Boosting resilience of emergency governance

By SONG YUPING and JIANG KEYAN / 08-18-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A community in Hangzhou uses an intelligent governance system to trace high-rise litterers, detect fires, etc. Photo: CFP

Communities are the basic unit of national and social governance in China. As uncertainties mount in this constantly developing era, communities face increasingly complicated issues. Communities are on the frontline when dealing with various public crises and risks. Therefore, it is important to improve the community risk management system and community emergency management capacity. 

Improvements needed
To start with, the operating mechanism for community crisis governance needs to be improved. The mechanism needs to cover the entire process from monitoring and early warning, to crisis response, crisis repair, and adaptive learning. However, in the process of governance, communities’ priority response process usually leads to some degree of neglect for the key capability of learning from the crisis at different stages, including before and after the crisis, as well as the normalized stage. 
After the SARS epidemic in 2003, most communities gradually established contingency plans in response to the crisis. Yet, most of these plans were merely in a hypothetical form, and the existing plans were unable to adjust to the times or local conditions, as they failed to account for each community’s uniqueness to form a variable adaptation mechanism. Consequently, in the face of the outbreak of public safety crises, communities found themselves strong in will but lost in direction.  
Furthermore, communities need to implement their capacity to learn from and adapt to crises by developing greater situational awareness. When publicity and training mostly prioritize results and formalities, active thinking is discouraged. Therefore, it is necessary to consider the local community’s reality when changing and innovating the way we publicize and educate people about crisis governance, which will help us break away from symbolism, unidirectional thinking, and content limitation. 
Second, it is essential to enhance communities’ autonomy in crisis governance. A community is formed when a certain group of people dwell in a specific area and engage in social life. In this sense, a community is more like a voluntary association than an administrative organization. Thus, it is not endowed with enforceable or real power to make policies, issue orders, or distribute funds. Instead, it functions through organizing and mobilizing people, and communities coordinate with executive powers by helping with rule execution and supervision. When faced with a crisis, a community may be over reliant on its superior government, while lacking autonomy and clear logic in rule implementation and deployment. For example, when responding to a public safety crisis, different levels of low autonomy were visible in the preparation and distribution of emergency supplies and the liaison of volunteers. 
Third, different degrees of fragmentation exist in the use of digital technology. Digital technology propels community governance. When putting technology into good use, it can help communities identify problems quickly and precisely, and implement policies effectively. However, different levels of fragmentation are evident as communities use digital technologies in the process of crisis governance. 
One sign of fragmentation is insufficient information sharing. Communities are independent from each other in terms of information systems, with little or no communication systems involved. This results in blocked information flow which makes it harder for an effective information sharing platform to integrate with communities. 
The other indicator is broken linkages between community data and the government’s intelligent system. When identifying a special risk, the community needs to contact the functional department of its superior government to help verify and track. This bottom-up information report chain takes time, which leads to an information lag, or even information errors. When dealing with risk response, timely and accurate information is essential. Any error could have serious consequences. 
A resilient system
Many problems in community crisis governance influence each other and systematic innovation is required to address these issues. The “resilient governance” theory and the concept of “building resilient cities,” as proposed in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, can help us shift flexibly between normal and emergency governance, while enhancing our capability to forecast, respond, repair, and adapt during crisis governance. 
Resilient governance emphasizes spontaneity, adaptation, initiative, and interactions between multiple subjects, which combine to build a multi-subject, resource-integrated, resilient community emergency governance system that covers the whole process of crisis governance. 
For that to happen, we must improve the operating mechanism for whole-process resilient governance. Resilient governance is a dynamic governance method that is suitable for the risks our current society faces, which features mobility and uncertainty. 
To improve community crisis governance, it is necessary to enhance the operating mechanism for whole-process resilient governance, establish interconnected operational mechanisms for early-warning, emergency response, crisis repair, and learning. An early warning mechanism can effectively forecast a crisis’ inducing factors, likelihood of occurrence, and impact of the aftermath. For communities that struggle with early-warnings or forecasts, big data can be useful for gathering and analyzing relevant information. Communities with the right conditions can also work with third-party institutions to set up early risk warning organizations or systems. 
During the crisis response phase, it is important to release authoritative information to residents in a timely manner, followed with real-time updates. Information transparency regarding the crisis works best to ease residents’ panic, while building trust to effectively cope with the crisis. When it comes to the crisis repair phase, it is essential to establish and improve a mechanism that assigns responsibility, and to have accountability which targets the risk instead of the incidents. 
The learning mechanism is most easily neglected. Resilience theory believes that the best way to govern during a crisis is by establishing a dynamic relationship that adapts to the external environment, by establishing an internal self-adaptive mechanism within an organization, and by coordinating different organizations. The key to enhancing governance capability is to learn from and adapt to risks. 
Therefore, in addition to assessing risks and their resilience level when there is no crisis underway, communities also need to make sure that their staff and residents are familiar with contingency plans by conducting training and drills among community leaders, staff, residents, and volunteers. More importantly, it is essential to analyze and assess the reasons for the crisis, what the community has gained and lost during the response, as well as the impacts responses have. These are all starting points from which the community can learn from the crisis, while continuing to optimize the crisis governance system.
Next, it is important to establish a resilient governance system through empowerment. The effectiveness of a system is ultimately shown in the implementation phase. Communities stand at the forefront of crisis management. The best opportunity should not be missed simply because communities lack independent decision-making power when encountering risks. This means we need to endow communities with the right to act during emergencies, while forming an interactive mode led by the Communist Party of China and governed by multiple subjects. It is also necessary to improve the community’s top-down and bottom-up emergency response mechanism. The government needs to provide more material and policy support for communities in this regard, and communities also need to build a community of shared crisis governance that facilitates multi-governance. 
First, the party branch, neighborhood committee, homeowners, and residents at the community level all need to play their part as the main players in governance, to bring together the greatest join force of resilient governance. 
Second, it is important to enhance interactions between communities and enterprises, social organizations, as well as within other communities. For example, it is worth trying to engage social organizations in normal governance activities, and boosting communication between residents and social workers, which helps raise mutual trust. 
Third, communities must also promote collaboration with units within their administration, by attracting positive forces from enterprises to participate in community governance, expanding the impact of community events, to create a stable social network of services and interactions, while developing another relationship network for community work by promoting exchange and enhancing interactions with other neighborhoods and communities. 
It is essential to ensure the Party’s overall leadership and its coordination from all sides, while clarifying the functions and responsibilities of each community’s governance subjects, to build synergy. We must jointly build a flexible, efficient, interconnected, cross-cutting, and resilient governance system that is led by the government, based on autonomous organizations, and supported by residents and social forces. 
Last, digital technology should be embedded into resilient social governance. Digital technology can be used to establish an integrated and unified information technology platform, which makes it possible to share real-time data and resources while assisting interactive data to connect dynamic risk assessments and crisis response schemes. Intelligent technology can complete technical and highly replaceable tasks for us. For instance, based on big data and the network of things, a quick-responding risk recognition and monitoring system is able to analyze risk sources, dynamically monitor the community’s state of risk, and offer a timely warning once it identifies inducing factors. 
An information sharing platform that facilitates data fusion should be set up to vitalize trans-departmental and interdisciplinary data and resources, to realize multilevel, multidimensional, real time, and dynamic information fusion and sharing. This can help reduce wasted resources, increase the precision and efficiency of emergency resource scheduling. 
In addition, a community needs to develop a team of workers with digital knowledge, since workers’ technical skills often decide the efficacy of tech-driven governance. Thus, it is necessary to enhance technological training for community workers by forming standardized learning systems which enhance their digital governance mindsets and capabilities. This can help communities reach their ultimate goal of technological governance by solving real-life issues. 
Su Yuping (associate professor) and Jiang Keyan are from the School of Politics and Public Administration at Soochow University. 
Edited by WENG RONG