Emerging from disruption, cities have an unprecedented opportunity to build better operational resilience
Many cities are currently enduring the most significant period of disruption ever experienced globally in peacetime. Countless agencies have implemented rapid transformations to accommodate social distancing, staff or commodity shortages, and working from home where possible to continue providing public services. Some change has happened remarkably smoothly, while for others, it was remarkably difficult or even painful.
In preparation for when the rate of COVID-19 infection slows, agencies and organizations across all sectors are trying to imagine what happens next. The next challenge is returning to our next normal in a way that keeps people safe, maintains continuity, and builds in flexibility to better manage future change — be that another hump in the COVID-19 curve or other, as yet unforeseeable disruption. Recognizing that we are entering a potentially prolonged time of change, managing uncertainty will become the next challenge.
Planning for Future Resilience Today
When there is such significant disruption to city agencies, their people, and the economic environment in which they operate, there is an even greater need to build up operational resilience. Our most vulnerable populations, essential workers, and the public at large all rely on the value provided by our government agencies. Municipal departments should prepare for future disruptions now by taking the time to evaluate how recent changes have impacted their operations. By being strategic and capturing lessons learned, they may be able to shift priorities to protect workers and the public from future disruption.
What unexpected strengths and weaknesses have been revealed? What systems must be put in place to more effectively make, implement and assess decisions? What aspects of service delivery are most vulnerable? How have they been able to protect workers and people on the front lines of disruption? Organizations that understand the foundations of the value they deliver and expand their adaptive capacity will be better positioned to respond, recover and transform.
ORAT for Local Governments
Operational readiness, activation and transition (ORAT) is a tried and tested methodology typically implemented to de-risk the activation of new services and facilities, covering everything from airports and stations to major public events and sports stadia. But beyond facilitating the smooth opening of an asset, for instance, ORAT tools can help all types of departments thoroughly plan and prepare for and confidently respond to future disruptions.
Below are five key ORAT principles retooled for public agencies effected by distressed operations. With these ideas in mind, local governments and other organizations can build up the adaptive capacity and resilience to better navigate future disruption.
As a first step, every agency must ensure they have good governance as well as strong and decisive leadership in place. It takes clear decision-making frameworks to respond, recover, and transform.
Organizations that single-mindedly focus on one task will quickly run into unlooked for roadblocks. Operational readiness means taking a holistic, coordinated approach, breaking down the varied impacts on people, processes, assets, and technology so that nothing is missed. This also means taking into account who has been disproportionately disrupted by broader, systemic inequities such as race, gender, sexual orientation or disability, among others.
Now is the time to understand how an agency has been transformed and how it might further transform. We have never been through the likes of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we can look to the last three months to inform future planning. Many agencies are grappling with an increased demand for services alongside decreased revenue.
Take the time to reflect on how recent changes have impacted operations. This period of disruption is an opportunity to take stock of the regulatory changes impacting operations, as well as the behavior changes of staff, collaborators, and the public. It’s important to check in not only on operational goals, but on company culture, and if the values of an organization have similarly proved resilient to disruption.
Stakeholder engagement is at the heart of every operational readiness process. In order to understand the impacts to an organization, that organization must understand both the impacts to the individuals within their agency as well as the needs of the public to begin with.
Plan and prove
After considering the above, determine what processes, assets, technology, and roles need to adapt or be implemented to accommodate what they’ve learned. Taking into consideration the likelihood that we are going to be in different operating states over the coming 6, 12, 18 months, how might these play out? Then, any new process or system must be tested and tested again to ensure success. That testing process also includes time built in for issue resolution, reevaluation, and further improvement.
Some agencies may need to consolidate their operations, offer new services, or offer existing services in new ways to protect personnel and the public. Others might need to consider how they can provide clear and consistent communication to staff, contractors, and stakeholders. It’s critical for organizations to consider the comfort of their people. How might they need to adapt their ways of working? How might they be supported so that their comfortability carries through to the service they provide? Never underestimate the complexity of re-activating facilities and systems especially allocating enough time to do this effectively.
This step is essential. Ongoing reviews post-transition enable continued learning and improvement. By monitoring each step outlined above, cities, organizations, and agencies can build in that crucial capacity to adapt over time and be ready for the next operating state.
While typical ORAT programs and processes often focus on seamless day-one operations, the essence of operational readiness is the planning that takes place ahead of time that gets you to day one. Readiness will mean being prepared for several waves of new operating states, or more than one “day one.” Then after each phase, taking a step back to reflect on what has been learned, and prove the process out for the next phase.
In this time of accelerated transformation, it will take this type of holistic approach to change management for cities and public agencies so that they become more robust and resilient over time, ultimately realizing full and lasting benefits.
Jane Goslett is an associate principal and business change manager at Arup where she delivers large-scale, often-complicated projects. She has over 16 years of expertise developing and implementing new processes and systems to ensure more efficient and effective ways of working.