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Culture and Social Equity in Emergency Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
January 24, 2022

What makes an emergency management organization more likely to achieve the promises of social equity? Social equity of course “is fundamentally concerned with fairness and justice in the provision of public service.” In this series of columns, I am suggesting that there are drivers of social equity that emergency management should pursue (see the graphic). And specifically, in this column, I am exploring the importance of organizational culture.

Why have I placed culture as the first social equity driver? Very simply answered: culture is how a group acts on what they believe. In my 17 years as a federal emergency manager, I have seen the power of organizational culture in either empowering or derailing the best intentions. Bad culture often seems to beat every effort you can throw at it. Therefore, we start with culture.

This series of columns provides practical approaches to improving the outcomes and promises of social equity. In the introductory column to this series, I stated that “an organization must establish an environment where equity is embraced and those that stand for equity are empowered instead of voiceless. Good actions should be rewarded. Bad actions should not be tolerated. Staff and stakeholders must sense that the organization is walking the talk.” As this quote demonstrates, culture can be both internal (how employees perceive it) and external in two ways: (1) how culture affects the outcomes of the services provided, and (2) how external stakeholders perceive the emergency management organization. Below you can find ten things to look for in an emergency management organization to see if culture is helping or hurting the effort.

#1 – Principles Established    Statements of principles help to define expectations, describe desired outcomes and ideally even explain why social equity matters for the organization. Principles can be top-down, bottom-up or collaborative. Some of the best organizations leverage the identification of their equity principles as an opportunity to engage staff and stakeholders at the very beginning of the discussion or when refreshing the effort.

#2 – Champions Identified     Making everyone responsible for equity dilutes the effort. The best emergency management organizations identify and empower equity champions.

#3 – Inequities Admitted     Investigating, identifying, communicating and even admitting the reality or risk of inequity can be both fundamental to the effort and also promote exceptional effort. At the least, emergency management organizations already consistently identify demographic statistics that may challenge social equity goals, but beyond this, great organizations admit their role in worsening or improving social equity outcomes.

#4 – Taking Action     Actions should start internally with promoting equity within the workplace and then build into actions that improve service delivery in the furtherance of social equity. Great emergency management organizations strive for equity over equality and can identify specific efforts to address vulnerabilities before, during and after disaster.

#5 – Integrity and Trust     No organization can successfully improve a culture around equity and social equity if it fails to walk the talk. It could be argued that this is exactly why culture should indeed be the first driver of social equity.

#6 – Open Dialogue     Good organizations encourage open dialogue about equity matters by creating formal settings such as trainings on the topic, as well as by promoting informal connections that grow collective awareness around how the organization should improve social equity. The dialogue should be with those inside and outside the organization, especially with those served.

#7 – Transparency and Accountability     The emergency management organization should track the achievement of social equity metrics and hold staff accountable. Furthermore, the organization should incentivize behaviors that improve social equity and disincentivize behaviors that do the opposite. Bad actors should be dealt with.

#8 – Customer Experience   Embracing customer experience (beyond customer service) leads to organizations that not only deliver on expectations for services, but also meaningfully improve processes, which in this light means improving processes to reflect vulnerabilities.

#9 – Welcoming Feedback     To know whether goals are being met, emergency management should have multiple methods for obtaining both internal and external feedback. Emergency management can survey the recipients of assistance, as just one example.

#10 – Additional Drivers     Finally, culture links to other drivers, as shown in the graphic, with perhaps the most obvious being: diversity and inclusion. A good emergency management organization recognizes that these drivers influence one another, and one cannot be substantially improved without advancing the others as well.

These ten practical approaches can be used to assess and improve your emergency management organization. The next column in this series will explore the understanding community driver. Understanding community goes far beyond demographics and compels us to understand vulnerabilities and needs. But to be fully informed we must understand the historical and the ongoing inequities.


Author: Anthony Buller has deployed to more than 40 presidentially declared major disasters and emergencies in his 17 years of federal service. He leads a team of emergency management professionals covering the western US for a federal agency. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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