One thing modern governments need more than ever: Resilience

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So-called black swan events seem to be happening in flocks. The pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, earthquakes and floods. For government, it all adds up to the need for resilience and preparation. And, according to new research by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, a technological approach is also needed. For more on this,...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

So-called black swan events seem to be happening in flocks. The pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, earthquakes and floods. For government, it all adds up to the need for resilience and preparation. And, according to new research by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, a technological approach is also needed. For more on this, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with Syracuse University professor and Government Accountability Office managing director, Chris Mihm.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
Good to know you’re still in the swim here, worrying about government managerial matters, tell us the gist of this report. Because I mean, a lot of money has been appropriated for pandemics and whatnot in the past several years.

Chris Mihm
Yeah, and as you mentioned in the opening, and I think it’s a great way of putting it is that these black swans we’re now being confronted with flocks of them. And so the idea behind this, and it’s a partnership of the IBM Center for the Business with Government, the National Academy for Public Administration and the IBM Institute for Business Value, they came together and are sponsoring a series of roundtables with experts to discuss what capabilities that governments at any level need to have in place in order to respond to these flocks of black swans. This is the first of those roundtables dealing with it, emergency preparedness. And so what we did is we brought together a group of recognized experts here in the United States and internationally to tease out some issues. And our idea here was not to try reinventing the wheel, as you said, there’s plenty of good ideas out there and people that have been studying all this. But the roundtable participants wanted to come up with a set of specific and practical short term suggestions that governments at any level could use in order to better prepare for disasters, any type of disaster.

Tom Temin
All right, then what floated to the top of the list?

Chris Mihm
Well, there are really six things that came to the top of the list, and probably the first both in terms of the presentation of the paper, and it’s available on the IBM Center website is that and probably the first in terms of importance, is making sure that you build the network before a disaster takes place. There’s a wonderful adage that I’m sure you and your listeners are familiar with from disaster preparedness is at the middle of a crisis, it’s not the time to be exchanging business cards. In other words, the success of any response effort is going to be based on experiences of organizations, and even more important people working together and existing relationships that they can build on relationships of trust, and knowledge. Those can all be built ahead of time. And they can be through things like memos of understanding, tabletop exercises, joint training that brings together a variety of partners. And this just sits at levels of government. But it also includes the private sector, the not for profit sector, all of these have different ways of doing business that needs to, in a sense, be sorted out as much as it can be ahead of time.

Tom Temin
Because at the federal level, I mean, a lot of this is done already, because we have a Department of Homeland Security that has all of these components, Coast Guard, FEMA and so forth that do respond. So it seems like the network needs to be strengthened, perhaps inter governmentally , say at the state and local level with federal, and again, as you say, with commercial partners.

Chris Mihm
No, absolutely is that, you know, part of the challenge that we run into here in the United States is obviously with our federalism, there’s tensions built into the very structure of the way we operate tensions between the federal governments and states and states and their localities. And then tribal governments in there. Those are structural, they’re not going to be fully resolved. They’re part of our constitutional system, what we were looking at, or what the participants were looking at is accepting those, how can they better work together. The other point and you were just making this it gets into one of the other practices, and that is building local capabilities on this is that, you know, disasters are fundamentally local, in their implementation or their effect and local governments have vastly different needs and vastly different capabilities. Federal government, state government needs to understand that and work with local governments to build a platform of capabilities across all local governments. There’s certainly ways of doing that through mutual aid compacts among local governments, regional agreements, online learning that basically where local governments can learn from one another.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Chris Mihm, retired GAO managing director and fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. And another idea I wanted to ask you about was establish a data strategy well before disaster strikes, that sounds like a tough one to actually accomplish, because you don’t know what the disaster will be. And you don’t know what data you’ll need.

Chris Mihm
You’re exactly right on that is that the basic approach here is to use an all hazards approach. I mean, there are some types of data and types of information that are very situational, very specific to a type of disaster. There are other types that are more generic or cut across different types of disasters, which may confront a local community. The point that the participants were making on here is that, especially these days, and especially in the moment of a crisis, where there’s a whole variety of different information and data that are coming at decision makers with what is kind of the notion of multiple sources of truth is not helpful to decision making. It can undermine trust, undermine, you know the speed of decision making, even the quality of those decisions. And so we’re never going to have perfect data at the moment of a disaster, what we want to be able to do is try as much as possible to establish beforehand as to what are going to be the essential data elements that decision makers are going to need? How is that going to be collected? By whom is it going to be collected? What level of assurance do we need in terms of quality? Again, perfection is not the goal, because you’re in a moment of a crisis, that perfection is good enough and making sure that we can have trust and confidence in the information that decision makers are receiving.

Tom Temin
And let me ask you about step six that the group that you convened talked about, and that is establishing a workforce strategy to meet current and especially surge, and future needs. Because to some extent, again, FEMA can call on people from other agencies that can be tasked to disasters. And then, you know, a few weeks later, they go back to their own home agency. And there’s a cadre of people in the federal government that do that. So it sounds like they were talking about expansion on that idea.

Chris Mihm
Very much. And you’re right, there is a pre-existing way that FEMA can tap into other resources to, you know, to build surge capacity. And obviously, there’s, you know, other levels of government have access to the guard down at the state level. What they were talking about, here was a couple of things. One is the standard issue that I know you and your listeners are very familiar with my former employer, the GAO High Risk List, and that is critical skills gaps across the federal government and FEMA and disaster response is no different than anywhere else in government on that, is making sure that we have the right people, the right skills in place. And in particular, with the disaster, making sure that they’re there. The second aspect that they were looking at here is the absolutely vital importance of making sure especially on the ground, that we are sensitive to issues of diversity and inclusion in our workforce, that we have people from the communities that are in a sense being served, where the recovery is taking place, that are representatives of that community. Now, the flip side of that, of course, is that we need to be sensitive to the emotional burden on first responders. I mean, we all saw those, I’m sure there’s very moving YouTube videos from nurses and other frontline health experts during that peak of COVID that were just, you know, urging people to take care, but at the same time, you could see the emotional toll that was taking on these first responders, we kind of think broadly about disaster preparedness need to think about the mental health and well being in first line responders.

Tom Temin
And maybe tell us a little bit more about the methodology by which you came up with this list. You said a panel or some kind of a roundtable. Who was on it, and how was it convened? And tell us a bit about the process.

Chris Mihm
It was probably a half to three-quarter day meeting that was held in Washington. And what we did is we brought together a series of experts, many of whom were a fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration, names that would be obviously familiar to your listeners Thad Alan, for example, the former commandant of the Coast Guard, Parris Glendening, former governor of Maryland and many others. We also had participants overseas from OECD that could help us in building an international perspective on this, we’ve worked very closely with, the we is the collective we here, the IBM Center, NASA and the Institute for Business Value at IBM to identify a list kept calling through that various list, the discussion that took place in which we really were charging the group to not in a sense, reinvent the wheel, as I mentioned earlier, but let’s get into a set of specific and practical and short term things that governments can really do. There are some big structural issues and probably we need much more funding and kind of resilience and kind of how do we deal with climate change and all that that’s all vital. But that was part of a separate discussion or not part of this discussion. What we wanted to know was, what are the key takeaways that a decision maker can need in order to begin to make sure that his or her community is better prepared?

Tom Temin
And just out of curiosity, in research of this sort, you brought in people that again, some of them are household names, the people you would think of first, for that kind of discussion? How do you know you’re not getting the black swan of thought, that could really upend some of the shibboleths that a group like this is likely to bring with them? Because that’s what they know from their careers?

Chris Mihm
That’s a great point. And it’s, you know, certainly the challenge with any of these types of things that have a tendency to be D.C. based is that we all get together, we’ve read each other’s work, we congratulate each other on all the great work that we’re doing. And then it doesn’t have any impact when actually on the ground to people that are out there having to implement this is the big question. So we did two things. One is that, as I mentioned, we made sure that we had an international perspective on this to break out of kind of the Washington consensus, we also had diversity of thought to have different leaders that came into Washington from organizations from around the U.S. and it wasn’t so it wasn’t just a traditional D.C.-based meeting on this. And then also at the end when all this was done, and this was part of my responsibility in helping to pull this together was to be somewhat familiar with the other literature to make sure that we were actually having making a contribution, that we weren’t just repeating something that had been published by someone else just a week ago, or something like that, that that could be nice, because it could be confirming but it wouldn’t be making an independent contribution.

 

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