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SPAA faculty research: Collaboration helps communities plan for disaster

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

LAWRENCE — When it comes to large-scale disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the Sept. 11 attacks, communities may be their own best allies for overcoming such crises, through their networks of contacts and connectedness, according to a new research article co-written by KU scholars, “Social Capital and Emergency Management Planning: A Test of Community Context Effects on Formal and Informal Collaboration.” The article appears in the latest edition of The American Review of Public Administration.

Bonnie JohnsonIn the article, the researchers conclude that counties with higher rates of “bridging” social capital networks — non-government citizen groups that are highly interactive with other community groups — are better equipped for crisis management than counties whose community organizations are more isolated and less interactive with one another. In other words, good relationships between community groups lead to more collaboration on ideas and actions helpful in times of distress.

“With Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t just first responders who stepped up — there was a larger community that came to the rescue, whether it was businesses like Home Depot or Walmart providing supplies or individuals who got in their cars and drove in to help,” said Bonnie Johnson, KU associate professor of urban planning and one of the researchers. “This gave us the idea to look at the characteristics of particular communities and see what difference they may make for emergency management versus simply looking at the skills of professional emergency managers or governmental resources.”

The research was conducted by Johnson, Holly Goerdel and John Pierce, both faculty members for KU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration, along with Washington State University faculty member Nicholas Lovrich Jr. 

Previous research in public health, environmental management, public education and cybersecurity has shown comprehensive, collaborative planning is crucial to effectively respond to local government needs, emergency or not.

“We live in an era where we’re constantly asked to think about issues within the frame of ‘emergency situations,'” Goerdel said. “And when people are considering a situation where life is actually on the line, they want to reach out to others they trust.”

John PierceFor this study, the researchers merged two data sets. The first, a 2006 survey representing 361 U.S. counties, asked emergency management professionals whether their counties had ever collaborated with a variety of federal, state and local agencies, as well as nonprofits, hospitals, schools and faith-based organizations.

Each county received a score for the number of partners with which it reported engaging with in one of four types of collaboration, from formal agreements to informal cooperation.

The second data set counted each county’s number of community organizations, from political and religious groups to sports clubs and labor organizations.   

Merging the data sets revealed that the more “bridging” networks per capita, the more likely informal (not requiring official agreements) collaboration was to occur.

Data was taken from the National Association of Counties, the U.S. Census and other government documents. Researchers also took into account factors such as racial/ethnic makeup and affluence of each county.

“Bridging” social capital tends to be more useful in a crisis than “bonding” social capital, because it promotes many of the antecedents needed for collaboration, Pierce said.

“Bonding” social capital is created by more homogenous groups who may work toward common goals but don’t have much interaction outside their groups. Religious and church groups often fall into this category.

“Bridging means it occurs between groups. There’s interaction, sharing of information and a sense of trust between people,” Pierce said. “These groups, like political parties, for example, reach out to people outside their own group, and that ability in itself is a resource for accomplishing things.”

As a result, bridging social capital networks enhance emergency management’s potential to “plan creatively with multiple and non-formal strategies for the future presence of emergency circumstances and the threat of disaster,” the researchers concluded.

"Emergency management officials and other public officials might now look at their communities and take stock of social capital levels and strategize how to identify and employ bridging capital in order to improve prospects of being able to collaborate in times of crisis or when coming together as a community is required.”


Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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