Burnt forrest floor and regrowth

Community-led recovery from extreme events sounds great – but what does it really mean?

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In the aftermath of bushfires along Australia’s east coast last summer, governments at all levels swung into action. Bushfire Recovery Victoria and Resilience NSW were both created to lead the recovery efforts in their respective states, channelling resources and effort so they would have the biggest impact.

These new developments are a testament to the renewed interest in the recovery phase in the response to extreme events. Where this phase was once treated as an afterthought, it is now rightfully getting the attention of emergency management authorities.

This shift shows the importance of the recovery experience to achieving outcomes for affected individuals and communities. It lets people take control of their lives and get back to (some form of) normal. As Australia emerges from COVID-19, we are amid the largest recovery challenge we have ever experienced.

On the bushfire front, Nous Group has been involved in each step, leading major reviews of recovery efforts, working with agencies to develop recovery policies and strategies, and helping put them into practice.

A central theme in recovery efforts is for them to be led by the community. This is inspired by an intuitive logic: people most impacted by an emergency should be able to shape their recovery.

But just what this means is not clear. Many government organisations are working out how to put it into practice. Nous has supported several recovery projects, giving us a keen eye for what agencies do well and how they can get better.

Here are three lessons we have learned along the way.

Agencies need a nuanced approach to community-led recovery

The commitment to community-led recovery recognises that the more that people and communities take control of their recovery experience, the more likely they are to achieve better outcomes.

New governance arrangements have emerged to enable this. For example, each region affected by last summer’s fires in Eastern Victoria has elected a Community Recovery Committee to develop recovery plans and guide funding.

But these initiatives can be difficult to get right. There is a sweet spot between enabling and overwhelming affected individuals and communities, and organisations keen to support can stray easily into ways of operating that disempower.

Every community and every recovery journey is different, so the approach must be flexible and a one-size-fits-all model that systematises governance arrangements may be problematic. Rather, government support for communities needs to start by understanding the strengths and capabilities of people involved in recovery and adapt accordingly. The principle of emergence may apply – that is, what works typically emerges, such as the community leaders and groups that people come to rely on during the recovery journey.

This all means nuanced, expert policy and engagement is important to achieve better recovery outcomes. A key gap is a body of knowledge that helps translate the insights and lessons from one recovery experience into preparations for the next. Filling this gap requires more investment in reviews and evaluations.

Leadership requires coordination and stewardship of the recovery system

Managing a recovery is an enormous coordination challenge. It involves harnessing the efforts of many organisations focusing on one or more aspects of recovery, including economic, social, cultural, environmental and infrastructure.

Often recovery systems at different levels of government – federal, state, regional or local – and in different sectors – government, not-for-profits and the private sector – fail to connect, and instead operate in parallel. Affected communities can experience this system as fragmented and complex. For example, the level of financial support made available to recent bushfire victims has been impressive, but many have found navigating the multiple funding streams from many agencies too difficult and even traumatic.

Overcoming this problem requires an agency to play the critical role of system steward. This involves working with a network of people, communities and organisations (the recovery system) to achieve the best possible outcomes, using strategies and tactics to nudge the system in the right direction where there is limited formal control.

In government, the role of system steward is becoming widely understood although there is often no official designation of the role. Rather, agencies are given oversight and coordination responsibilities. For example, Bushfire Recovery Victoria was set up to coordinate the recovery effort for the Eastern Victoria fires, but many departments, agencies and not-for-profit organisations are involved.

Improved coordination also means new service delivery models that better integrate services, such as the community recovery hubs set up in Eastern Victoria and concierge functions set up for tasks like rebuilding. Human-centred design can help to tailor supports to community need.

There is also a big opportunity to more effectively engage the private sector in recovery. Many private organisations are keen to help but want guidance on which capabilities are useful and where to apply them.

Build resilience before and after the event

Resilience plays a crucial role in recovery – people, communities and businesses that are more resilient get back on their feet quicker, respond better to new shocks and ultimately achieve better recovery outcomes.

Many factors contribute to resilience, including access to financial resources, strength of community networks and the ability to share the experience with others (which, for bushfire recovery, was substantially disrupted by COVID-19 social distancing). But a key factor is the extent to which people have anticipated and planned for extreme events and other shocks.

This means that the foundational work of recovery often happens before an event, helping people, communities and businesses to better appreciate different forms of extreme events and strategies to manage the risk.

For example, right now governments and agriculture industry leaders are encouraging farmers to invest more in business planning. Good business plans typically identify strategies for managing risks and building resilience, such as on-farm infrastructure for storing fodder and protecting water supplies.

As Australia emerges from COVID-19, the next bushfire season looms. There is no reason to think the tempo of emergency events will ease up. So responsible agencies will need to keep recovery and resilience in focus and develop the tools to do it effectively. Thankfully there is a lot we can learn from recent experience.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous can support your emergency response effort.