Research to Practice: Community social capital linked to collaborative planning in emergency management


Emergency management (EM) has evolved to rely increasingly on collaboration across federal, state, and local levels of government, and the business and non-profit 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 article from the American Review of Public Administration aims to add to the field by examining the effects of community context on EM collaboration, particularly networks of social capital. Authors Bonnie J. Johnson, Holly T. Goerdel, Nicholas P. Lovrich, and John C. Pierce 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, according to research cited by the authors.

Ultimately, 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 and other 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 non-profit 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 (McGuire and Silvia, 2010), 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 the findings of previous studies that the use of these technologies and 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 EM collaboration, both formal and informal.

A Short Note on Method
The authors use two core data sets to assess 1) presence of bridging and bonding social capital networks and 2) presence of formal and informal EM collaboration. To assess bridging and bonding social capital, the study looks at previously collected data that holds measures of network-based social capital — including the number of per-capita based associations and organizations — for all U.S. counties, based on U.S. Census data and additional government sources. To assess levels of formal and informal EM collaboration, the authors examine the results of a 2006 National Association of County Officials survey of county emergency management directors, in which respondents indicated whether their county collaborated with these partners: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Homeland Security, other federal agencies, their state EM agency, their state EPA, other state agencies, councils of governments, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services, Amateur Radio Emergency Services, regional alliances, other counties, cities, townships, schools, the American Red Cross, other non-profits, faith-based organizations, and hospitals. From this data set, the authors also assessed whether counties were engaged in formal collaborative planning, indicated by respondents as formal agreements or MOUs, or informal collaborative planning, indicated by respondents as informal cooperation or joint planning.  The authors used regression analysis to determine relationships of statistical significance between the variables of bonding and bridging social capital on the one hand and presence of informal and formal collaboration on the other.

The fabric of everyday life supports emergency response and recovery, and 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 social capital’s potential to increase public preparedness for disaster and readiness to collaborate. Practitioners’ accounts of witnessing such stories in action and how they accelerated emergency response and recovery in their community would be invaluable to this end.

For Further Reading
Further reading and useful tools for collaboration in emergency management include:

From The Intersector Project Toolkit:

From The Intersector Project Case Library:

From Intersector Insights:

Other resources: