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Prioritizing Your Preparedness Priorities

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

By Anthony Buller
April 13, 2018

The Pareto Principle argues that there are certain investments that return a disproportionately larger return on that investment. That’s my definition. In other terms, identifying the Paretos of a problem or opportunity shows you where to apply effort because you gain the most from doing so. I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a panel on emergency management and also present the “Five Paretos that Result in Readiness to Perform During and Recover from Incidents” at the ASPA Annual Conference in Denver, CO. For this column, let me share a synopsis of that presentation and what more than 1700 days on disaster and 13 years as a federal emergency manager have taught me about where you, as a public administrator, might gain the most on your time, energy and resources.

#1 Partner: Build Your Relationships

In a PATimes column a few years ago, I argued that the best way to both slow down the rising trend line of expectations and to raise the trend line of capability (at the same time) was through partnering. In so many areas of our professional lives we have the opportunity to partner, to build relationships, to develop empathy and understanding, to formalize commitments and to work together. Doing this is the most important preparedness activity and returns the most from investment.

Emergency management has convening structures that public administrators should be connected to, and this is especially true in certain areas of public service, like health, transportation, energy and many others. At the least, public administrators should know the emergency management responsibilities of their organization and partner with internal emergency managers. Additionally, public administrators should know and embrace the need for continuity of operations (COOP) preparedness, which brings about another group of potential partners.

#2 Plan: Planning Is a Process, Not an Outcome

Planning is fundamentally about performance; the right measure of plan quality is its efficacy when called upon. For public administrators touching the emergency management realm, planning becomes second nature – perhaps too second nature. To make planning return the highest on our investment we have to do more than claim victory when the document is signed. No, two more things are critical.

First, long before the plan is signed, we have to embrace the process of planning. When we meaningfully engage with partners to coordinate our intentions, commit to mutual support, and empower performance we are at the heart of the benefits of the planning process. The coming together, the meetings, sometimes the slow grind of change and achievement of buy-in are where planning victories happen. And secondly, the plan shouldn’t be considered the outcome; rather improved performance is the outcome and you prove plan efficacy through practice.

#3 Practice: To Find Areas for Improvement

We have many ways to practice our planning, often through either exercises or by finding ourselves in a real-world event. Best to practice first and this is a meaningful way to apply investments and expect high returns. For any emergency management related plan, an exercise and validation cycle should be determined.

By exercising and by capturing areas for improvement we can drive positive change. This often comes in the form of an “improvement plan,” which lists the identified weaknesses, indicates the person responsible for addressing the gap, and provides a timeframe for completion. I’ve seen too many organizations exercise but not follow through with an improvement planning process. Don’t fall into that trap – the highest return on your exercise isn’t when it’s over. Rather, the highest return comes when the follow-through is complete.

#4 Procure: Shouldn’t Be the First Step

Often, procurement, buying something, is the first answer for a public organization. Even when resources are tight, buying something speaks to public administrators as the solution. Instead, procurement should be the answer when gaps have been clearly identified through a process (perhaps the exercise process) and those gaps cannot be filled by partners.

Procurement doesn’t beat partnering, planning, and practicing. Buying something or securing a service through contract should come after these things. But still, it’s a Pareto: procuring a solution can return a high investment if done right.

#5 Promote: Always Important

I don’t mean to minimize “promote” by listing it as number five. Rather, making sure preparedness efforts are visible is a major Pareto and can come with partnering, planning, practicing and procuring. There are many returns on the promotion investment. First, stakeholders (internal and external) can be informed and understand your role and your organization’s role during emergencies. Second, elected officials and other leaders can be assured that there is competent leadership within emergency management. Third, boosting other organizations can yield better relationships. Fourth, promotion and the embracing of transparency can return more trust in the organization.

These are just five simple concepts or efforts you can undertake to get the best return on your time, energy and resources.


Author: Anthony Buller has deployed to 40 presidentially declared major disasters and emergencies in his 13 years of federal service. He now leads a team of security and emergency management professionals in Denver, CO. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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