Survival guide: Perspectives from the field

Chris Warner, founder and chief executive officer, Engaging and Empowering Citizenship

Chris Warner

Engaging and Empowering Citizenship

In his line of work, Chris Warner prefers to remain behind the scenes. As founder and chief information officer of Engaging and Empowering Citizenship, he's in the business of helping local governments and nonprofit organizations deploy Internet-based public service networks.

For the past 13 years, the Scottsdale, Ariz., company has brought together scores of "customers" with similar missions under integrated Web sites such as Earth 911, Pets 911, Recreation 411 and Amber Alert 911.

The portals provide citizens with access to information that has a direct impact on the quality of their lives and those around them. The projects are made possible through public-private partnerships that underwrite the costs of the individual programs.

Warner spoke with Staff Writer William Welsh about dismantling agency silos and creating additional public service Web sites.

WT: How can the Internet help improve public safety and awareness?

Warner: No one would argue that the technology isn't available to make people's lives better, safer, more efficient and save time and money. The problem is how you get disparate organizations in 30 year-old silos to share the data in a format that is relevant to whatever stakeholder you are trying to reach, and how to do that seamlessly nationwide. We naively took on the goal of proving that it could be done with Earth 911. We were able to replicate that in Pets 911, Recreation 411 and Amber Alert 911.

WT:Why do you regard changing the status quo as naive?

Warner: In my wildest dreams, I would never try to get 50 states, 3,300 counties and 10,000 cities to try to put information anywhere. I wouldn't do it if I had a billion dollars to give each of them, because it is just not a logical thing to try to accomplish.

WT: If it was so difficult, why didn't you walk away from it?

Warner: Our underlying vision is that this model can propagate itself to everything. We give it away free. We give our source code to government agencies. We aren't your typical consulting organization. The aggregation and dissemination of information to the public and other stakeholders needs to radically change.

WT: What ideas do you have in mind for other Internet-based public service projects?

Warner: There's a presentation in proposal right now to expand Amber Alert 911 to all alerts, from bioterrorism and forest fires to battered women and drunk driving.

WT: In promoting various causes, what tools and techniques have you used to persuade groups to cooperate with each other?

Warner: That is the hardest and yet the most fun part of this. For example, there were 248 oil-recycling hotlines in California, and none of them wanted to go out of business. But when the [Earth911] numbers started showing up on billions of oil containers, they had to pass the "red-face test." We have never put anyone out of business; we have only added to their arsenal.

WT: What have you learned about working with state and local government that has surprised you?

Warner: There are a lot of people out there bemoaning government and saying that it doesn't want to do a good job. The one thing that always surprises me is that when we do finally break the barriers down, overnight they become our biggest advocates.

WT: What are some tips for getting stakeholders with different agendas to work together?

Warner: The No. 1 thing that people should do if they have a good idea that they feel strongly about is never hold a focus group.
Focus groups are created to destroy good ideas. You can get input without doing a focus group. You then build what you said you were going to do. When you do that, you have spread the idea, and other people are part of it, and nine times out of 10 it will take traction.
If you are waiting for a group of people to agree on the color of the background on the Web page, you are never going to get past the first issue. Focus groups are the death of good ideas.

WT: What advantage was gained by moving the Amber Alert system online?

Warner: The Amber Alert 911 system allows the first responders, through an encrypted password and secure connection, to upload all the information about the abduction and pictures of the child, abductor, vehicle and location.

The public can receive this free via pagers and cell phones. So anyone who has any kind of communications device is going to know simultaneously with the first responder that a child has been abducted.

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