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The Importance of Interagency Collaboration in National Security

April 27, 2023

On September 11, 2001, the world witnessed one of the most horrific and deadly terrorist attacks in history. The 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a wake-up call for national security and exposed weaknesses in intelligence among different U.S. government agencies. Soon after, calls grew for improving interagency collaboration. 

Interagency collaboration initiatives aim to close gaps in intelligence analysis and break down intelligence-gathering silos. This helps agencies respond to security threats and ward off attacks.  

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2002, it consolidated 22 different federal departments and agencies to defend against domestic and international threats. A few years later, DHS established a Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center. Successful interagency collaboration underscores the importance of information sharing and coordination in confronting national security threats. 

Individuals considering careers in national security can prepare themselves with an advanced education that includes a deep understanding of the importance of interagency collaboration to our nation’s safety.

What Is Interagency Collaboration?

In essence, interagency collaboration occurs when two or more government agencies work together to achieve a common goal. For example, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies work together to share intelligence and investigate potential threats to prevent terrorist attacks.   

At the federal level, collaboration involves the intelligence community and agencies such as DHS, the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. National Security Agency, among others.

Each agency offers its own unique areas of expertise, intelligence and resources. Working together, these agencies can be more effective in counterterrorism and homeland security efforts than they would be on their own. 

Interagency collaboration at the state and local levels often involves coordination between: 

  • Police departments
  • Fire departments
  • Emergency management agencies
  • Public health departments

Each organization offers different resources to respond to emergencies and disasters and provide support to affected communities. They also collaborate to investigate crimes and provide public safety services to communities.  

Why Is Interagency Collaboration Important? 

Terrorism, cyberattacks, natural disasters, pandemics and other national security threats extend beyond geographic and organizational boundaries. For example, a public health crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak or an act of domestic terrorism can affect multiple regions. A single agency may face difficulties addressing such events alone. This is why interagency collaboration at all levels is critical to addressing national security threats. 

Joint efforts between agencies often include: 

  • Collecting and analyzing intelligence
  • Conducting investigations
  • Developing policies to address specific national security threats

Joining forces helps address gaps in intelligence, gives a clearer picture of a threat and minimizes duplication of efforts. Agencies maximize their resources and prevent wasted effort. 

Another benefit of interagency collaboration is that it promotes communication, which is essential for coordinating an effective response to a threat. 

Importantly, interagency collaboration also helps build trust in government institutions. 

Interagency Collaboration: Law Enforcement and Disaster Management 

Interagency collaboration in the areas of law enforcement and disaster management helps keep people safe from criminal activity and prepare communities for disasters. Working together, agencies can effectively address a range of scenarios, from gun violence to damaging storms. 

Law Enforcement 

In law enforcement, interagency collaboration is essential for identifying, preventing and combating criminal activity, such as drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorism. 

In 2022, agents seized more than 379 million deadly doses of fentanyl, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This statistic emphasizes the lifesaving importance of collaboration among law enforcement. 

Federal agencies like the DEA, FBI and Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) of the Department of Justice often work together to coordinate efforts and resources to fight and prevent crime. They also work with state and local law enforcement agencies. For example, OCDETF investigates drug trafficking, money laundering and other criminal network activity with state and local agencies.

Disaster Management 

In disaster management, coordinated responses and effective communication strategies can help ensure that resources are used efficiently to help communities prepare and recover from disasters. 

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the United States has experienced 341 weather- and climate-related catastrophes since 1980. The total cost of all 341 disasters was approximately $2.5 trillion. 

However, monetary loss is nothing compared to the loss of life caused by natural disasters, which result in the deaths of hundreds of Americans each year. Recently, 2021 was a particularly tragic year, with 20 disasters resulting in at least 688 fatalities, according to — the highest number of disaster-related deaths in the continental U.S. since 2011 and far exceeding the 262 disaster-related deaths in 2020.

In the U.S., the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the primary agency responsible for disaster management. It collaborates with state and local agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and other partners to assist people and communities affected by these disasters before, during and after they strike. 

Before a natural disaster, interagency collaborative efforts focus on educating people about the risks of disasters and the potential damage they may cause to life and property. During a disaster, they issue warnings and other potentially lifesaving information. Once the disaster is over, their work continues as they help people and communities recover.

Strategies for Improving Interagency Collaboration

Implementing national security strategies for improving interagency collaboration can help ensure the effective and efficient coordination and delivery of services to the public. For example, agencies can align their operational missions by developing shared goals. This way, everyone involved can work toward a common purpose.

Additional national security strategies include: 

  • Fostering open communication by establishing clear communication channels, maintaining updated contact lists and consistently keeping stakeholders informed
  • Defining clear roles and responsibilities to ensure individuals work on the right tasks, avoiding confusion and minimizing the risk of duplication of efforts 
  • Identifying all their shared resources, including technology and staff, to maximize interagency capabilities
  • Implementing practice and joint exercises to develop the skills of individuals on the frontlines and in administrative roles, which can help minimize complexity in coordinating resources and ensure a more unified response
  • Monitoring progress regularly to ensure operations are running smoothly and identify improvement opportunities
  • Partnering with the private sector as they can provide additional resources, expertise and perspectives in the areas of infrastructure development, cybersecurity and disaster response

Prepare to Help People in Times of Great Need

For those seeking a career that involves helping people in crisis, a role in national security can be rewarding. Working at an agency such as the Department of Homeland Security calls for a passion for helping people prepare and recover from worst-case scenarios. But when disaster strikes, people also need the skills and expertise to take appropriate actions.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (HSEP) program prepares students with competencies in emergency preparedness, decision-making, leadership and policymaking. The program, part of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, offers courses such as Institutional Challenges of Security Preparedness and Government, Industry, and Strategic Planning to help students understand the importance of interagency collaboration in keeping communities safe.

Learn how VCU can arm you with the skills to protect communities — and the nation — from the unpredictable and unexpected.