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Research to Practice: Community Social Capital and Collaborations in Emergency Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Intersector Project
February 23, 2016

This Research to Practice feature from The Intersector Project focuses on a recent article published in American Review of Public Administration that explores the relationship between community social capital — broadly understood as networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular community — and the presence of formal and informal collaborations in emergency management planning.


Emergency management (EM) has evolved to rely increasingly on collaboration across federal, state and local levels of government, and the business and nonprofit sectors. In response, researchers have devoted attention to the factors that increase the likelihood and effectiveness of such collaborations – factors like form of government, the professionalism of emergency managers and more.  A new study, “Social Capital and Emergency Management Planning,” aims to add to the field by examining the effects of community context on EM collaboration, particularly networks of social capital. The authors of this study envision social capital as a “community resource from which collaboration might arise.”

Key to the authors’ examination of social capital is distinguishing between networks that link individuals of differing “demographic, political and social boundaries” (bridging networks) and those that arise among similar individuals and that “reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups” (bonding networks). They ask how these factors affect capacity for collaboration, which they see as “the creation of stable relationships in planning for future and perhaps multiple crisis” rather than one-time, short-term collaborations that are likely reactive. Referencing previous research, the authors call this long-term collaboration the “soft infrastructure” of collaborative processes. The authors look at both formal and informal modes of collaboration, with formal collaboration defined as formal agreements and MOUs and informal collaboration defined as joint planning and informal cooperation. This distinction is meaningful, as a majority of EM local government managers identify informal contacts with other organizations as those most called upon in times of evacuation or other emergency. 

IPUltimately, this work finds that the relative presence of bridging networks in relation to bonding networks in communities makes it more likely that informal modes of collaboration will form among the many stakeholders of long-term EM planning. The authors also find that awareness of potential threats and the use of technology affect collaboration in EM planning. These findings highlight strategies for EM professionals, public officials and managers overseeing services where timely delivery after disaster is crucial, and where required responsibilities are shared among diverse stakeholders. 

Takeaways for practitioners

  • Work with leaders in the public, business and nonprofit sectors to establish and support associations, establishments and centers that foster bridging social capital. The authors’ key finding is that bridging social capital networks – those that “tend to bring people together across diverse divisions” — are positively associated with higher incidence of informal EM collaborations. Examples of bridging networks include political organizations, which tend to have “collections of interests and networks of potentially diverse elements,” as well as associations like choirs or bowling clubs. The authors suggest this finding may have relevance outside of EM planning, too: “A community’s greater experience with such bridging networks may lead to the heightened standing of inclusive collaboration as a dominant norm for the conduct of public affairs and planning more generally.”
  • Identify and engage community members who are adept “boundary spanners.” Based on previous research, the authors suggest that individuals who can create links across external agencies, organizations, and sectors may be key in creating informal information channels, which have been noted as important for emergency response and recovery.
  • Devote resources to educating EM professionals and other potential stakeholders on the presence of EM-related risks such as climate change, natural disasters, natural resource depletion, economic and social disparities, etc. This study confirms the findings of previous studies that greater levels of perceived threat from disasters and hazards are positively associated with greater levels of EM collaboration, both formal and informal.
  • Consider the use of sophisticated technology like WEB EOC, E-Team, Cameo/Alpha and GIS in EM operations. This study confirms that the use of these technologies, particularly of GIS to dispatch, manage resources, identify persons or facilities for notification of potential hazards, assess risk, etc., is positively associated with greater levels of formal and informal EM collaboration. 

Discussion
The fabric of everyday life supports emergency response and recovery. Gaining a better understanding of the texture of everyday life and livelihoods, particularly in cities and counties where social networks span demographic, political and social categories holds great potential. It is an opportunity to learn more about the potential for social capital to increase public preparedness for disaster and readiness to collaborate. Practitioners’ accounts of witnessing such stories in action and how they accelerate emergency response and recovery in their community would be invaluable to this end. 

For Further Reading
Additional reading and useful tools for EM collaboration include:

From The Intersector Project Toolkit:

From The Intersector Project Case Library:

From Intersector Insights:

Other resources:


Author: The Intersector Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing cross-sector collaboration as a way to address society’s pressing issues. We work to provide practitioners in every sector with the tools they need to implement collaborative solutions to complex problems.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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