As government agencies try to deal with a myriad of challenges, it may be more important than ever that leaders formulate resiliency strategies to ensure they can continue to provide services to the public
Government agencies and organizations now contend with post-pandemic workload challenges, including a triple threat of climate-related natural disasters, supply chain disruptions, and cybersecurity threats, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). These challenges are all underpinned by the need for a resilient workforce that’s grounded in trust, equity, and innovation.
But how can government agencies best cultivate such workforces and strategies to best address and mitigate environmental, logistical, and cyber threats?
The best resiliency defense is a good offense
Over the past three years, unexpected health, economic, and environmental challenges have highlighted vulnerabilities that can disrupt government agencies. Resiliency strategy focuses on how well your organization can maintain its operations in a worst-case scenario. Indeed, resiliency strategy should involve having plans, processes, and systems in place to operate even when conditions are severely compromised, ensuring continued provision of essential government services, says Suzanne Spaulding, Sr. Advisor for Homeland Security at CSIS.
The economic losses resulting from natural disasters are staggering, with 15 designated disasters in 2022 alone causing more than $1 billion in losses each. Given the escalating pace of climate change, it’s likely that resilience efforts and funding are not keeping pace with the increasing frequency and severity of these disasters, according to The Federal Policy Action Plan to Accelerate Local Climate Resilience, from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).
In fact, resiliency planning and infrastructure supports collaborative efforts with advisory groups and external partners and can aid in securing and distributing emergency funds. It is estimated that for every $1 invested in pre-disaster resilience planning, there’s a potential $6 in savings on recovery costs, according to the C2ES plan.
Resiliency planning in the federal government
The C2ES plan outlines the federal government’s recommended role in climate resilience as a chief coordinator and resource provider. This involves effectively administering government resources, providing leadership, and supporting local-level resilience actions and capacity-building. Essentially, the federal government’s primary function is to act as a hub for sharing high-quality information and a source for funding, the plan notes.
As future decades are likely to see increased climate change-related natural events, we are witnessing communities and nations shift to greater renewable energy sources and increased electricity usage, according to the CSIS report. These changes pose increased risks to energy systems.
The Biden Administration has prioritized shifting away from carbon pollution in energy development and moving toward a net-zero emissions economy. Since 2021, more than 20 federal agencies have published climate plans, the CSIS report states.
Given workforce turnover due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it is crucial to provide agency training to ensure the federal workforce is adequately prepared to anticipate and respond to the ongoing impacts of climate change.
Increased funding and centralization of federal efforts are important priorities in the years to come. In 2019, FEMA received grant applications totaling $3.6 billion dollars for their Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program, which focuses on updating critical infrastructure, notes the C2ES action plan. However, in that funding cycle, only $500 million was available, enough to fund just one out of every seven grant applications.
Clearly, federal agencies lack centralized coordination on this front. To address this problem, the U.S. Congress introduced the National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act, during the 2021-2022 Congressional session. The proposed Act aimed to establish a Chief Resiliency Officer role in the Executive Branch, create a government-wide effort to build resilience to climate-change vulnerabilities, and form working groups to drive the strategy and its implementation. Despite broad bipartisan support, the bills did not progress to a vote.
Resiliency planning at the state and local levels
Resiliency planning implementation varies widely across the United States. However, 27 of the 50 states have some form of resiliency infrastructure in place. State and local government agencies are familiar with local needs and have more direct access to land and energy infrastructure, states the C2ES plan. Although federal agency platforms offer valuable information sharing, they could enhance collaboration by enabling secure information exchange among users, added the CSIS report.
According to a report from the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), those states with some form of resiliency infrastructure in place are using resilience tools, such as: a state office of resiliency, a state resiliency officer, or a commission or task force. Sixteen states have appointed a chief resiliency officer role to streamline planning across agencies and provide oversight, the NCSL states, adding that these resiliency efforts are more prevalent in coastal states, with many of them specifically addressing climate change and in particular, flooding.
One area that could benefit from improvement at the state and local level is the standardization of resiliency measures for energy systems, according to the CSIS report. Current data on electrical reliability provided by utilities does not account for systemic differences in capacity, criticality, or vulnerability. While organizations may be hesitant to share information that exposes vulnerabilities, the true value of resiliency planning is intangible until a disaster occurs.
Ensuring equity and workforce resiliency
Low-income and marginalized communities are faced with a disproportionate threat from climate change. These communities are more likely to bear the brunt of climate-related impacts due to their locations in vulnerable areas, which often have less access to FEMA assistance, pose challenges for evacuation, or are prone to greater damage. Effective resiliency planning and resource distribution can increase equity in crisis response and preparedness, notes the CSIS report.
Agencies engaged in resiliency planning bear a direct responsibility to foster equity within their teams. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts enhance resiliency because a diverse workforce is better equipped to anticipate risks and is less susceptible to groupthink, the CSIS report states. To promote equity in government workplaces, it’s crucial to revamp hiring processes, address bias or perceived inequities, and identify and rectify biases and systemic barriers that exclude certain groups.
The global COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of adaptability in adverse situations and stress management. Workforces that are diverse, equitable, and provide psychological safety are better prepared to innovate and navigate the climatic changes we will all face in the future.