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Continuity of Operations During the COVID-19 Emergency


March 27, 2020 by Byron Katsuyama
Category: COVID-19

Continuity of Operations During the COVID-19 Emergency

"Continuity of operations" normally refers to the ability of local governments to continue the operation of essential government services with minimal disruptions during an emergency. As local governments have begun to respond to the COVID-19 emergency, this has meant the provision of police, fire, public health and other essential local government services.

However, due to the unique nature of the COVID-19 emergency and its likely duration, other types of local government programs and services, including administration, finance, planning, personnel, and other similar functions must also find ways to continue their operations provided that doing so will be both technically feasible and safe.

Fortunately, many local governments have sufficient IT infrastructure and support services in place to implement and/or scale up remote working arrangements that will allow local officials and staff to meet social distancing requirements (up to and including shelter in place orders) and continue most local government operations. Many local government IT systems allow remote workers to securely access government systems through virtual private network (VPN) connections or similar technologies.

For others it will be necessary to cobble together a combination of telephonic and/or web-based communication and connectivity solutions that will enable as much service continuity as possible. Remote working arrangements, however implemented, will play a vital role in the ability of local governments to maintain the continuity of their operations during the COVID-19 emergency.

In view of public health restrictions and requirements, some local government programs and facilities must be temporarily discontinued or closed. Cities have, for example, been closing community, youth and senior centers, and similar types of programs and facilities. In addition, some types of regular day-to-day business will have to be curtailed simply to allow officials and staff to concentrate fully on the demands of their COVID-19 response efforts.

MRSC has been monitoring the response by Washington local governments from the outset of this crisis. Below is a roundup of measures that local governments in Washington have taken or may want to consider taking to ensure the continuity of their operations as they respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Governance

Governance operations include the continued functioning of city, county, and special district legislative bodies, as well as appointed advisory boards and commissions.

  • Local governments have pivoted quickly to reliance on remote meetings for their legislative bodies using web-based platforms like Zoom, Skype, and GoToMeeting. For more information see our FAQs on how to conduct remote meetings and take public comment and technology options for remote public engagement.
  • Keep members of your legislative bodies fully informed and up to date so they are ready and able to make decisions and take official actions as needed.
  • Many local governments are cancelling and postponing non-essential advisory board and commission meetings. Remote meetings are also an option for these bodies where continued meetings may be required to meet mandatory deadlines.

Management

Management coordination and communications will play a critical role in maintaining the continuity of government operations since a large number of agency staff will be working remotely and will depend on regular communication for information and policy direction.

  • Consider establishing a special COVID-19 response team to coordinate COVID-19 related actions agency wide. Woodinville expanded the size of their leadership team to enhance internal communications throughout their organization.
  • Hold daily conference calls between senior management staff and between managers and department staff. Create and maintain an agenda of critical issues to maintain focus and assess progress.
  • Web-based meeting tools like Zoom, Skype, and GoToMeeting, are easy to use and work very well for staff meetings and can help to maintain team cohesion as workgroups that normally share the same physical space are now working remotely.
  • Take advantage of professional networking tools like listservs or LinkedIn to communicate and share solutions.
  • Encourage information sharing between peer agencies to take advantage of lessons learned that may be transferable to your organization.

Remote Working Arrangements

Telework arrangements will play a vital role in maintaining the continuity of local government operations as social distancing and possible shelter-in-place requirements are implemented.

  • See our FAQ on best practices for implementing telecommuting programs.
  • If you don’t have remote access available, look into web-based collaboration tools like Google Docs, Sharepoint, box.com or Dropbox that enable staff to share documents and work together online.
  • Create and continually update telephonic and web-based contact information for all officials and staff as more move to remote working arrangements.
  • Provide needed support for your IT staff who are under extraordinary pressure to implement and maintain unprecedented levels of telecommuting arrangements. This may include hiring temporary staff or contracting for support services.

Web-Based Communication and Service Provision

Your government’s website is the best way to communicate with your residents. As local governments have sharply curtailed or eliminated public access to their central offices, they are beginning to provide various forms of virtual substitutes.

  • Many local government websites now function as virtual city halls or county courthouses to continue offering services online, by email, or by phone. See, for example, Kitsap County’s Coronavirus Response: Government Services Online and By Phone webpage or Kenmore’s service request webpage. The key is to move as many services as possible online to your website or other electronic means to limit or eliminate the need for face-to-face interactions.
  • Residents will be looking to local government websites for the latest information about alternative means of accessing services, office hours, facility closures, and program cancellations, as well as the latest about COVID-19 issues.
  • Provide signage on building entrances alerting customers as to how they can contact departments to conduct business remotely, either by telephone or online.
  • Staff who now are not working front counters can be reassigned to handle service requests via phone calls, emails, and electronic submittals.
  • Social media platforms (e.g., Facebook and NextDoor), e-newsletters, email lists, and other electronic communications channels are also being enlisted as additional means for keeping necessary information flowing to the public.

Employee Support

At the heart of any local government’s ability to continue offering needed public services and their support functions will be the care and support of its employees.

  • Focus on employee physical health and safety throughout the organization so you can continue to provide services. A top priority is providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders and others whose jobs involve elevated infection risks.
  • These are stressful times for all employees as they work to balance the demands of their jobs along with concerns about the health and safety of their loved ones. Encourage staff to take advantage of employee assistance programs that offer counseling services for those who may be dealing with feelings of anxiety and/or depression. These services are often available to employee family members too.
  • Assess which employees support essential vs. non-essential programs and if an employee gets sick, understand which programs may need back-up support.
  • Additional leave coverage for employees is available from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which offers two sources of paid leave for government employees and some private sector employees. A summary of the Act has been provided by Summit Law Group. See our FAQ on How does the new federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) apply to local governments?
  • The COVID-19 emergency will likely require the application of novel operational solutions that are uniquely tailored to deal with the challenges that it is presenting. For example, Issaquah has implemented split shifts (two weeks on and two weeks off) for their public works crews so they could, if necessary, weather any quarantines and keep services going.
  • Most local government employees will have at least two options if unable to work due to their child’s school closure: (1) the expanded Federal Family and Medical Leave (effective April 2-December 31, 2020 as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act); and (2) their own accrued sick leave or other paid time off. These two options can be used in combination with one another. Check this FAQ for the details on these options and their application to exempt and non-exempt employees and see L&I’s About Paid Sick Leave and Coronavirus webpage for details on how the state’s requirements for paid sick leave apply to this situation.

Essential and COVID-19 Specific Services

Here are some examples of essential services that will continue to operate normally and some that may be specific to the COVID-19 response:

  • Law enforcement services
  • Fire and EMS services
  • Roadway safety, including traffic signal maintenance
  • Limited parks (which remain open with adherence to social distancing requirements) maintenance to empty garbage cans and perform safety checks
  • Some cities have adopted continuity of operations or continuity of government plans that address essential vs. non-essential functions and line of succession issues during a pandemic. See: Kenmore Pandemic Continuity of Operations/Continuity of Government Plan (2020) and Shoreline Pandemic Continuity of Operations/Continuity of Government Plan (2020).
  • Emergency Operations: Some cities have decided to activate their emergency operations centers per their emergency operations plans, while others have not. The city of Kirkland — which initially was at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak — activated their emergency operations center as many of their first responders became directly involved with the efforts to assist the residents of a local nursing care facility that had been hard hit by the coronavirus.
  • Think about where you would site an emergency medical facility if you needed to bring one online quickly. The city of Shoreline is hosting a 200-bed field hospital for King County on one of its soccer fields.
  • What additional city functions would be necessary if the COVID-19 emergency becomes more protracted, and who would fill those roles? Currently, Governor Inslee’s “stay home, stay healthy” order is set to remain in effect only through April 6, 2020, but at this point it seems likely that it will be extended beyond that date.

In many instances the things that local governments need to do to maintain continuity in their operations will be obvious, while in others that may involve uncharted territory the way forward will be less clear. In those instances agencies will have no choice but to respond with ingenuity and resourcefulness to continue providing services.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Byron Katsuyama

Byron began work at the Center as a Research Assistant in July 1978. He holds a B.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Washington and an M.P.A. from the University of Washington's Evan’s School of Public Policy and Governance. After completing his M.P.A., Byron joined MRSC's consulting staff as a Public Policy and Management Consultant concentrating on municipal administration and policy analysis. Byron is responsible for research in such areas as emerging local government issues, best practices, strategic planning, performance measurement, and local government management. In addition to his consulting duties, Byron also maintains the "Focus" section of MRSC's website and is editor of our "In Focus" and "Ask MRSC" e-newsletters. He also coordinates our HR, Planning, Finance, Government Performance, and Council/Commission Advisors. In his own community of Kirkland, Byron also served for eight years as a member of the city's planning commission. Byron is a member of the Washington City/County Management Association (WCMA) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

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