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Community and City Resilience and Covid-19 

In the first of a free series of webinars, the Emergency Planning Society welcomed Donald Kettl, the Sid Richardson Professor at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin in the USA.

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The underlying theme to building resilience at the community and city level is collaboration between citizens and governments and to effect a good response we need to acknowledge that the local issues are inter-related. Image: Zachary Blanton/123rf

Kettl spoke in detail of the inter-relationship between the police and emergency response in terms of dealing with so-called ‘policy tsunamis’. These involve simultaneous challenges that affect communities at all levels, for example in the US, the widespread Black Lives Matter protests and the concurrent rise in Covid-19 cases across many US states. Understanding the way that complex societies deal with such challenges provides the basis of defining resilience.

Kettl posited that although the issues may seem to stem from different causes, in fact they arise from the same basic problem of community resilience. Resilience, he said, means understanding how issues are inter-related.

He explained that all issues start off at the local level because they are caused by local problems. These need an initial local action, which depends on trust. And this trust needs an interaction between the citizens and government. Local problems and responses are interconnected and to make progress requires building local trust which, in turn, needs national support and strategies. This collaboration is key to building resilience at all levels.

Moving on to discuss the importance of effective leadership, Kettl called on the experiences of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Transparency of information – clarity, honesty and openness – is key in the eyes of his interviewee, Admiral Allan, in order to build credibility and establish trust. It is then crucial, he noted, to have a consensus on the objectives and mission, which requires an understanding of the crisis and a framework to be built around it.

Hurricane Katrina is a good case study for learning valuable lessons about resilience, but the Admiral commented that there is a vast difference in the levels of complexity with Covid-19 – a state-wide crisis in terms of Katrina is amplified to national and international emergency with regard to Covid-19. Existing frameworks and policies are often no longer applicable. Complexity, therefore becomes a risk factor when the appropriate response is to be considered.

The crucial lessons to learn, Kettl summarised, are:

  • Definition is essential – understand the crisis
  • Transparency is the core of communication – people need to know who and what to believe
  • Leadership is collaboration – unity of effort
  • Mission is the driver – consensus of objectives
  • Trust is the foundation – social contracts between governments and citizens

Both acknowledging and cementing connections between the citizens and governments are vital to building trust and forming an effective response.

Community resilience at the local level provides a guide for understanding the pattern of action and can then become a policy for developing resilience at the national level.

Effective resilience depends on effective leadership and collaborative response. The role of emergency planners is to guide and influence decisions and offer support and they have a pivotal role in the partnerships that exist in the response.

The questions and comments in the webinar ranged from discussing how to know who to trust, how to develop a ‘common language’ to help individuals understand which data are reliable and relevant to them which then would enable them to talk about the issues relating to Covid-19, through to the politicising of decisions about wearing masks in public, for instance.

Kettl explained that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to remove politics from a response to a crisis such as Covid-19. And we probably shouldn’t try he said, because the social contract between government and citizens is based on a political idea. In addition, new qualities of leadership are being brought to the fore – empathy shown by female leaders in particular is proving to help citizens and leaders collaborate with more success.

The underlying theme to building resilience at the community and city level is collaboration between citizens and governments and to effect a good response we need to acknowledge that the local issues are inter-related; one spills into the next and can be viewed as a whole.

The second webinar, 'Conversation 2: Living life to the full and the environment', was on July 6 and featured Caroline Douglas from the Environment Agency and Chris Williams from the University of Glasgow. The third webinar is on July 16 at 14:00hrs (BST). Details will follow.


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