By Trish McOrmond and Esther Burkard
THE BEGINNING … Again
In moments of crisis, making decisions on how to recover and direct resources becomes a rapid, highly scrutinized activity, required to be done in a measured and informed way. Decision-making in a crisis also is a game of chance with unintended outcomes. In June 2013, Alberta experienced what was, at the time, the largest disaster due to an extreme weather event in Canada’s history. The Government of Alberta (GoA) had commitments, and was now faced with needing to recover from the largest uninsured disaster in Canada’s history requiring decisions at an unprecedented speed.
The history of this physical event is well-documented; the decision-making approach used to support better decision-making has had less focus. The GoA took a targeted approach; meetings focused on decisions required to support recovery in both the short and long term. A core group of Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs) was struck to coordinate activities through targeted discussions outside their continued support to business-as-usual. Discussions were then compiled into decision documents for a targeted cabinet committee who met weekly, for the first ten months, to make actionable decisions and develop meaningful models for long-term program implementation.
This model revealed two critical factors; with targeted deliberate action the machinery of government works very well; and we replicate a lot of activities across government in times of stress that can, and should, be better coordinated. An evaluation conducted by McKinsey & Co. one year out from the event supported these conclusions.
The decision-making process addressed some of the challenges inherent in government bureaucracy, while maintaining the integrity of the system it was put in place to circumvent. The targeted approach has been subsequently embedded as the internal support structure for the public safety system by reinvigorating the Deputy Ministers’ and Assistant Deputy Ministers’ Public Safety Committee (Committees).
The Committees, focused on strategic and collaborative decisions, provide a regular venue for business-as-usual and emergency decision-making with a coordinated approach. They also allow the system to mature and be embedded in the civil service, lessening the impact of political changes.
The Committees focus on coordinating overarching objectives related to public safety and emergency management governance in Alberta, in order to achieve streamlined program delivery. This dedicated cabinet committee has been critical to streamlining policy and program decisions for Cabinet during major events. It now also facilitates significant coordination for business-as-usual decisions and identifies focus areas, proactively increasing Alberta’s preparedness.
For example, Alberta is one of the few jurisdictions in North America that tests the robustness of IT systems recovery through annual disaster recovery exercises targeting our IT infrastructure. The Committees also serve an oversight mechanism for Facility Emergency Preparedness Program and business continuity, moving these once side-of-desk initiatives to fully engaged programs with dedicated resources. Emergency management and preparedness are built into the infrastructure of government and both encourages and requires on-going discussion at the executive level.
There is enhanced coordination amongst individuals beyond the standing members, used to develop the whole-of-society approach and, knowing ‘what gets measured, gets done’ the Committees are accountable to Executive Council for the annual work plan. Including external members such as the Alberta Energy Regulator, and increasing collaboration with groups such as the Canadian Red Cross Society and the Insurance Bureau of Canada is supported and coordinated as critical to all pillars of emergency management. This structure has increased the trust between stakeholders, internally and externally by creating on-going opportunities to discuss items that impact players across the system.
The governance model has proven to increase trust and the speed of decisions during major events and in peacetime coordination. However, consensus on the strategic direction and agenda, and accountability for agreed upon tasks and deliverables is more feasible in the immediate aftermath of a major response and in the initial stages of recovery. Ensuring multi-departmental and multi-disciplinary collaboration without significant events driving it is challenging due to competing priorities.
Overcoming these challenges requires commitment to the creation and execution of deliverables that are representative of government’s strategic goals and incorporate the collective input of Committee members. The development of Alberta’s Resilience Strategy –recommended after the 2016 Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Wildfires – is a tool to focus strategic objectives on the prevention and preparedness pillars of emergency management. The objective is to embed the principles of sound emergency management and Disaster Risk Reduction in our quotidian planning and decisions.
SUCCESSES AND NEXT STEPS
The Committees’ work increased coordination in the province’s public safety system, especially the ability of government to move rapidly from a long-term strategic agenda to an event-specific focus. This agility is rooted in the trust and subject-matter understanding facilitated by regular meetings, an increasingly shared vocabulary, and a deepened understanding of the system impact of decisions over both the immediate and long term.
We are learning that multiple wicked problems are deeply entwined. For example, adaptation to climate change is required, beyond reducing emissions, to minimize the net impact of severe weather events on our built environments. Resilient communities that can recover from shocks more quickly and effectively need to be supported through effective urban planning. Revisiting the Sendai Framework and its relationship with the Sustainable Development Goals is one starting point; increasing focus on multiple orders of government entering mutually supporting partnerships such as through the forthcoming Emergency Management Strategy for Canada is another.
Government continues to incorporate hard-won lessons, and the Committees encourage discussions at the intersection of departmental responsibilities. How we build these considerations and complexities into decision-making discussions and processes matters. We need to determine how to leverage these interconnections effectively, gaining traction at nexus points, generating multiple impacts.
Emergency management is a dynamic, quickly-maturing discipline best advanced by sharing information early and often. The Public Safety Committees allow Alberta to do this in a proactive and action-oriented way, building trust and understanding across the system. And there is always room for improvement. Fortunately, since identifying the need for an integrated system seven years ago during the Slave Lake Fires, we have committed to learning and improving not only in the midst of disaster, but during business-as-usual, to build a culture of preparedness.
Trish McOrmond joined Alberta Emergency Management Agency in 2014, after working on the 2013 Flood Recovery Task Force. During the day, she works in strategic policy and partnerships building a prepared and disaster-resilient Alberta. Her time off involves living room dance parties with her kids and good food.