Crisis Collaboration

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A whole community approach to disaster management involves both public and private agencies.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the effects of natural and human-caused disasters in the United States have become more frequent and severe in recent decades, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis. The nation’s traditional approach to crisis management has relied heavily on government agencies. However, as crisis and disaster impacts have worsened, government agencies have found preserving the safety, security and prosperity of society increasingly challenging to accomplish alone. FEMA therefore advocates a “whole community approach” to disaster management that involves both public and private agencies.

To meet this goal, public administrators must be prepared to collaborate with other leaders who can help in times of crisis. In a conference series called Collaboration in Times of Crisis, the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) identified three categories of collaboration partners to be considered, including other federal agencies; other levels of federal, state or local government; and private organizations.

Before, during, and after a crisis, partnering with these entities lays the groundwork for success — and public administration classes through programs such as Ohio University’s online Master of Public Administration can prepare candidates for this essential function. The program’s Crisis and Emergency Management concentration offers the academic knowledge and practical skills necessary for emergency situations. Classes are taught by instructors who have played pivotal roles in preparing for high-profile emergency events.

Collaboration Across Federal Agencies

The first area to consider during times of crisis, says the PPS, is collaboration across federal agencies. “Many federal agencies share common objectives but fail to coordinate their efforts. This lack of cooperation can have negative consequences ranging from wasted resources to missed opportunities,” says the PPS.

Case studies suggest several key aspects to successful cross-agency collaboration:

  • Work toward common goals. Federal agencies have different missions, expertise, cultures and organizational structures. These differences can lead to clashes and inefficiency. Defining common goals can help agencies keep the big picture in mind and collaborate successfully.
  • Establish relationships early. Relationships should be nurtured long before a crisis hits. Established relationships help different agencies to understand each other’s styles and interests. A good working relationship also helps to cultivate trust, which is essential when the time comes to divide responsibilities and share information.
  • Institute agency liaisons. Major federal agencies can benefit from formal liaisons whose job is to smooth relations between the agencies. The liaisons speak the language of both agencies and can be very helpful in sorting through the flood of information that occurs during a crisis to make sure everyone receives the facts they need — and only the facts they need.
  • Coordinate public communication. Presenting information to the public can be a substantial challenge during crises. Experience shows that public communication is most effective when done jointly — for instance, during a press conference where speakers from multiple agencies take turns presenting information. Although this type of coordination can be complex, it does ensure clear and consistent messaging.

Collaboration Between Government Levels

Large federal agencies are not the only entities that must deal with crisis and collaboration. Many disasters will require a response from all government levels, including local, state and federal divisions. Public administrators at all agencies must work together to ensure the best possible outcomes.

The PPS suggests four ways to help this process run as smoothly as possible:

  • Recognize the need for collaboration. Historically, government entities that see collaboration as important and lay the groundwork for crises have fared best in times of need. When crisis does strike, personnel at all levels must resist the instinct to protect their jurisdiction and accept help wherever and however it is offered.
  • Expand the traditional role of leadership. Effective collaboration requires leaders who push the boundaries of traditional leadership roles. They must know when to lead and when to follow. They must know how to ask for what they need while also giving whatever they can. They are always seeking new ways to communicate and interact with their counterparts in other divisions or entities.
  • Create opportunities for shared learning. People who learn together succeed together, and real shared experience is more valuable than any classroom training. Leaders should seek opportunities to encourage this type of shared learning before any disaster strikes.
  • Build mutual respect. Tension can exist between different levels of government, with public administrators at all levels feeling misunderstood by others. Efforts to build mutual respect and understanding can reduce or eliminate this tension, leading to more effective crisis response.

Public/Private Collaboration

All the resources of local, state, and federal government may not be enough to cope with a major crisis. In these cases, public administrators must collaborate with private agencies to meet their goals. The PPS suggests three goals in this regard:

  • Recognize the need for collaboration. Like federal agencies, public and private entities must put aside their differences and recognize the necessity and benefits of working together.
  • Build relationships at the local level. While all cross-agency relationships are important, on-the-ground responders will work most closely together and must have a good working relationship.
  • Ensure clear communication. Ideally, leaders should establish communication channels between public and private agencies before they are needed. A smooth information flow during a crisis helps everyone manage resources and situations.

Crisis preparation can be a complex undertaking for public administrators. What they should keep in mind, though, is a version of the Golden Rule: Treating others as they wish to be treated themselves. Sharing information and resources helps everyone be a good partner. When leaders work together, crisis collaboration can ease the burden of a difficult situation for all involved.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program

Ohio University’s online MPA program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public administration. Through the university’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, students gain an overview of the scope of public administration and service while building skills in policy, finance, leadership, business, management and communications. The school occupies the No. 18 spot in the SR Education Group’s 2020 Best Online Colleges Offering MPA Programs ranking.

The program, which is 100% online, offers four concentrations: Public Leadership and Management, Non-Profit Management, State and Local Government Management, and Crisis and Emergency Management. Students can finish their degree programs in as few as two years. For more information, contact Ohio University now.


Recommended Reading:

Career Spotlight: Emergency Management Director

Developing Successful Public-Private Partnerships

Using Innovative Practices for Change in Local Government



Increasing effects of disasters and “whole community approach” – FEMA

Collaboration across federal agencies – Partnership for Public Service

Collaboration between government levels – Partnership for Public Service

Public/private collaboration – Partnership for Public Service