Predictable Surge: Improving Public-Private Collaboration

Public-private collaboration in disaster preparedness and response is currently sub-optimal in its organization and operational performance. This may be due to the perception of government entities that all collaboration must be formal in nature. As a consequence, small, medium, and even large private organizations may be reluctant to become involved in preparedness planning. However, reality suggests that organizations without existing contracts or partnerships are willing to participate in response efforts. This tension effectively limits the ability to anticipate the contributions that will come from entities outside of formal partnerships. “Predictable surge” is a new framework through which public and private entities, particularly at the state and local levels, may better work together to build preparedness and foster community resilience.

Currently, the participation of private partners in emergency preparedness and response is sub-optimal. There is awareness of and coordination with collaborators that are engaged in formal, contracted public-private partnerships (PPPs) with government. However, there is little or no visibility into the potentially much larger subset of organizations that could productively participate. This creates blind spots to both challenges and opportunities for emergency managers, especially at the state and local levels where formal PPPs are most rarely found.

The organizations participating in formal PPPs tend to be large, well-resourced, national or regional corporations. Smaller, local organizations are generally neither capable of meeting the stipulations of a formal agreement nor financially able to repurpose their operations in their entirety. Therefore, smaller organizations are not typically incorporated into disaster or emergency planning scenarios. Additionally, there are global organizations, such as Airbnb, whose dispersed structure make their actions highly localized.

Experience reveals a different situation: Despite the absence of PPPs – and, therefore, despite being under-represented in planning scenarios – local-level private organizations often demonstrate the same determination and willingness to provide assistance as their larger counterparts. Given this reality, it is a mistake to not engage these organizations in the planning, preparedness, and response processes.

Four Categories

Public-private coordination and collaboration can be divided into four categories, based on the structure of the agreement between the government and private organization: formal, semi-formal, informal, and disengaged.

Formal PPPs are structured around clearly defined resource requests of the private partner by the government agency. These entities are generally integrated directly into the formal command structure of the response. In PPPs, the private organization operates under an agreed-upon governance structure, within clearly delineated roles and responsibilities. Formal PPPs provide structure and create protocols within which the private organization operates. The current industry definition of a PPP only includes this category.

Semi-formal coordination can arise with private organizations that regularly provide aid or assistance in emergencies. However, they do not operate under the same written rules as organizations that participate in formal PPPs. Generally, these organizations have interacted alongside the government before, are comfortable doing so, and have clearly self-delineated roles in emergency response – even though they are not formally obligated to provide assistance.

Organizations in the informal category are self-organized groups, such as the “Cajun Navy,” which provided valuable rescue, transportation, and other services in response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017. These informal groups arrive at an emergency with a desire to help and whatever resources they can muster. Motivations vary, from simple desire to help, to proximity to the emergency, to seizing an opportunity to build a positive image or reputation. Although the assistance provided by these organizations is often invaluable, their non-credentialed status can create a liability for emergency managers, causing reluctance among emergency managers to utilize these potential collaborators.

Disengaged organizations simply do not provide aid in an emergency, despite the potential to do so.

A Failure to Plan for Reality

It may seem appropriate to incorporate solely formal PPPs into plans as only they offer the certainty inherent in a legally binding agreement. We suggest that this is a mistake. Semi-formal and informal relationships can be as useful as formal ones, and organizations in the disengaged category offer similar potential, and thus the potential of these organizations should be addressed in emergency plans. Multi-sector Meta-Leadership Summits for Preparedness – conducted by the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard in collaboration with the CDC Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 36 cities across the United States – revealed numerous unanticipated resources such as a ballet company volunteering its rehearsal hall for triage in a mass-casualty event and a bus company offering its vehicles and drivers for evacuations. More recently, companies such as Airbnb and Lyft have found ways for their independent “gig workers” to offer complimentary housing and transport, respectively, in response to disasters.

Organizations sort into their respective categories for reasons that have not been addressed sufficiently by government engagement efforts. The legal framework of a formal PPP is extensive – and expensive – which can discourage small- and mid-sized organizations from participating. Semi-formal and informal participation, such as in the examples above, lacks legal agreements, which can present both opportunities and risks. These actors likely are not integrated into protocols and plans. However, the better able an emergency manager is to predict such a surge of engagement, the better able he or she will be to seize opportunities and avoid risks. Thus, engaging actors across all four categories without requiring formal PPP agreements is paramount in building community preparedness, response capacity, and, ultimately, resilience.

Meeting Needs, Enhancing Resilience

A model of “predictable surge” is a path to better engaging potential private participants and more fully populating an emergency manager’s understanding of his or her jurisdiction’s true capacity and capability for response and recovery. This begins by matching organizations to meet various community needs in emergency response:

  • Resilience/fast rebound – When organizations such as food, fuel, and hardware/home improvement stores resume their pre-emergency state of operations quickly, the public can utilize them to meet their needs.
  • Logistics/materiel surge – These organizations, such as trucking companies, have existing ability to distribute and transport goods and provide services. Their participation allows the government to spare expense and critical time in creating new supply chains in the event of an emergency.
  • Capacity surge – As in the examples of Airbnb and the bus company above, these organizations have the ability to create a surplus of necessary goods or services.
  • Capability surge – These organizations provide specialized resources or skillsets that are useful to response efforts, which may be difficult or cost-prohibitive for the government agency to operate independently. Consider an engineering firm willing to deploy staff to assess structural safety across a region.
  • Information surge – These organizations can quickly gather or disseminate information via internal networks, bolstering situational awareness on the part of the government and amplifying the reach of official messaging distributed through these channels. Companies with emergency alert systems for employees are an example.
  • Communications surge – These organizations have the capability to increase the communications network of the government, by provision of network access implements, such as portable cellular telephone repeaters or radio equipment.

From Needs to Resilience

Each community has organizations that could meet these needs, or who already are. With needs met, communities are more robust and resilient in the event of a disaster. It is just a matter of knowing how to more fully engage these potential collaborators.

A good beginning is to ask what the private entity is likely to do under a given scenario. Another approach is to ask under what circumstances the entity is prone to offer some kind of support. This may be for their employees, their employees’ families, or the general public. The goal is to make such participation more predictable. With a grasp of who is likely to step up, in what ways, and under what conditions, the emergency manager assembles a more complete picture of what a combined formal, semi-formal, and informal response would be.

These should be bidirectional needs assessments, with the emergency manager assessing their own needs from potential private collaborators, while also taking stock of what those potential collaborators would need to receive from the emergency management apparatus to spur participation. One reason that potential collaborators remain less-than-optimally engaged is a failure to address their needs. For example, the bus company’s offer mentioned above was conditioned on receiving advance credentials for both its vehicles and drivers to ensure that they would able to get to where they were most needed. This is much more than fitting private actors into the Incident Command System (ICS) – flexibility is essential. Thus, emergency managers should expect to give as well as get in these conversations.

A second reason for sub-optimal engagement is reluctance by the government agency to enter into any less-than-formal engagements explicitly governed by contractual obligations and other enforceable constructs. By initiating conversations with a wide range of potential collaborators, the emergency manager is better able to point out legal restrictions, liability concerns, and other considerations that could affect the relationship. This give-and-take may help identify opportunities where each side can leverage the distinct capabilities of the other without a formal agreement – or point out activities that one or the other must undertake independently.

Cultivating Partners

Simply engaging partners is not enough to construct a reliable network of resources for emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. For example, Houston, Texas, engages its local partners in a Business Emergency Operations Center, which keeps concerned stakeholders at the table throughout a response sequence. This construct in its current iteration is simply transactional, a conduit for businesses to access government resources and present their needs and for government to deliver information. Although this engages stakeholders at one level, it does not build collaborative relationships for preparedness, response, or recovery.

Instead, community collaborators should be integrated into the general emergency operations plans with their likely surge contribution and a point of contact. If possible, designate a community engagement liaison function within the government emergency management hierarchy that can quickly determine which identified semi-formal and informal groups will participate and to what extent. This function can also serve as ombudsperson for potential participants who emerge in the moment.

Further, invite these collaborators to selected drills and exercises. Again, the Meta-Leadership Summits mentioned above serve as a model. This will help them see the important role they can play, give them an understanding of the formal response structure, and help refine the tasks each is able and willing to undertake.


Although coordination across the public and private sectors for emergency preparedness, response, and recovery is sub-optimal, evidence shows that private entities are willing to become engaged in these efforts if their own needs can be reliably met. The following recommendations proliferate effective, reliable, and sustainable public-private collaboration:

  1. Conduct a needs assessment. Without understanding the needs of the community or the needs of potential participants, there will be a mismatch in requests for aid as compared to available aid and the conditions necessary for each party. Start with the top 10 employers or most necessary services.
  2. Structure collaboration at the comfort level of the participants. Do not attempt to force formality; partners are generally inclined to help if they can. Requiring their participation be bound by contract is likely to deter rather than include.
  3. Continuously engage partners. Simply assessing needs and coming to a stated agreement does not build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships. Cultivating reliable collaborators requires engaging them in all preparedness processes – drills, planning, resilience study, and other activities. Ongoing dialogue also enhances predictability as each entity has better situational awareness.
  4. Provide for further engagement by assigning a community engagement liaison function to uphold the above tenets. If community organizations have an equally engaged contact in the government emergency management apparatus who can regularly meet, discuss, and address their needs, they are more likely to feel appreciated and understood, and therefore more likely surge in predictable ways.

If these four tenets can be put into practice, then public-private collaboration can become the norm among private enterprises of all varieties, scopes, sizes, and industries. This is a paradigm shift that will serve to benefit all involved parties and their communities.

Eric J. McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI). Leonard J. Marcus is the NPLI’s founding co-director. They are two of the co-authors of a new book on leadership: You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most (PublicAffairs, June 2019). The NPLI is a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government.

John Campbell

John Campbell is a paramedic and public health emergency preparedness planner working in the Boston area. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Rochester, and an M.S. in Healthcare Emergency Management from Boston University. His research focuses on unburdening the emergency healthcare system through novel use of existing community resources.



No tags to display


Translate »