Academic journal article The Public Manager

Continuity Planning in a Post-Katrina World

Academic journal article The Public Manager

Continuity Planning in a Post-Katrina World

Article excerpt

I recently attended a meeting of business continuity planners representing a number of large financial institutions. An informal monthly gathering, the meeting provides participants the opportunity to exchange notes and discuss best practices. Occasionally, a guest speaker describes how an organization has successfully tackled continuity planning issues. Generally, the speakers are from organizations that have done things right, and they use the opportunity to share success stories. So far, instances where a speaker has been caught flatfooted with some glaring oversight have been few and far between.

At our most recent gathering, the guest speaker was the chief operating officer (COO) of a large pension fund that manages the assets of hospital workers scattered over 350 locations. Despite the geographic spread of their constituents, fund operations are centralized in one location--right in the middle of the financial district of a major business center. When he took the podium, the COO was quick to point out that their continuity plan--a three-year effort put together with the close collaboration of a major consulting firm--was designed to address the vulnerabilities associated with a single-point location. As the evening progressed, he discussed aspects of the plan, including the agreements struck with outsourced "hot-site" providers, detailed employee evacuation plans, and elaborate data backup plans, as well as a management succession plan that would be triggered if all key decision makers were killed in a disaster.

Pre-Katrina Telework

As he closed, full of pride in a job well done, he opened the floor to questions. To me, something didn't seem quite right; it all sounded a bit complicated, so I had to ask one question: "Has your organization integrated telework into your continuity plan?" Silence immediately filled the room, and the speaker became noticeably flushed and began to perspire. After a moment of hesitation and note shuffling, he simply said, "That's an option that has yet to be fully explored."

Somehow, this didn't sound like the response of a confident continuity planner as much as it did a shifty politician trying to dodge a Tim Russert changeup. Clearly, I had hit a nerve. His reaction suggested that telework had been discussed along the way, but because the fund had already committed so much time and energy into crafting a plan built around a centralized location strategy, it had moved beyond the point of no return. Integrating telework at this juncture would force the planning team back to the drawing board--an option that no one was willing to entertain.

For years telework advocates have extolled its virtues, citing factors such as the increased employee retention that results from a more favorable life/work balance, greater flexibility, lower overhead, and greater operational efficiency. Despite these advantages, the concept has been stigmatized by labels such as "novelty," "pilot project," and "area for future discussion." The principal reason for the glacial pace of telework adoption, as mentioned above, is that it forces managers to start at the foundation and completely reorganize the entire operation--a task they would rather leave to future managers. A drastic set of circumstances would be required for this movement to gain any traction.

Post-Katrina Telework

Those circumstances suddenly arrived when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The times ahead will inevitably force private-sector participants to assess the strategic value of telework in maintaining critical operations, and public-sector organizations will be expected to provide leadership.

My own experiences confirm this. In 2003-04, I worked with the federal government of Canada on a comprehensive plan that addressed maintaining critical government operations if a disaster were to strike in the Ottawa area. The precision and skill the planners demonstrated on this effort was impressive. …

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