Economic Resilience and Economic Development: Reflections on Breaking Down Silos in Planning

by Jeremy T. Stone, Recovery and Relief Services, Inc. / University of British Columbia

jsOver the past two years I have been working on a number of economic resiliency projects in the US with J&M Global Solutions, an emergency management and disaster recovery consultancy based out of Alexandria, Virginia. Economic resilience planning is an interesting area of study and practice, mostly because it is still in its infancy. Much of the academic literature from pioneers like Kathleen Tierney, Adam Rose, and Stephanie Chang has traditionally been focused on direct business impacts such as lifeline losses, while most of the mainstream discussions have focused on measures of loss and impacts on GDP. There are far fewer academics or practitioners that have treated the issue of planning for economic resilience in a systematic manner.

In the US, this has started to change as Federal policies like the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) have been implemented. With the focus on pre-recovery planning and collaborative governance, lead agencies of various Recovery Support Functions (RSFs) have encouraged/pushed stakeholders on the State and local levels to integrate resilience into their general planning practices. In terms of the economy, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) has been incentivizing the addition of resilience principles and practices into Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS) and other State and local planning documents that guide economic development. Similarly there has been an increase in the number of toolkits and case studies being made available by NGOs for local economic developers to increase their economic recovery preparedness and planning (such as publications from the International Economic Development Council). These efforts have been driven in part by the acknowledgement that economic development and economic recovery are symbiotic: sustainable economic development increases the likelihood of local economic recovery after disasters, while integrating resilience practices into economic development planning increases the quality of the economy even in the absence of a disaster.

Following the 2013 Colorado floods, EDA and the Department of Local Affairs at the State of Colorado contracted with J&M to evaluate economic resilience planning in 25 affected jurisdictions, both through reviews of existing economic development plans and through interviews with local emergency managers, economic developers and government officials. A year later J&M was invited by the North Central Texas Council of Governments to hold a series of workshops that brought together emergency managers and economic developers to learn more about economic resilience principles and practices. In both situations we spent a great deal of time with practitioners discussing the relationship between economic development and economic resilience planning. Although there are many more insights and findings than can be discussed in this forum, there are a few worth highlighting from a planning perspective.

1)      Economic resilience planning in most jurisdictions was under-developed or non-existent. In the Colorado case we developed a 52-element tool to evaluate economic development plans as well as supplementary documents like emergency management plans, etc., for each jurisdiction. The elements we chose were correlated with a range of “best practices” identified in the literature and from our experiences participating in economic recoveries. We looked for evidence of SWOT analyses that included hazard threat assessments, the presence of planning for infrastructure and utility redundancies in case of disruption, the use of “buy local” programs or technical assistance initiatives that could be repurposed during a recovery, etc. We took a very liberal approach in giving partial credit for even the slightest mention of a principle or activity that could be correlated with economic resilience. Across all plans and jurisdictions we found that only 8% of the elements were fully observed, while another 24% were partially observed. Nearly two-thirds of the elements were not present in any of the economic development or emergency management documents publicly available. At first we thought that this might just be a function of “thin plans” (i.e. perhaps there were practices that simply weren’t recorded in writing). However, validation interviews predominately supported the review findings: jurisdictions just weren’t planning for economic resilience or recovery.

2)      Economic developers and emergency managers are rarely integrated for planning. Although some jurisdictions include economic stakeholders in response exercises, overall coordination and planning for resilience is usually an emergency management practice. Few jurisdictions exhibited any systematic coordination between economic development agencies and emergency managers. Many economic developers seemed to be approaching these concepts for the first time.

3)      Emergency managers were often circumspect in their interest in economic resilience. Many emergency managers are responsible for an ever-expanding portfolio of risks and impacts to prepare for. As such, the suggestion that they might have an instrumental role in economic resilience planning seemed, for lack of a better word, stressful. Multiple EMs pushed back that economic recovery and resilience was a private sector responsibility and one that they could not take on.

4)      Economic developers and local government officials were often compelled by an emphasis on low-cost growth initiatives. When contextualizing economic resilience in terms of preparing for economic recovery, relevant activities seemed to be burdensome or additional to local stakeholder responsibilities. However, when economic resilience was described in terms of initiatives to increase growth, local officials were far more engaged in conversations. This was also true when low-cost, repurposable initiatives were emphasized like having economic development information hotlines that can be also be used for economic recovery information, etc.

While much of this might appear dismal, it also signified numerous opportunities for economic resilience planning. Even though evaluating the economic development plans yielded few results in current planning practice, the presentation of the results gave local stakeholders something tangible to reflect on, and allowed a range of conversations about economic resilience to occur. Subsequent conversations with various Colorado jurisdictions like the Town of Estes Park and the East Central Council of Governments demonstrated that concrete planning activities for economic resilience resulted, especially when supported by grants from EDA or other sources (the presence of financial support is always a great incentive).

Another opportunity we identified was in helping to identify roles for different stakeholders. Emergency managers don’t necessarily have to take on the responsibility of economic resilience planning, but they can certainly play a coordinating and promotion role that is less resource intensive. Many economic resilience initiatives are in fact economic development activities, so EMs can feel more comfortable promoting the benefits of economic resilience to relevant agencies and identifying intersections in planning processes. For economic developers and local governments, helping them to identify the technical assistance organizations and partner agencies that can implement resilience initiatives can also make the involvement in resilience planning more palatable.

If there is a single takeaway from all of this work that would be most significant, it is that bureaucratic silos seem to be the largest barrier to economic resilience planning. Economic development agencies and emergency managers need to be better aligned for planning. An interesting model we found in our research was that of Fort Collins, Colorado. Within their city government is an Office of Sustainability under which are departments of Environmental Services, Social Sustainability, and Economic Health. These departments are functionally linked, and plan together to enhance mutual outcomes and reduce negatives externalities. It is essentially the triple-bottom-line in bureaucratic form. Our thought was, what if emergency management was included in this kind of structure? What if disaster preparedness and planning was functionally integrated into government planning areas like economic development or social support? If we have any hope of achieving whole community resilience, we should consider better organizing our various planning mechanisms to work as mutually integrated systems rather than individual and disconnected silos.