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Government Best Practices for Managing a Crisis

Hurricane Sandy has devastated the Northeast, leaving entire neighborhoods under water, millions without power, and the entire New York subway system out of commission. The public is acutely aware of how important it is that the government be prepared to respond with advance warnings and accessible information on planning, preparing, and mitigating the effects of a natural disaster.

But public access to crucial information will not only save lives and prevent damage during a natural disaster, but also in cases of widespread outbreak of food-borne illness, catastrophic oil spills, or a terrorist attack. Last week, the Project On Government Oversight joined the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Center for Science and Democracy and several other organizations in sending a letter offering crisis management recommendations to presidential candidates President Obama and Governor Romney. We hope the incoming Administration will take swift steps to adopt these ten recommendations to ensure the strongest possible crisis response policy.

UCS organized a panel of experts, ranging from public health and crisis information management specialists to openness and transparency advocates, to put together this list of core recommendations. POGO’s Director of Public Policy, Angela Canterbury, was a participant.

“Our new Center for Science and Democracy hopes to encourage experts working in diverse disciplines to come together as colleagues and offer recommendations that cross partisan and ideological lines,” said Celia Wexler, UCS Senior Washington Representative. “Crises challenge our democracy, and it’s crucial that they are addressed in a way that gives the public evidence-based information that will help them cope.”

One of the core issues informing a number of these recommendations is the importance of cooperation. It is imperative that the recommendation to issue an executive order requiring executive agencies to establish methods of communicating and sharing information about crises across all federal agencies be implemented. This executive order should also require identification of the appropriate crisis information managers at both the state and local levels. Pinpointing who is the responsible party before an unavoidable disaster strikes is crucial for spurring prompt action and improving accountability.

How well did government agencies cooperate this week? During Hurricane Sandy, FEMA posted information online on their blog about how their federal partners were taking action to respond to the crisis. In coordination with Department of Health and Human Services, FEMA was able to activate ambulance contracts to support state requirements to evacuate patients if necessary. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deployed temporary emergency power teams, and Department of Energy worked with state and local partners to mobilize before the storm and with field personnel to help restore power in affected areas. An earlier FEMA blog post also explained that to increase coordination between federal departments and agencies, the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) was activated at FEMA headquarters in D.C. This multi-agency center brings key actors from across the government together to assist in providing relief before and after disasters.

Another recommendation centered on cooperation to create an interagency federal advisory panel that includes outside experts to work with the government on crisis management. Nonprofits can offer important expertise in terms of both structuring an effective crisis information management plan and evaluating how the government might be able to improve its response in the future after major crises have occurred.

We were glad to see that during Hurricane Sandy, FEMA worked with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Humane Society of the United States, and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This kind of government coordination with civil society organizations, state and local actors, and volunteer networks is a crisis management best practice.

Some recommendations center on providing information about a crisis as quickly as possible. One practical suggestion is to develop social media systems to inform the public about developing crises (FEMA’s Twitter feed is a helpful starting place.) During Hurricane Sandy, FEMA’s smartphone app provided the public with safety tips and information on open shelters. More broadly, the government should make it a policy priority to disclose information about the health and public safety impacts of a crisis in real time. Even if the facts ultimately change or new conclusive evidence comes to light in the following weeks or months, the public should be informed every step of the way. Government officials with firsthand knowledge or expertise about the crisis should respond to media requests for information in a timely manner.

An October 31 article in Government Executive draws five best practices takeaways of crisis communications from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s handling of Hurricane Sandy. One of the five lessons, “Be consistent and frequent,” pointed out that Bloomberg was holding 20 to 30 minute press conferences in the morning and afternoon each day before, during, and after Sandy. That’s getting the information out to the public in real time. The last lesson detailed in the article, “Put the team front and center,” discusses how Bloomberg made sure the leaders of relevant city agencies were there during every press conference to answer questions and talk about the work the agencies were doing to respond to the crisis.

It looks like the government’s actions during Hurricane Sandy were in step with some of our core recommendations for crisis management. However, it’s worth noting that it may be easy for government officials to be open with the public when a natural disaster strikes. There is no way to hide the grizzly details of hurricane destruction when it is airing on every news channel across America. But in a case like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example, when private actors are at least in part responsible, it is equally important for federal officials to act with the presumption of openness.

Giving the American people access to the information they need about how to effectively prepare for and react to a crisis as rapidly as possible is a matter of grave importance, and we hope the next Administration will act on these recommendations. The public interest in openness, transparency, and government disclosure of information is in bold relief during times of crisis.