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In Emergency Management, Strategy Rarely Translates Into Action

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"Certainly no military campaign, company investment, or government initiative is likely to receive backing unless there is a strategy to evaluate. If a decision can be described as strategically significant, then it is obviously more important than decisions of a routine nature. By extension, people making such decisions are more important than those who only offer advice or are tasked with implementation." ~ Lawrence Freedman, Strategy

Is Mr. Freedman correct? Surely the first sentence holds true; no strategy, no backing. And there's no quibbling with the second; strategic decisions outrank routine ones. But are decision makers really more important than advice givers who, after all, set the menu from which policy entrées are chosen, or those tasked to actually do the job? Notwithstanding popular assumption and Freedman's magnificent history of all things strategy, no. No, they're not.

Huge gaps can exist between a decision maker's strategy and the way decisions are implemented. This does not mean that those doing the job are purposefully confounding demands from on high (although they might be), but that the reality implementers squeeze from abstract concepts simply have lives of their own.

In my research on Canadian and American emergency management agencies, I've found significant differences between official disaster strategies and how disaster responses actually unfold. For example, 'lessons learned' and theories of emergency management consistently call for formal coordination of all the organizations involved in disaster response.

The discourse after a Katrina, an Alberta flood, or a California wildfire inevitably laments lack of coordination as the Achilles' heel in a jurisdiction's resiliency. This discourse defines the problem (lack of official coordination), advice givers provide a set of potential solutions (coordinate!), decision makers pick what appears to be the best one and come the next disaster, the solution implemented looks quite different from the one chosen (lack of official coordination).

A problem by definition assumes a potential solution.

The crux seems to be that implementers work within real-world constraints that -- no matter how sophisticatedly decision makers simulate potential reality -- alter the original strategy. Emergency management decision makers can survey the lack of disaster response coordination and pursue strategies that seek to a.) maximize the prestige of response agencies so they all have an incentive to deploy and share resources, b.) employ complicated models to ensure an overproduction of resources don't confuse the response, c.) reconfigure the bureaucratic disaster response apparatus (an American favourite: moving FEMA there will fix everything!), and/or d.) incentivize the private and non-profit sectors to help out, all of which may have some positive impact.

But when the implementers of emergency management policy face disasters on the ground the world moves from theory to practice, and irrevocably changes: spontaneous organization of on-the-ground individuals -- who cannot be categorized within "sectors" -- allocate available resources surprisingly well (i.e. regular folks on site during 9/11); official organizations that are successful are those that don't attempt to command and control unofficial organizations (the Coast Guard during Hurricane Katrina); different levels of the public service are already working together before politicians know -- or desire -- it (the 1990 Ontario tire fire); and the list goes on.

The defined problem -- lack of official coordination -- does not seem so much of a problem in the real world but a key characteristic of disaster and implementers adapt. A problem by definition assumes a potential solution. A characteristic simply exists. And strategists sometimes confuse the two. Implementers meanwhile bump into what exists and details of the decision maker's strategy fall by the wayside.

None of this is new. That policy does not equal practice is a mantra in academic public administration and government departments alike. Yet it bears repeating because the attraction of the decision maker and the strategy on paper glimmers as brightly to millennials as it has to previous generations.

Millennials revere the perfectly just solution and denigrate the Trumps of the world for the same reason: abstract ideas and their champions seem to rule the day. Yet real world barriers -- from social phenomena like collaborative individual behaviour during disaster events to entrenched institutional barriers like the separation of powers in the U.S. presidential system -- change the strategies that implementers are tasked to implement.

Popular policy discourse will benefit from a greater appreciation of process. Not only will such an appreciation provide a better explanation of why big decisions unfold the way they do, but it will curb the simultaneously idealistic and alarmist approach that so many of us -- millennials in particular -- bring to bear on contemporary politics.

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