Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Senior public administrators have a duty and the power to encourage the public sector community to more readily embrace resilience.
Today’s risk landscape is complex and volatile. The combination of extreme weather, cyberattacks and acts of terrorism strain the already limited resources of state and local governments.
Adopting resilience strategies can help state and local leaders efficiently use their resources, reduce risk and lessen the consequences of disasters. Yet, resilience is still viewed primarily as a job for public safety and emergency management. True resilience requires every public sector professional to be all-in to build capabilities for communities to adapt and withstand disasters. For that to occur, senior public administrators, such as city and county managers, cabinet officials and agency heads, must take the lead in ensuring all government employees regard resilience as a core government function.
Over the span of my career in government and the private sector, I’ve had several “hands-on” lessons in resilience: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Through these experiences, I’ve seen public administrators successfully unite people in rebuilding the city’s physical infrastructure, as well as its security apparatus and risk mitigation programs. I’ve also witnessed public administrators fail to maintain critical infrastructure and not adequately prepare their workforce or community for impending disaster. What determined success or failure was the degree of knowledge and engagement of senior public administrators in risk reduction and mitigation efforts before disaster struck.
Senior public administrators are responsible for managing the administrative, operational, financial and human resources capabilities of government and, therefore, set the tone for how government functions. As such, they have a unique ability to position resilience as more than just a disaster management concept but as a core government competency. Here are several suggestions for officials to consider to help move further in that direction.
Accept and communicate that risk is all-around.
We will never fully eliminate disasters or the risks they present. However, we can anticipate, lessen and, sometimes, avoid their impact if we measure and assess potential risks and use that insight to inform government planning and projects. Conducting regular risk assessments will provide officials with more awareness and help them identify ways to mitigate them.
Resilience is a low-cost investment.
Contrary to popular belief, an agency doesn’t need a tremendous amount of funding to advance risk-informed resilience thinking into its planning and operations. In fact, risk mitigation and resilience planning have proven to reduce both short- and long-term recovery costs. Technical assistance and seed money for these efforts is now increasingly more available for those looking to get started as U.S. federal policy is changing to support state and local resilience efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant program and new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, which will come online in mid-2020, are funding opportunities senior officials should pursue vigorously.
Consider interdependencies in planning process.
Recent disasters have underscored just how interdependent sectors are. Health services need clear roadways to reach those in need. Power plants require water to remain operational. The list goes on. Yet, for too long sectors have operated in silos. Moving forward, senior government leaders should institute a planning process that encourages agencies to identify where their dependencies lie and propose projects to address any associated vulnerabilities.
Promote a resilience mindset.
Senior public administrators can inspire more resilient behavior among their staff by providing opportunities to underscore its importance, defining roles for personnel and identifying specific actions to incorporate into daily responsibilities. Public administrators also should provide a forum for staff to offer their perspectives on resilience. This will help create an opportunity for individuals to create a shared vision and have a sense of ownership in its execution.
Achieving sustainable, long-term resilience is an absolute imperative for all levels of government. The best time to do that is before the next disaster. Now is the time for public administrators to lead by example and embrace resilience as the new norm for the public sector.
John Paczkowski is a Senior Managing Director at Witt O’Brien’s leading the firm’s public sector practice. John has leadership experience in emergency management, homeland security, infrastructure protection, public safety and civil authorities’ defense support. He is a Fellow with the National Academy of Public Administration, where he specializes in national preparedness and resilience.