26 September 2023

Making history: How Governments can benefit from a pandemic diary

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Michael Imber* says Governments that keep a daily record of obstacles they are facing and steps they are taking will be in a better position to weather the next crisis.

Dear Diary: This week, I told Ashley how I really felt about our problem. She was very emotional over the phone and pleaded with me to take responsibility for my own behaviour: “Jason, you have to help me choose!” I just have to face the fact that what has come between us can be overcome but only if we work together.

“Jason”, the fictional author of this hypothetical diary entry, is the director of administrative services in a city where he is keeping a daily journal of the obstacles and bottlenecks challenging his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Ashley” is the city’s procurement officer, who is burdened with balancing the purchase of protective gear for police, firefighters and sanitation workers against restocking the food bank to serve the homeless community and the newly unemployed.

Moreover, various city-government departments have accelerated their purchasing requests, and Ashley simply does not have the resources to manage in a timely fashion.

Yes, this is a hypothetical, but these kinds of problems should be familiar to anyone on the front lines of government and nonprofit social services as they navigate the challenges of the pandemic response.

The daily problems could easily be compared to those of soldiers on the battlefield who see their attack plan crumble as the situation shifts, making improvisation the order of the day.

Well-seasoned government officials who function cooperatively as a team will have a better chance of prevailing over such challenges.

Jason anticipates that once the smoke on the battlefield clears, there will likely be a post-crisis evaluation of which responses worked and which failed.

Keeping a daily crisis diary enables a government to record, in real time, the problems that were encountered, the resolutions that were tried, and which of them overcame the obstacles.

The diary identifies successes and failures both in process and in personnel.

When this crisis is over, the metrics of a government’s performance will be measured in the minimisation of human suffering, the timeliness of services provided and the confidence government inspired in its citizens through clear communication.

Strong leaders will take the time to assess their government unit’s performance, to learn from the mistakes and to benefit from improvised solutions that could become new policy.

And like any post-hoc evaluation, the effectiveness of the analysis will be dependent upon the accurate memory of what happened in the heat of battle.

Pursuing such analysis with just a memory or a few recovered emails may lead to inconvenient loss of the seemingly small, insignificant actions that made a huge difference, as well as the convenient loss of embarrassing mistakes that could point the way to process refinement.

The crisis diary’s self-examination should cross all government service departments.

Jason would be well advised to develop a template crisis diary for his city’s police and fire chiefs, the chief financial officer, the public-works administrator and other departmental leaders to create a comprehensive, real-time history of how problems are overcome.

Departmental leaders can appoint a staff member who is participating in pandemic response meetings to be responsible for filling out a daily diary entry and then submitting it to a designated aggregator.

The comprehensive collection of diary entries will serve as the “first draft of history” for a review committee to evaluate after the crisis has passed, and the government can take a measured assessment of its performance.

A natural extension of an individual government’s crisis-diary process would be to establish a national best-practices clearinghouse where solutions that worked could be shared in real time over a common web-based platform.

It all starts with what governments do now to document the actions they take.

Hopefully, years from now, Jason can look back nostalgically through the pages of the diary he kept and smile over how he, Ashley and their city weathered the pandemic, emerged with a healthy and prosperous community, and learned valuable lessons for managing through whatever adversity the future throws at them.

* Michael Imber is a Managing Director in Conway MacKenzie’s Government and Municipal Practice.

This article first appeared at www.governing.com

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