Public sector leaders from around the world are getting a crash course in governing in the midst of a global crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency that has resulted in an economic downturn that ultimately will reach the far corners of the globe. With no clear end in sight, federal, state and local leaders are in an untenable situation—forced to make decisions based on limited, rapidly evolving information.
While as a nation, we have overcome many crises, bounced back from economic downturns and recovered from natural and man-made disasters, the current fight against the spread of COVID-19 is unlike anything we have faced in our lifetime. We can, however, look to the past to help inform how best to identify and meet both near and long-term needs. In doing so, it is clear that every decision or choice that ultimately was deemed successful has one commonality—a recognition that disaster response and recovery is ultimately about the citizen.
Looking across the experiences of state and local government response tactics, academic research, and insights from the citizens and community networks who were activated in recovery efforts, it is possible to identify salient lessons learned and guidance for actions to help expedite aide to those in need.
Defining the crisis
While the federal government provides funding and resources during a disaster, states are responsible for not only managing through the crisis itself, but also facilitating the recovery, and wherever possible, mitigating the risk and impact to citizens and communities. As daunting as the challenge may have been, state and local governments have recovered from numerous natural and man-made disasters, navigating a path to recovery. Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Maria affected large portions of the United States, and no state was untouched by the financial crisis of 2008. What were the commonalties that contributed the most successful recovery efforts?
- Informed decision making
- Engagement with community networks
- A laser-focus on the future
Both the presence and absence of information pose challenges to making the right decisions at the right time. The process of collecting and sharing relevant information during a crisis is in itself complex. At a time when the landscape of the crisis is changing rapidly, credible and consistent data can be difficult to secure, and there is the additional pressure of needing to make timely decisions. However, the time and investment that may be needed in order to implement a comprehensive data strategy will be well spent. The gathering and dissemination of credible data not only informs the decision-making process, but also provides a common information set used by all stakeholders.
Technology solutions that support data-driven decision-making while simultaneously placing a premium on data integrity need not be cumbersome or difficult. In fact, often the most effective and low-risk approach involves agencies leveraging existing solutions to meet decision-support needs during a crisis. At a minimum, states need to have a secure technical platform that can aggregate data from disparate systems to support basic workflow and reporting needs. These include the effective triaging of physical and human resources, allowing users to easily provide data inputs remotely, pushing timely and accurate information to leaders and decision-makers, and providing critical information to those working on the front lines. Providing a mobile application to collect data from staff and partners in the field can be a simple way to facilitate the broad collection of needed information.
While government leaders are facing innumerable competing priorities during this uncertain COVID-19 pandemic, the urgent need to disseminate information to citizens remains a daily exercise. Entities that have built collaborative partnerships with non-profits, academic institutions, and community-based organizations will find increased success in connecting with a wide range of constituents and therefore should continue to invest resources to leverage and grow their partnerships within these networks.
Both short and long-term benefits of a connected government and community network can be realized through communications infrastructure that can assist with timely information dissemination and help set expectations around things like recovery monies and community development timelines. At the same time, information and data that the community network shares with the state can be invaluable in present-day response and recovery efforts as well as future planning. Mobile solutions that support bi-directional information sharing can exponentially increase the efficacy of these partnerships.
Focus on the future
In the throes of a crisis, it is vital to address the immediate needs of citizens and community. However, leaders must find a balance between meeting critical short-term needs while keeping an eye on the longer-term recovery efforts. Making informed policy and investment choices that build the strong foundation needed for post-recovery activities is imperative. Effectively managing federal funds, identifying human services support for families in need, and moving quickly into a community and business recovery phase will have a significant bearing on overall success. In some cases, this will require investment in additional technologies, but, similar to reporting and communications platforms, agencies may be able to leverage solutions that are already in place. Taking inventory of existing technology capabilities now will help expedite the launch of recovery efforts in the future.
Ultimately, one of the most pressing responsibilities of state government will be tracking and disseminating federal stimulus funds. This process, while imperative to the success of any recovery, is complex, labor-intensive and bureaucratic. Additionally, states should assume the recovery funding to be both a near and longer term influx—with monies being disbursed many years after the initial crisis has passed. It is critical to determining where there may be gaps in the existing grants management infrastructure, and if those gaps can be addressed through process changes, new technology, or both.
The path forward
The amount of research, analysis and evaluation as to the effectiveness of past responses to crises is voluminous. As we navigate the current COVID-19 pandemic, at CGI, we remain dedicated to helping clients understand the current landscape, plan for the future and move with agility to best meet the needs of those impacted by this crisis.
To learn more, download our government guide for Core principles for public sector crisis management and recovery.
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 Dorothy Leider, Gary Pan, Gary, Shan Pan, The role of IT in crisis response: Lessons from the SARS and Asian Tsunami disasters”, (Elsevier, June 2009), 1.