Designing for Disaster: Applying Structural Contingency Theory to Government Risk Mitigation and Consequence Management Organizational Structures

– Executive Summary

Interdepartmental friction, duplication of efforts, and inconsistent service delivery are challenges faced by emergency management, homeland security, and resilience organizations at the federal, state, and local government levels. These challenges were significantly highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic but have also occurred recurringly in numerous disasters, as shown by after-action reports and performance audits. Furthermore, while the most visible issues have been showcased during emergency response, interdepartmental coordination problems continue to be documented in governmental mitigation, preparedness, and recovery activities.

Introduced in 1978 by the National Governors Association (NGA), the “comprehensive emergency management” (CEM) framework aimed to consolidate preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation activities within one agency per jurisdiction.[1] However, this framework has not led to the intended goal of integrated risk mitigation and consequence management functions but instead duplication of efforts and inadequate attention placed on mitigation, preparedness, and recovery. The turn of the 21st century started a trend toward establishing separate entities for long-term recovery, resilience, and homeland security, scattering emergency management functions across many government agencies.

The thesis argues that many issues encountered in emergency management are not solely due to the commonly studied poor vertical coordination between different levels of government but also due to the horizontal design of risk mitigation and consequence management functions within a single jurisdiction. The COVID-19 pandemic may lead to significant legislative and policy changes, and this thesis applies organization theory and design to inform the next iteration of risk mitigation and consequence management agencies. It aims to look beyond traditional emergency response reform, considering the deliberate consolidation, distribution, integration, and structural design of government risk mitigation and consequence management functions. The central research question is: How can risk mitigation and consequence management functions be organized in a governmental jurisdiction to improve efficiency and effectiveness?

The research design involves three stages. First, it develops an analytical framework derived from Daft’s text Organization Theory & Design, based on structural contingency theory.[2] This framework assesses an organization’s contingency factors (size, technology, environment, goals and strategy, and culture) and its structural dimensions (hierarchy of authority, complexity, specialization, formalization, and centralization) for symptoms of structural deficiency and “goodness of fit.” Second, it adapts Daft’s framework to assess whether a mechanistic (efficiency-oriented) or organic (innovation-oriented) structural design is optimal for each of the four emergency management phases (preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation). Third, it involves a case study analysis, applying this framework to a local jurisdiction, the City of Somerville, to test its applicability and effectiveness.

The literature review covers organization design theories relevant to government risk mitigation and consequence management functions and organizational effectiveness as a research source to develop criteria for assessing these functions within a government jurisdiction. The review finds no apparent connection between deliberate organization theory-based design and the many reorganizations of risk mitigation and consequence management functions at various government levels. Instead, the review finds that despite NGA’s disclaimer that the CEM policy construct was never intended to be an organizational model, most jurisdictions engaged in institutional isomorphism by replicating the CEM-based organizational structures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and peer jurisdictions. The review also identified broad evidence that improving “organizational fit” by aligning an organization’s contingency factors with its structural design improves organizational effectiveness.

The case study examines Somerville, Massachusetts, a densely populated city with a diverse population and various hazards. In 2021, the city established a full-time emergency management office, transitioning from its previous model, where this function was part of the fire department. The author of this thesis served as the inaugural director of emergency management for this office. The case study applies Daft’s analytical framework at the jurisdiction level, focusing on risk mitigation and consequence management activities in line with the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP) Emergency Management Standard.[3] Daft’s framework suggests that an organic design, characterized by few rules, empowered roles, collaborative teamwork, horizontal communication, and a decentralized informal structure, is optimal for flexibility and decision-making at this level. Despite adding complexity by separating emergency management activities into different departments, Somerville’s structure is highly organic-oriented. The city exhibits strong inter-departmental collaboration, efficient decision-making, adaptability to environmental changes, and the ability to meet annual goals through solid employee performance. The study concludes that Somerville’s efforts to align its structural dimensions with contingency factors have likely contributed to increased internal process efficiency and overall organizational effectiveness.

The study concludes with several recommendations, including clarifying roles and responsibilities, implementing horizontal information linkages, considering revised departmental grouping, divesting functions to other departments or levels of government, and overhauling the policy model used to frame government risk mitigation and consequence management functions. These recommendations aim to improve organizational effectiveness by aligning structural design with contingency factors and avoiding duplication of effort. The study calls for reevaluating the widespread use of the 1978 “comprehensive emergency management” model in the design of organizations and advocates for incorporating evidence-based principles of organization theory and design in any reorganization efforts.

[1] National Governors’ Association, Comprehensive Emergency Management: A Governor’s Guide (Washington, DC: National Governors’ Association, 1979), 11.

[2] Richard L. Daft, Organization Theory & Design, 13th ed. (Boston, MA: Cengage, 2020), 18.

[3] Emergency Management Accreditation Program, Emergency Management Standard, ANSI/EMAP EMS 5-2022 (Falls Church, VA: Emergency Management Accreditation Program, 2022),

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