues rather than the needs of individual agencies. These are sound recommendations based on real-world experience at state and local levels. Initiatives are thus propelled less by self-interest and more by the passion and vision of individual experts working toward common goals.

From the Ground Up

Until recently, information sharing among justice and law enforcement agencies had not kept up with the times. It was virtually impossible for, say, a police department to access criminal data from a federal agency because their two systems were not interoperable. But as we've seen all too often, crime prevention and administration of justice are compromised when information sharing fails.

As early as 1999, BJA began developing a national standard for data sharing. In 2001, we convened a wide-ranging group of professionals dedicated to improving the exchange of justice information.

We brought together teams of justice practitioners from local, state and federal agencies to work with teams of technical experts from academia and industry to recommend technical specifications and to forge consensual standards.

How to Create a Collaborative Environment
Build relationships
Foster mutual trust
Identify areas of expertise
Resolve conflicts
Facilitate group decisions

We engaged these public- and private-sector professionals in national-level discussions on justice information sharing: how systems are designed, specified and procured, as well as how technical and functional standards are applied. Again, this was a significant departure from how specs were usually developed because this was a group effort from the ground up—not something done piecemeal.

This project took hold at the grass-roots level, steadily grew and worked its way up to the national level, resulting in the Global Justice eXtensible Markup Language Data Model. GJXDM is essentially a tool that lets data and its meaning in one system be understood by another system, making possible the seamless sharing of critical information across jurisdictional and departmental lines.

The model provides a standard for information sharing, reducing the time and cost for jurisdictions to implement integrated systems. It is a unique initiative designed primarily for justice agencies and includes a data model, a data dictionary, XML schemas and supporting technical tools. More than 200 justice information-sharing projects using GJXDM are already well under way.

A New Partner in Crime

Earlier this year, Justice announced a partnership with the Homeland Security Department to expand the use of GJXDM and create the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) for use by the two departments—and potentially other government entities beyond the justice community. The implications are far-reaching: The partnership opens the door for other agencies to join in the success of GJXDM and to use it in a concerted fight against terrorism and crime.

According to Justice CIO Vance Hitch, "NIEM is an important part of our vision for law enforcement, where the spirit of partnership and the power of technology are marshaled to defend the rule of law in our society."

The backbone of this collaboration is trust, adds Steve Cooper, who stepped down this spring from his post as Homeland Security's CIO. "Those of us at DHS had to step up and accept that we have federal colleagues and state and local colleagues who do know what they're doing, have done the right things on behalf of this country," he says. "So we're not going to second guess them inside DHS."

By choosing to trust, accept and affirm the work already done, DHS is harnessing the success of Justice to move this country forward.

From Here On Out

At Justice, we're most proud of our success in creating that environment of trust because it laid the foundation for the outpouring of creative information-sharing ideas.

Since the model's release last year, momentum has built and work is accelerating at a rate faster than any of the original team members had predicted.

Interest from justice officials in the field has skyrocketed, as have requests for resources, training and assistance. To help, BJA has launched an extensive Web site, at, and a list server with more than 300 participants, and is providing technical training and making grants to encourage GJXDM use. We will soon open a national help desk with a call center.

It's exciting being part of an initiative that grew from little more than a vision into a powerful tool to help save lives. It's safe to say that we've proven collaboration is possible and profitable—that government does in fact listen, that federal agencies are willing to partner with one another and with industry because we do have a common goal and desire: to better serve and protect our communities.