for your radar

global theme – planning for natural disasters beyond prior experience

A recent article in World Politics Review discusses the recent growth in ocean surface temperature in the Eastern Pacific. This suggests a continuation of El Nino conditions, with the potential onset of severe natural disasters across a number of South American countries. These natural disasters will expose the vulnerability of different parts of the community system such as food production; public health and safety; infrastructure and the response capability of emergency management organisations. Vulnerability is a complex issue influenced by a range of factors including the strength (weakness) of the economy and political (in)stability in each country.

Rodney Martinez, the Director of the International Centre for El Niño Research based in Ecuador, believes that this El Niño is only about half over, adding that the situation is complicated by the fact that January to March are the hottest months in the Southern Hemisphere and that 2015 was the hottest year on Earth ever recorded. “This is a unique situation that we have never experienced before”.

There is a global theme emerging here, echoed in Australia, of having to plan for natural disasters which are beyond our prior experience, and of having to introduce fundamental changes to the manner in which we prepare for such events (eg land-use zoning in the US and local government funding in the UK).

Planning for natural disasters which are beyond prior experience is no easy matter. The process will be exploratory, ie while there are broad guidelines available for decision-making in complex, non-deterministic systems under uncertainty, there is no fool-proof recipe for dealing with all uncertainties associated with all emergencies in all contexts. Process options include the use of exploratory scenarios aimed at constructing complex plausible futures (ie with interacting political, financial, technological, social and climatic drivers) which are outside the limits of participant’s experience; which seek to identify the differential vulnerability of the range of sectors relevant to the particular context (emergency response and health services; transport, water, power and communication systems; the aged and infirm etc); and which identify generic adaptive response strategies (ie strategies which appear robust across a number of the scenarios) which can be implemented when the current response capability of a given sector(s), and indeed the system as a whole, is overwhelmed.

In addition to defining strategies for cases where sectoral response capability is overwhelmed, these exercises contribute to the growth in awareness, readiness and thinking capacity of key staff.  This enables them to better respond to unanticipated situations, even when they are outside those developed in the scenarios, as they are likely to be.

Not an easy task. Has to be done.

Local government and emergency preparedness

Recent articles highlight the changing nature of major rain producing mechanisms and the failure of State and local government to adequately prepare for the significant flooding associated with such events.

In Great Britain (GB) lack of funding in local government severely constrains its ability to adequately deal with significant flooding in urban areas. It prevents the introduction of ‘soft’ solutions such as community education, ‘hard’ solutions such as flood control structures, and often leaves authorities with a token role in flood response.

It is compounded by the fact town positioning, layout and infrastructure are what they are – they may be poorly located when it comes to flood protection; may have urban layouts and road networks not sympathetic to natural drainage paths; major transport embankments across flood plains; yet they encompass a rich, well-established community network of homes, shops, schools, hospitals, businesses etc which cannot simply be picked up and relocated in a more suitable position. In addition the gradient of local topography, the proximity to ocean (or riverine) outlets and the influence of high tides (or floods in adjoining rivers) may mean that, no matter what action is taken, flooding will always occur. It quickly becomes apparent that any ‘solution’ involves a complex mix of social, physical, political and economic factors, which ultimately reduces to – what can we afford?

Speaking of money, the harsh political and economic reality is that State and National governments take the view that this is primarily a local problem which should be fixed and funded by the local community.

Having partnered with the BoM,  VICSES and local government on flood warning system effectiveness over a number of years, I note that the issues being surfaced in GB are all relevant to the Victorian scene. I also note that the limited funding capacity of local government leads to (a) Municipal Emergency Response Officers (MEROs) being under-resourced and working incredibly hard to protect their friends and neighbours against disaster; (b) staff not having the specialist training or skills to address these complex issues in a comprehensive manner, and (c) Councils attempting to hand back responsibility to State Government – we weren’t adequately consulted about this division of responsibility and, without additional resourcing, we are refusing to take it on-board. The buck passing and associated blame-game obviously helps no-one.

Those interested in contributing to the way forward may wish to consider the following:

The way forward will not be a simple deterministic process often found in engineering text-books. Rather, it will be a complex social process which wrestles with hard political, physical, financial and social realities.

The most appropriate way forward will be unique to each town or region – this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Moving forward will require a collaborative, dialogue-based approach involving all relevant stakeholders, ie representatives of flood-affected communities; senior decision-makers of relevant government departments (not the junior office-person as the token representative); business people and specialists (as required). It will need to be conducted over a period of time, in an atmosphere of respect for difference (recognition of the legitimate plurality of goals and perspectives), involve mutual learning and co-construction of the most appropriate way forward. Senior leaders and/or managers of relevant government departments may find this shared approach to decision-making difficult to accommodate.

Each participating group (and individual) must be prepared to deal with the political and financial reality of the situation, and to give ground in order to negotiate a way forward which is acceptable to all parties. This includes being prepared to recognize that a complete solution may not be achievable, and whatever solution is proposed may have to be implemented incrementally, as funding permits. Politicians and departmental heads may find this long-term commitment difficult to sustain.

While I have not worked in the area of fire preparedness, I suspect that some of these principles are also likely to be effective in that environment. Colleagues interested in, and committed to the achievement of sustainability may notice that the principles of complexity and stakeholder collaboration outlined above are compatible with those required for the achievement of sustainable development.

Is this difficult to achieve – yes. Is it impossible – no – not if the political will is there, and if influential champions, who are committed to seeing it through, can be engaged. The alternative is that we throw up our hands, do nothing and watch the next tragedy unfolding in real-time on the 6 o’clock news.

a constant source of surprise

A recent article in Foreign Affairs considers the impacts of advances in technology on business, government and society.  It covers both the potential for an ever-expanding range of positives, and also the potential for significant social negatives, particularly in the labor market.  Interesting summer reading and reflection for those in leadership and decision-making.  The question, as always, for those in leadership is  – what do we need to do differently to adapt?

Prerequisites for effective strategy development

A recent article discusses the failures of strategizing (or strategy development) in US defence and foreign policy. By inference, it highlights the prerequisites for effective strategy development (SD).

Challenge the status quo. The authors lament that much of what is called SD is simply tinkering at the edges of current plans. Their view is that SD requires (a) a willingness to challenge (i) pre-existing thinking in organisational (and possibly national) culture and (ii) the power interests of corporates and government bureaucracies; (b) the creation of an open market-place of ideas where all options compete on a level playing field; and (c) the explicit acknowledgement and addressing of the complexity and political reality of implementing change in current systems. It is not a task for the faint-hearted.

Plurality of views. Effective SD requires a plurality of views in the definition of target outcomes, priorities, options and processes. This guards against blinkered (or one dimensional) thinking; allows for the definition and reasoned consideration of a range of alternatives; and may help reduce distortion of the final message, particularly if the underlying logic is clearly articulated.

Focus on flexibility. The international situation is turbulent and unpredictable.  This complexity and uncertainty precludes the definition of a single ideal strategy.  As a result, strategy must be flexible. The corollary is that leaders need to become comfortable with uncertainty and be prepared to wrestle with the nebulous definition of flexibility in both organisational direction and process. Developing appropriate measures of success remains a challenge.

These phases of SD are difficult but not impossible. In Australia, they have been employed in work with government agencies and primary producers in the Goulburn Valley and south-west Victoria. They are also being implemented by successful companies in the US and government departments in various EU countries.

Fukushima: the psycho-social impacts

To coincide with remembrances of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Lancet has published a series of articles dealing with the aftermath of the recent Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster.  In addition to the significant loss of life, physical and economic loss, the articles (and associated reports) highlight:

The range and complexity of psycho-social impacts of major disasters. These include the generation of mental health problems, the loss of public trust, and the rise of anxiety in both the affected community and emergency services personnel.  The articles draw attention to the cross-disciplinary nature of response planning.  They identify the need to engage social scientists and on-ground stakeholders as well as technical experts.  This model could also be used for disaster preparedness.

Systemic failures by government and industry contributed significantly to the Fukushima disaster.

These learnings are generic, ie while they were drawn in the context of nuclear disasters, they can also guide planning for other types of disaster.

The contribution of governmental failure to the Fukushima disaster is a wake-up call for Victorian and Australian EM agencies and the governments who fund them.  Effective disaster preparedness and response planning cannot be done on a shoestring.  It requires high quality leadership and staffing; finely-tuned levels of inter-governmental and inter-departmental co-operation; development of the necessary legislative frameworks; active linkages with local and international research networks and stakeholder communities; significant and flexible funding; AND highly-placed champions who continue to drive direction, quality and investment.  The common post-disaster excuse that “We could not have seen this coming” is no longer acceptable as a euphemism for poor prioritization and resourcing by government.

we haven’t experienced this before ..

‘Homes washed away, streets decimated’ in largest storm operation in 10 years says SES

LEIGH SALES: How does the scale of the storm compare to what you’ve seen in the past?

STEPHEN PEARCE: We were only talking about that just recently. I haven’t seen a storm of this magnitude in my time here at the SES and, indeed, this would be the largest storm operation in the last 10 years …. we’ve never seen these cyclonic winds last for 24 hours straight. That’s what’s caused the majority of the damage. (NSW SES Deputy Commissioner) 

1.  There are expectations that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will increase under climate change

2.  This will increasingly push decision-makers in government and business into the arena of – we haven’t experienced something like this before …

3.  The purpose of using scenarios as a planning tool is NOT to predict the future, but rather to:

(a)  Push outwards or extend the boundaries of our thinking about what is possible (enlarge our possibility space)

(b)  Be willing to consider the adequacy of our current mental model of reality

(c)  Be prepared to think rigorously about the implications of this new possibility space, particularly in relation to how we might cope with large, unexpected events which potentially overwhelm our current response capability

4.  “Our current system (for homeland security) does not provide the necessary framework to manage the challenges posed by 21st century catastrophic threats”  (The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina – Lessons Learned.  The White House, 23 February 2006, p52)    If this was true for the US, it may also be true for us here in Australia.

leadership under uncertainty

Given the uncertainty of the next 5-10 years, how do leaders give direction to their business or department?  A recent article in HBR reviews the repositioning processes of successful US businesses.  It then synthesises a number of guidelines on strategy and practice for leadership under uncertainty.  In summary, innovation (or change) requires leaders to:

  • Facilitate the development and operation of a framework for innovation.
  • Set the expectation that the innovation process will push boundaries.
  • Facilitate dialogue with customers and stakeholders.
  • Embrace the apprehension associated with uncertainty as a normal part of business life.
  • Encourage development of a common language and paradigms across the organisation.
  • Create 1-2 day windows of uninterrupted time, where small cross-disciplinary teams can focus on a given issue.

These guidelines require new ways of thinking about leadership, new frameworks and processes to facilitate innovation, and new cultures where uncertainty, plurality and dialogue are organisational norms.

Taken from: Furr, N. and Dyer, J.H. Leading your team into the unknown, Harvard Business Review, Dec 2014, pp80-88

sequences of different disasters

South Australian communities are currently facing a sequence of climate-related disasters.  While separated by only a few days, the disasters produce quite different types of damage.  Impacted families have to prepare for each disaster type quite differently, and then, perhaps within 24 hours, shift into a different response mode as the new emergency unfolds.  The time between events is short, so communities and service personnel have little time to process the emotional trauma of the first disaster before they are faced with another.  This impacts the mental health of adults and children, sometimes for years.  It has flow-on effects for individual and regional productivity, business turnover, economic activity and taxation revenue.  The aftermath impacts water supply systems, land and waterway management, communication and transport infrastructure.  This is a system-wide issue which cuts across traditional boundaries of responsibility.  Addressing it will require input from disciplinary experts across different departments and tiers of government, business groups, researchers and community members, all acting in concert.  It may also require different types of leadership, organisational structures, processes and decision-making.

Yogi Berra astutely observed that ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’.  If that is true, then perhaps the way we deal with the future also needs to change.  That means all of us – individually, corporately and in government.  The literature suggests approaches such as using scenarios to identify future risks and opportunities in the operating environment; developing a culture of interdepartmental and whole-of-government collaboration; engaging the research community and relevant stakeholders – government, business, discipline experts and the community – in the planning process.  These approaches aren’t actually new.  Shell has been using scenario planning for 50 years.  The EU initiated collaborative planning involving government, business, researchers and the community around 25 years ago.

Because we have no textbook formulae to follow, the steps we take will be somewhat experimental, and therefore uncomfortable. Even if our processes are well-considered, they will always involve uncertainty and risk.  Welcome to leadership in the coming years.