Driving into sunset

Helmuth von Moltke, a 19th century Prussian field marshal, famously declared that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” For state and local government leaders toiling through the myriad challenges of reopening, recovering and resetting their organizations and communities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this axiom rings as true today as ever. Public servants have met and engaged an unexpected enemy, and that enemy is testing every aspect of service planning and delivery. Borrowing another concept from the military, the time to establish a rigorous practice and culture of after action reviews (AAR) has arrived.

Simply put, an AAR is a structured process of reflection, organizational learning and knowledge sharing conducted both during and after significant events take place, directly involving the people most closely connected to the event under review. An AAR’s purpose is to capture and immediately apply lessons learned, enabling corrective action as the battle rages. Effective AARs are future-focused; not about the allocation of blame or the deflection of accountability. They are immediate, not post-hoc. As practiced by the U.S. Army and, increasingly, in many corporate enterprises, the AAR addresses five key questions:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What did happen?
  • What went well?
  • What did not go well?
  • What can be done to improve the next time?

The application of a holistic – and unflinching – AAR process to monitor and improve every aspect of an organization’s strategy, structure, people, processes and technology is important to ensure the institutions on the front line of public service delivery emerge from the crisis not only intact, but strengthened.

Strategy and planning

Most cities, counties, utility districts and regional authorities of all types have adopted and implemented complex sets of interconnected planning documents and policies. These can include multi-year strategic plans, financial plans, service plans, land use plans, economic development plans, thoroughfare plans, utility plans, park plans, emergency response plans, risk management plans and many others. Underpinning each plan, policy and priority is an equally varied set of assumptions, estimates and projections, documented or otherwise.

It is unlikely that all of these plans were activated in direct response to the pandemic outbreak, but an AAR could reveal that some, if not many, require revisiting, rethinking and retooling. Examples of essential questions to ask could include:

  • Did our strategic plan place appropriate emphasis on emergency preparedness and response?
  • Did we adequately assess the likelihood and severity of the risks a significant health crisis might represent? Were our risk mitigation plans adequate?
  • Are our long-range land use and other development plans suitable for the “next normal”? How will land use patterns and commercial development change?
  • How will our infrastructure and supporting capital plans change in light of what we are learning?

An objective re-assessment of the foundational planning documents used to guide current decision-making may lead to a wholesale re-imagination of what the organization’s future should be.

Organizational structure

For an organization to obtain optimal results in times of both normalcy and crisis, reporting relationships and lines of communication should be clear and the allocation of resources should be aligned with strategic priorities. In addition, overlap, redundancy and ambiguity of responsibilities should be minimized, and leaders at all levels must be both competent and empowered to act. AAR discussion topics might include:

  • Was a designated crisis management team and structure put in place? Were chains of command and communication clearly defined, understood and observed?
  • Did chain of command issues delay or thwart the accomplishment of needed actions?
  • Were managers and supervisors delegated sufficient authority to make the decisions required?
  • Were policies and procedures adequate for the management and oversight of a remote workforce?
  • Were staffing levels sufficient to meet service demands? Were available resources efficiently deployed to address the highest priority needs?
  • Did our crews have access to the equipment, tools and technology needed to perform their assigned duties? What was missing, and why?
  • Was cross-functional collaboration and coordination effective?

Human capital

If your organization has been effective in performing under difficult circumstances it has faced, it did so because of its people at every level. Simply put, was your organization prepared to lead, execute, review and amend approaches in order to react in real time? While well-run governments pride themselves in their preparedness for the unexpected, events such as COVID-19 are the supreme tests of resiliency and reflect workforce capacity, culture, communication and training – the fundamentals needed when the status quo breaks down. In a world where disruptions promise to become more frequent and challenging, the capacity to respond organically through focus on the priorities needed at all levels of the organization will become ever more important. Key questions to ask include:

  • Did we execute a workforce communication plan for our staff? Was it effective?
  • Did we have a plan for operating with a dramatically increased rate of absenteeism?
  • Did our organization display the “bench strength” necessary to cover the absence of key leaders or skilled specialists? Were work crews and teams cross-trained to perform multiple related functions?
  • Are our first responders and other mission-critical personnel adequately compensated for the risks and hazards assigned? Were they adequately trained in safety protocols and procedures?
  • Do we have procedures to maintain a safe and uncontaminated workplace?
  • Is our organizational culture sufficiently resilient to endure future crises?
  • Were we able to correct errors in real time?
  • Were our line staff properly empowered and prepared to react in real time, as needs arose?
  • What, if any, rules, restrictions and guidance should be reviewed for possible changes?
  • What needs to be done differently to imbue the skills necessary to react and operate most successfully in chaotic environments, while maintaining appropriate and required oversight?

Business processes and technology

State of the art processes and technology are often out of reach due to budget, talent and/or time constraints. However, systems that “made do” in the past may prove inadequate or too inflexible to be able to meet emergency needs now and in the future. Wide-sweeping changes may continue to be out of reach, but some process or technology options may provide better service and efficiencies as well as improved emergency response. Consider the following:

  • Did our standard business processes such as procurement, recruitment and selection, benefits administration and other functions help or hinder our ability to respond effectively to the pandemic?
  • Are our processes and systems for the management of growth and development such as plan review, permitting and inspections adequate to support a rapid economic recovery?
  • Are there ways to reduce operational costs through the simplification and streamlining of our business processes?
  • Were we technologically and procedurally prepared for a rapid shift to remote work and customer service?
  • Did our plan for business system continuity work as intended? Why or why not?
  • Did our decision-makers have timely access to accurate data for decision-making?
  • Do we have a plan to accelerate the technology modernization and automation of our business processes?

Adopting a practice of rigorous, near-real-time AAR instills a culture of continuous improvement and provides an opportunity to better prepare for the next unexpected enemy. By systematically identifying hot spots for improvement, our communities will be better prepared, our citizens better protected, and our organizations more capable for those that serve and are served by state and local governments.

For more information on this topic, or to learn how Baker Tilly public sector specialists can help, contact our team.

David W. Eisenlohr
Managing Director
Man consults on the phone while working on the computer
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