– Executive Summary –
Across the nation, emergency management agencies are increasingly becoming involved in the management of so-called wicked problems in their communities. Wicked problems are those that evade resolution and are difficult to manage through normal means. Jurisdictions such as San Francisco; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; Chicago; and Philadelphia have turned to their emergency management agencies to manage the wicked problems of homelessness, drug addiction, and gun violence. This thesis explores how the government can use emergency management agencies in response to wicked problems.
To answer this question, this thesis takes a multi-step approach. First, a historical assessment of emergency management’s past evolution is undertaken to determine whether the field has a history of evolving to meet society’s urgent needs. The assessment is also paired with a review of emergency management trends in the present to see whether that evolution is already underway, and an examination of barriers to such evolution. Ultimately, this first step finds that not only does the profession have a history of evolving to meet society’s needs, but the next phase of that evolution may be occurring due to concurrent rises in traditional disasters such as hurricanes and new mission assignments outside the current scope of emergency management, some of which are wicked problems. This growth is not without pain points, as limited budgets and a stressed workforce stand as barriers to continued growth and expansion.
The next step involves determining how emergency management can support a response to wicked problems. Within the literature, the prevailing information indicates that collaborative approaches to wicked problem management is the most effective approach. Building on the findings of the literature review, the analysis identifies and explores three tools that emergency managers use to create collaborative environments in preparation and response to disasters. Whole community planning, the Incident Command System (ICS), and emergency operations centers (EOCs) are assessed to determine how they create these collaborative environments in line with suggestions from the wicked problem management literature, but notably, interactions with some of the defining criteria may transform an ordinary problem into a wicked one. To further demonstrate effectiveness in creating collaborative environments that lead to success, responses to the Boston Marathon bombings, the 2001 Howard Street tunnel fire in Baltimore, the 2001 Pentagon 9/11 response, and the 2014 Ebola crisis are explored for whole community planning, ICS, and EOCs, respectively. The thesis finds that the aforementioned tools of emergency management are both effective at creating the collaborative environment required for wicked problem management and addressing most of the criteria that create a wicked problem.
Ultimately, however, emergency management’s ability to create a collaborative environment for wicked problems is not without difficulty. The conclusion of this thesis recognizes that widespread concerns about emergency management’s existing workload, an underfunded and limited budget for those agencies, and the potential negative impacts from a new mission balanced with existing missions are valid. In balancing these concerns with the noted ability of emergency management to assist with wicked problem management, this thesis presents four options for government decision-makers.
The first option is to use emergency management agencies to assist with wicked problem management without additional staffing or funding to address the limiting factors of workload, budgets, and negative effects of mission expansion. This option notes that while there may be consequential benefits in the fight against wicked problems, the otherwise negative effects of such action without shoring up emergency management ultimately harm the nation’s ability to respond to and recover from disasters. Alternatively, a second option discusses emergency management’s becoming involved in wicked problem management yet supported by a growth in funding and staffing to support this new work. Under this option, the wicked problem mission can be supported with dedicated staffing and funding while emergency management agencies can continue to work diligently on their existing responsibilities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from large disasters.
Two alternatives are presented as well. In the third option, emergency management can simply remain uninvolved in wicked problems despite the benefit it may provide. This option allows emergency management agencies to focus all of their staff, budgets, and operational bandwidth on the rising numbers of increasingly destructive disasters nationally. The final option presented by this research is, once again, a slight alteration of the prior option. Under the fourth option, emergency management agencies remain uninvolved with wicked problem management, yet the wider government adopts the tools that emergency management brings to bear for incident response and collaboration. In this case, emergency management remains focused on its primary mission, but the benefits of whole community planning, ICS structures, and EOCs can still be applied to wicked problems.
These options display that while emergency management may be capable of the wicked problem mission, several barriers hamstring emergency management’s involvement in wicked problems. Without addressing these barriers, the benefit gained by applying emergency management to wicked problems is erased by a reduced ability to withstand and recover from disasters and other emergent situations. Ultimately, the answer to emergency management’s involvement with wicked problems emerges as a balancing act of deploying the skillset while accounting for a multitude of barriers.
 Brian W. Head, Wicked Problems in Public Policy: Understanding and Responding to Complex Challenges (Cham: Springer, 2022), 14, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-94580-0.
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