48 – Emergency management is a hidden talent. Why wait for a disaster?

Posted by Parkinson                                                                                       540 words

emergency flooding

In Victoria, all local governments have a statutory role in responding to municipal emergencies. They must have a committee including local emergency response organisations, and a plan that is maintained and audited. Dozens of staff are inducted and trained in emergency management and, along with their organisational leaders, are a virtual team that can be activated immediately when required. They hold exercises under various scenarios to test their ability. Emergency management is a capability that each council must create and maintain. And they do. Often very well.

It has been said that the public service is at its best in an emergency because tribal conflicts are set aside, the purpose is clear and agreed for once, and the rules become ‘flexible’ in order to be able to react to whatever the emergency brings. Under these circumstances, the public service becomes a responsive, powerful and focussed force. Why do we wait for an emergency to perform at our best?

It wasn’t until I became involved in emergency management that I fully understood how it works. It depends on a different form of team work. Amy C. Edmondson calls it ‘teaming’ and she describes it as being more like a basketball ‘scratch’ match than the plays run by a highly trained and practiced team. She sees it as a way to gather experts in temporary groups to solve problems encountered for the first time, for example to respond to the unpredictability of customers’ needs. This is the bit that caught my attention.

The stable teams of people who have learnt how to work together do a great job at what they are doing every day. They have the right people with the necessary skills and training, and have had the time to build working relationships and trust. In contrast, ‘teaming’ is seen as better suited to situations that are complex, uncertain and require rapid change. In these situations new solutions are required, which could come from anywhere within or outside the organisation. Experts are required from different areas, boundaries must be crossed, and there can be competing values or priorities to deal with. Organisational reporting structures and hierarchy can be an impediment.

These issues have all been successfully addressed in emergency management. The only rank in an emergency goes with a role, not a person. People wear smocks designed to hide insignia and evidence of formal rank. Every effort is made to include all experts and stakeholders within and outside the organisation to plan and execute actions in response to the emergency. It happens within clear lines of authority.

Theoretically, there is no reason why local government couldn’t develop and deploy a similar capability for any other crisis. In some ways, they do, with project groups or task forces set up to address things such as sudden surges in rubbish dumping, loss of grant funding for major services, residents’ action groups seeking action in a particular neighbourhood. Often they are not whole of organisation or not inclusive of external players. All it would take is recognition that a ‘teaming’ capability would be useful to have, and that councils have successfully demonstrated it in emergency management.

Edmondson, Amy C. 2012. Teaming: How Organisations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, in Harvard Business Review, April.