Podcast / Episode #18

#18: Top-down disaster resilience doesn’t work

By renae hanvin

Jun 16 2021

This episode

In this episode, Renae is talking with Mark Duckworth, Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University working in the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (CRIS). Today we’re talking about – Top-down disaster resilience doesn’t work.

Mark recently published an article called “Top-down disaster resilience doesn’t work” in which he shares why the National Recovery and Resilience Agency must have community at its heart.

“I’m so excited to have Mark on the episode today to share his expertise on how we can change disaster resilience from the top down.”

key moments from the conversation

About Mark

Mark Duckworth is a Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University working in the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (CRIS).

Before taking up this appointment in 2019 he held many senior executive roles in government including as Executive Director of Governance, Security and Intergovernmental Relations and as Chief Resilience Officer in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and as Executive Director of the Emergency Management Division in the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.

As a member of the National Emergency Management Committee (now ANZEMC), Mark co-chaired the group that drafted the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments in February 2011.

I’d like to start with where we met...

I heard Mark present at a leadership course I participated in about a decade ago and was interested in his approach to the disaster space – different to many others in that he had a strategic, holistic view.

Mark kindly accepted my coffee invitation and over the years since, we have had many conversations about disasters and resilience – mainly with a transportation lens given his previous role at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transportation and Resources for the Victorian Government. With Mark’s current role at Deakin University, I’ve been following many of his social media postings and articles – with a recent one jumping out at me which was published in The Conversation.

Mark wrote about the announcement of the new Federal Recovery and Resilience Agency and his view on what that might mean for Australians.

I can’t wait to hear more, Mark thanks so much for joining me today.

Here are some questions I asked...

1. So can I start with your move from government into academia around 18 months ago. So how has this move changed your mindset or your ability to drive change in the sector?

Mark Duckworth
The issues that I’m dealing with, at Deakin University working at the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies are very similar to the issues that I was dealing with in government. It has allowed me an opportunity to explore some of these in great detail, and allowed me a certain amount of freedom to explore things that as a public servant I couldn’t do. But I think one of the other things is that, while I’m now in university, rather than in government, I’m still talking to people in the emergency management sector and other people in government as well around these issues. And so, I’m able to continue to provide advice as necessary when people want to talk to you about some of these matters. And that’s a really important thing too. So, it is a change but, it’s also meant working with many of the same people. One other thing I think I might add is that Deakin University, the Alfred Deakin Institute of which I’m a part, very much values the issue of the impact of ideas, not just looking at ideas in themselves. That suits me very well because there is a close connection with many communities and community groups as well. And, that’s been an important part of what I’m continuing to do.

Renae Hanvin
It’s so great to have someone with your experience and your calibre of mindset and leadership from the sector, stay in the sector and just move into a slightly different piece of the pie. So, you mentioned you’re now at the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies at Deakin.

2. What are the outcomes that are part of your role and that division is aiming to deliver?

Mark Duckworth
Well, one of the key things that it is it is focused on issues that delivers research programmes and informs policies on our local, national and international community cohesion and resilience. One of the key elements that it’s looking at is the broader issue of resilience to social harms and joining together the different types of work that been undertaken on resilience. One of the things that often happens is when people talk about resilience is that things work in parallel streams. There’s a lot of work being done clearly on disaster resilience and working with communities around natural disasters. There’s another stream of work, which is around what you might call social polarisation, and the rise of, of social exclusivism, which has led to issues around extremism. Resilient communities are also able to withstand some of those elements too. So, one of the things that it does is draw together a number of the different streams of work around resilience. This is happening both in Australia and around the world because there are many things in common which join these things together. And I think that’s one of the things that we’re focused on.

Renae Hanvin
That’s really unique in many ways. Because as you say, there is a lot of focus on the bushfires or natural disasters. But to broaden it, there must be so much other working conversations that can come into the equation and evolving communities and inclusiveness and resilience, some collaboratively but on a much bigger scale. So, I’m interested to keep on top of the work that’s coming out from the department that you’re in. Now, I reached out because of your article recently published in The Conversation (we’ll put a link in the website as well) focused on ‘top-down disaster resilience doesn’t work.’ And I have to say the subject line got me straight away, because there are so many positive parts to the article, and many that I actually recall being part of our past conversations in the coffee catch ups that we’ve had a few years ago.

3. The new agency to me, it’s so great that there’s now a national focus on recovery and resilience. And my first question, should resilience be before recovery in the title?

Mark Duckworth
Well, I think the thing is that resilience should underline and support everything has been done right across emergency management, because one of the things that we do know is that resilient communities are more likely to cope with shocks and stresses and also recover more quickly. So, you have to build resilience first on help communities to become more resilient. I think there are some reasons why resilience should come first in the title. One of the things you often find is that there is a focus often in government on action and, resilience is sometimes seen as slightly abstract. So, I think that’s probably one of the reasons recovery comes first. And we see in other agencies that some of these issues around response and so on are given a lot of emphasis. But certainly, resilience is actually the thing that underlines and supports all the other pieces of work.

Renae Hanvin
Yeah, I agree. That’s really interesting, because the recovery is what we’ve done so much of because, again, I think there’s statistics around 97% or so is on recovery. And resilience is the new kid on the block. So, we’ve got to get our heads around it and also drive the mindset and the leadership and the cultural change to be that resilience thinking approaches and doing approaches. Whereas as you rightly say, the recoveries that are tangible and operational is what we’ve done, and it’s what we moved to. When I saw the announcement, again, so excited to have this new federal cohort, I was just a bit surprised with the name, but I guess there’s a lot more that can be done from just a name. Now, about a decade ago, the notion of shared responsibility was developed under the National Disaster Resilience Strategy. And the sector very much uses this as their sort of focus on resilience.

4. So, do you think resilience is now a buzzword? Or do you think resilience really should become and will become a capability?

Mark Duckworth
Well, it should become a capability, but I think one of the things that has happened is that people understand what resilience is 10 years ago, when the national strategy for disaster resilience came out. I think a lot of people were not sure what this actually meant. It has been understood and embraced and adopted in a lot of the language and policies around emergency management. And so that’s a good step. But as you say, embedded in the idea is the issue of shared responsibility between government communities, business, non-government organisations, everybody. And as well, shared responsibilities do not mean equal responsibility. I think that sometimes this issue has been forgotten. One of the things that I know that a lot of people talk about is whether in the last 10 years, we speak a lot about resilience and yet some of the action by governments and others may have created greater dependency. The thing is that both governments and people often look to governments in times of disaster, and that’s fully understandable. And yet in between disasters, that is the time when we should be focusing on resilience building. There probably has not been sufficient emphasis on that. Not just recently, but over many years. Connected to that is the issue, which we talk a lot about and this new agency has some money for this is around disaster mitigation, it’s now 20 years since the council Australian government was alarmed by the amount that disasters was costing Australia each year. Back then, the figures put about 1.4 billion a year. Now it’s much greater than that. And while there were reports commissioned, and there has been money put into mitigation, it’s still one of the issues which is under done. In my view, that the $600 million, which has been added, but with this new agency by the Commonwealth Government is very, very welcome and will do a lot of good. But when you think of the 10s of billions of dollars, which natural disasters have cost Australia over the last couple of decades, then it seems to be quite small in comparison. And I think that’s one of the other things which is linked to your point about resilience should come first. It it’s linked to this. We should put more emphasis on the preparedness or mitigation on resilience. And then, we won’t have to put so many resources during and after a disaster because we’re better prepared for it.

Renae Hanvin
Absolutely. 100% agree with that. You said in the article that resilience is about changing the relationships between communities and governments. And the words you just noted about it potentially moving into more of a dependency role. I’ve been on some public private partnership working groups and networks, and there is that national focus on community-led recovery and community-led resilience and preparedness, etc. But then I don’t know if we’re really setting communities up to be able to do that. So, in the article, when you mentioned, resilience is about changing the relationships between communities and governments.

5. How do we do that? I mean, I probably don’t need to ask why is it needed but, how is that done?

Mark Duckworth
One of the things that, not only in emergency management, but in a whole lot of government’s been a focus over the last 20 to 25 years, is what has been called broadly, the collaborative state. The idea here is that communities and governments and whole nations work better if there are partnerships between government and communities. And a lot of work has been done to create ideas around co-design between governments and communities. This means it’s not just the government that consult better, but they actually work in partnership with communities. And so, it’s not just a question of governments consulting and then delivering particular programmes with it. But, but for them to actually really be shared, and for there being a different approach. Now, there are a number of reasons why this has not been embedded in a in a systemic way as it could have could have done. But certainly, governments are better at doing this than they used to be. I think that that’s one of the changes that we are really looking at. There is this other way of working. There really needs to be more focused on that. And I think one of the problems is that we, in emergency management and elsewhere, we probably don’t train people enough to undertake this work.

6. How do you work with communities, and people bring their old mindset, which is often not working with communities in the way that communities actually want?

Renae Hanvin
Yeah, it’s an interesting piece of the pie. A lot of the work we do is about collaborative co-design, so very much about bringing multi stakeholders together. And I often use the word which again, my background is stakeholder engagement, that we connect as people first and stakeholders second. I think that’s probably partly what’s missing in the conversations as well, because the emergency management sector, from my experience, it’s very silo focused. It’s – “I have my role, I have my part and I don’t go out of it, I just deliver my outputs”. But I feel like we need to evolve into – we’re all Australians and we’re all wanting to have a vibrant future. If we look at the bigger picture and focus on the outcomes and the roles we can all play in delivering to a collective outcome as opposed to coming into each little piece of that pie. That evolves into our focus at C2C on the business community. The business community again, from a small and medium businesses, often has forgotten stakeholders. Yet businesses are the enablers into communities. They sell products into communities, they have conversations with communities, they provide services to communities. And obviously, many business owners are in the communities. They might also be a Fire Captain or an SES volunteer.

7. So, in this whole conversation about resilience and relationships and shared responsibility, where do you believe the business community fits in?

Mark Duckworth
Well, I think one of the things that we do know when we’re talking about both resilience and recovery, is that buildings don’t make communities. It’s the transactions that take place, the connectedness between people, and businesses in all our communities are a central part of that. After disasters have struck you can rebuild shops, you can rebuild the actual structures but, if you don’t have businesses operating in them then clearly, you’re not going to be able to rebuild the community. That’s an essential part of what makes up a community. The second thing is that there are a lot of skills and knowledge, and in some cases hardware, which may be necessary or could be used in disasters, which businesses don’t own. And I don’t think we’ve done as well as we could have done to harness those skills and harness all those valuable resources, which business provides in a way that can help in all the different levels of emergency management. I think we’re still in a fairly early stage in that transition, over the last 10 years, we’re meant to be on in terms of building more resilient communities, which includes the businesses that are part of as communities.

Renae Hanvin
Yeah, well, I have to say, hold fire Mark, because there’s some pretty exciting things coming out of us in the next kind of six months or so. But yeah, I agree. Businesses are communities, as you say, and they have so many capabilities, and they’ve got knowledge sharing and connections that they can evolve with. If they had that recognition in the training as to what role they can play and contribute to the bigger picture of shared responsibility, but at the local level. Now, I alluded to before, I think it’s sitting at about 97%, much of the funding in this space is still on recovery. And obviously, we’ve had some major disasters. And you alluded to the fact that over the past couple of decades, a vast majority of billions have gone into recovery. Most of the resilience funding today it is very much focused on the infrastructure. What can be created or built. As you alluded to, there’s no point in having a shop if you don’t have a business effectively running from it. People, to me, are the foundation for resilience. And we do a lot of work with Daniel Aldrich, who I’d mentioned relating to social capital and community ties.

8. So how can we move the funding and the focus on building resilience from things, into people building resilience in people, in communities?

Mark Duckworth
There has been a number of different ideas over the last decade or so and people looking at this. For instance, in the United Kingdom with their work on resilience, they had the idea that government would find resilience champions within communities. People whose job it was to help form some of those connections. I don’t know if that that was completely successful but, I think it is just an example of the way which we need to think about what we’re investing in. As you mentioned, we need to invest in social capital, because that is the basis of resilience. That bridging capital is fundamental because connected communities are more resilient communities. And that’s one of the things that we do know. And so, one of the things that is often forgotten is that some of the things that we need to do is not necessarily focused specifically on the harms that we’re seeking to mitigate. Whether it’s a disaster or messages around extremism. There are things which are good in themselves, around building strong communities, and they will deliver some benefits when the community suffers some particular shock or stress. I think that’s one of the things that we could focus on. The other thing is that when we think about, in relation to disasters in particular, some of the training that takes place, we often think about training people in emergency management kits. Some other countries in the world which focus on these things, such as New Zealand or Japan, actually hold community exercises on a regular basis, and invest in that so that communities understand what their risks are, the types of things that they will have to do, and it also builds some connections as well. So, I think there are some things that we need to invest in, which can help strengthen communities so that they’re able to deal with a whole manner of harms that may eventuate.

Renae Hanvin
Yeah, there are some great examples in New Zealand and Japan. It’s about shared understanding as much as shared responsibility, because we all have our own role to play. It’s going to be much more beneficial for us to do that if we understand the roles that everyone else has as well. So, a decade ago, I set up the Australia Post’s National Grants Programme, and one of the areas was disaster preparedness or recovery. So, we went out across Australia asking communities to tell us what they need. And back then it was really clear that communities needed really little things to be ready. But I find myself having the same conversations today, a decade later, almost with the same communities. They still don’t have those elements of preparedness or resilience building. As you mentioned in your article, I’m really interested and hopeful as to how the new National Recovery and Resilience Agency will support or enable ways to build resilient outcomes. And, that they not just continue on the path of the silo focused outputs, in terms of – ‘your responsibility is to do X, and your responsibility is to do Y. So, I really think it’s time to start having sharing responsibility and driving collective outcomes as conversations where we all actually have a role to play. And we know what it is and we are actually accountable for it.

9. So, do you think that will be possible through this new agency? Or, what do you think will be the main challenge and the opportunities to achieve this?

Mark Duckworth
One of the challenges is that this new agency will need to accept and understand that it is part of a transformation that’s taking place. And this means that people within government and those overstating agencies need to change their view of what success looks like. Because so often, many of these agencies and many of the people that are doing this work, they want to deliver something that is good for the community. That impulse is very fine and very worthy. But, when it comes down to how they are judged and how they’re measured, and this includes by some of the accountability agencies and perhaps even treasurer’s and other organisations as well, is that what’s looked at is how many grants did you get out? How much money have you spent and a whole lot of things that are measurable in that way, which may not actually tell you whether they’ve been successful. One of the things, as I mentioned, which is fundamental to the success of not only this agency but all government agencies working in this space, is the issue around trust. Do communities trust the agency and also, do these agencies trust communities? One of the things that I sometimes think about is we use words, and you see in a lot of documents, issues around empowering communities and things being community led. But, empowerment in giving people agency, requires governments to actually give up some power and being willing to trust communities enough to give up some of the control and handing it over to communities. Now government agencies clearly have to be accountable for the way money is spent. I certainly agree with that. But I think we need to come up with, and be fairly imaginative about, how we do this and not just rely on some of the old structures and ways of doing things. It’s not just the same as a contract for building a road or building something, if you’re engaged in community building it is actually a slightly different thing. And I think some of the mechanisms we have both for delivering this and for measuring what success looks like need to be updated.

Renae Hanvin
You’re so right. And it’s interesting. We’ve actually just won three grants from the resilience and recovery grants in New South Wales and we’ll be implementing some really exciting projects across the three regions – North, South and the Blue Mountains to support business community resilience. And we would not have had a look in in a grant programme before because again, it’s all about infrastructure, or it has set guidelines. But it’s really exciting that some of the grant programmes are evolving into more innovative initiatives that are social capital building and people focused. But you’re 100% right too, in the sense that I find that the majority is output focused. How much money can we give out via how many programmes of grants. We’re actually talking to communities at the moment who have gone from grant writing fatigue, to grant delivery overwhelm, because now they’ve been awarded millions or lots and lots of money for projects. They are quite overwhelmed in terms of who’s going to deliver them and, how are we going to deliver them. And now they’ve got so many people coming to deliver programmes in the communities that of course they want, and many need. But it is not necessarily delivering to the outcome that’s needed in the community. It’s just again, just responding to the process of the outputs. Now, you asked in the article, about the success and how the success of the new federal government will measure itself. And you just mentioned before government grants and measuring grant programmes, etc.

10. What other ways do you think that they could measure the success? And again, I think more about that holistic kind of community-led outcome. How are they going to measure that?

Mark Duckworth
There needs to be more focus on partnering with communities and one of the key elements of success is not just these outputs but on the extent to which a government and a community, or a not-for-profit organisation have worked together. There needs to be ways of actually focusing on those links, measuring what those links are, and that they have happened. There is some work around the world, in Australia and Canada and other places, looking at how one might actually measure resilience, and what are the features of resilient communities. And there used to be a lot of work done. And some of it continues in Victoria, for instance, with VIC health, looking at some of the indicators of community strength. So, these are the types of things that we need to be looking at. If we want something which is a bit more tangible, those are the types of measures that we need to look at rolling out and exploring, rather than some of the more traditional measures of which are easily reduced to numbers. One of the other key things is, when you’re looking at how can you look at measure empowerment, it is sometimes difficult to do. But I think it’s important that governments that are working with communities are transparent in sharing and information flows and planning processes. And so that we can, in fact, better understand how trust flows between communities, between individual communities, and between government and communities and community and government. And it is possible to understand and measure those elements of trust through surveys and other work. So, it requires using some of the other methods that exist in analysis of social structures. And, using the mess as ways of measuring it. Those are the things that you want to shift. And the other key element is actually the time element. If you say, it’s not just a question of what you do over 12 months, and I know that one of the things after disasters, that is often mentioned, is that the timeline that some government agencies have is often quite quick. In 12 months, we want to do this, this and this. But especially when we’re talking about recovery, communities may take longer to go through these stages than actually fits the government timetable. And we need to understand that a quick recovery doesn’t mean good recovery. And I think that’s one of the other elements too. We need to change what those expectations are, because the government timetable and the community timetable may not align. If we are to get some real change, and some both real recovery and also some work in creating more resilient communities, it may need to follow a different timetable to one that the government programme is set out.

Renae Hanvin
Yeah, going back to that sort of needs-led recovery and pace. Which is, again, not the process or the system that’s been set up for now. Gosh, I could literally listen to you all day.

What 2 things would you like to be done differently in the disaster space?

Mark Duckworth
Well, one to emphasise something I was saying before is about training. There are not enough people in Australia trained in emergency management. Especially given that we know that disasters are going to happen more frequently and with greater intensity. There’s some good training that takes place but it’s ad hoc. And, it doesn’t necessarily train people about all the things that are necessary so that we have people working, who are very good at understanding the phases of response and recovery in a theoretical point of view. But they’re not trained around how you engage with communities, how you communicate with communities. And, I think, that is one of the key things. And linked to that is recognising that communities are an asset and not a problem. And I think very often, we see that there’s a focus on a community that has had a disaster happen to it or which has a number of issues and has a problem to be solved. And we really need to really see and understand that the talents, the skills, the experience and the knowledge which exists in communities, in community organisations and businesses really need to be understood and used so that they fully become partners in this work.

Renae Hanvin
I love that. The community’s assets. I think it’s a whole different way of looking at it. But, it’s so positive in terms of what we’re all trying to move towards in terms of building resilient communities because they are assets. And, you’re so right, we should be looking at them and building them up to succeed. Mark, I could literally talk to you all day. In this episode, I’ve been talking with Mark Duckworth he is the senior research fellow at the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, and we’ve been talking about top down disaster resilience doesn’t work. Mark, thanks so much for joining me today.

Mark Duckworth
Thank you very much indeed.

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