Comfortable being Uncomfortable: Effective Local Government Disaster Management

January 11, 2021

By Katherine Willoughby, Golembiewski Professor of Public Administration at the University of Georgia

In his path-breaking study of the calculations of public budgeters, scholar Aaron Wildavsky taught us about living in the present, being mindful of the context within which we work, and remaining comfortable being uncomfortable.  In his own words, “Without constraints, in fact, it is impossible to do creative work.” 

Certainly, disasters of all sorts make people uncomfortable, and for governments, such events can constrain, disrupt, or destroy operations and infrastructure.  The U.S. National Preparedness System that engages the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emphasizes that governments at all levels must support disaster preparation with effective administrative, logistic, and fiscal resource management systems to bolster community response and recovery when disasters occur. 

Regarding natural disaster management, FEMA emphasizes the need for an enterprise approach to local readiness that involves a community strategy to fully engage the public, private and nonprofit sectors, including businesses, faith-based and disability organizations, and governmental partners at all levels.  But of all these partners, local governments are the “boots on the ground” in terms of public service delivery and are first responders in times of crisis.  

Unfortunately, today local governments are continually battling both chronic and acute problems.  Chronic problems of homelessness, crime, and crumbling infrastructure often compete with acute ones like weather- and biological-related disasters, those resulting from human error (train wreck) or intention (ransomwear), and those brought on by local, national, or international conflict. Smaller governments are particularly hard-pressed to deal with calamities of all kinds. Often, they suffer from, among other things, a weak or slowly declining tax base and old, poorly maintained infrastructure.

Wildavsky might claim that modern local government officials and managers must get comfortable being uncomfortable all of the time.  Is this the case?  

With my colleagues, Komla Dzigbede of SUNY, Binghamton and Sara Beth Gehl of The Roosevelt Institute, New York, we engaged with the IBM Business of Government to investigate just how comfortable local officials are when disasters occur.  We surveyed these officials nationwide about their fiscal resiliency should a weather-related natural disaster strike and we interviewed several dozen across the nation about their experiences in managing through such disasters.  

As you might expect, our results were mixed.  While most local governments have some sort of plan for disaster, relatively few include the public when developing such plans.  Also, while most have at least one fund source that can be accessed if disaster strikes, fewer have mutual aid agreements with other communities that can support effective response and recovery following a major disaster. Just half of local governments responding reported having established formal partnerships with local nonprofit organizations, community groups, and religious societies that could be utilized to support recovery and restoration activities in the event of a natural disaster.  

While most local officials indicated that they considered themselves knowledgeable about applying for aid from other levels of government if a disaster hits, many fewer said they have conducted the necessary inventories and financial calculations necessary to be able to tally financial losses accurately and quickly following disastrous events. 

Some of our most important findings point to the importance of learning from past disasters to be better prepared for inevitable future ones.  For example, following a disaster, local ordinances can be changed to enhance a city manager’s procurement limits, smooth regular contracting and purchasing protocols, authorize offices and agencies to work seamlessly with emergency services at all levels, and allow for outside hiring during and following a crisis.  Such changes can help local officials to do their jobs better, getting people, operations, and infrastructure back in business more quickly and efficiently.

Back to Wildavsky’s point about comfort, what can localities do for reassurance when navigating the uncomfortable?  Among the strategies that local officials can engage, two stand out as most essential, and especially so, for small local governments.

First, developing a network of horizontal and vertical partners is crucial.  Most immediate support for disaster relief will come from local government partners on the ground with them—local businesses, nonprofits, neighbor governments, and even regional partnerships.  Likewise, it is critical that local officials and emergency managers generate close, ongoing relationships with their state and federal partners.  One City Administrator from Chapman, Kansas who we talked to explained that local managers new to the job must hit the ground and immediately cultivate these relationships. 

“When I got here, I called up my fellow city and county managers and said let’s get together for lunch once a month, and if we don’t have anything to talk about then we can talk about football. When it came time to collaborate on who is responding, there is already a level of trust.” He noted doing the same for his state contact who helps negotiate with federal partners. 

In addition to developing vital partnerships, a second essential strategy requires local governments to maintain an updated accounting of assets along with estimates of costs expected following any disasters that can be imagined.  These inventories, estimates, and calculations must be available before and accessible after disaster strikes. 

These two strategies alone are not enormously difficult or costly to conduct. They are within the reach of almost all governments. Importantly, if they are relied upon, and continually addressed, they boost comfort in uncomfortable times, providing local governments with critical support during crisis and documentation in hand for reimbursement after the fact.