By Lara K. Harris
As the Department of State faces unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) Leadership and Management School’s (LMS) Crisis Management Training (CMT) division has adapted its mandatory crisis management exercises (CMEs) with posts by going virtual and developing new self-directed products, including: webinars, blogs, and book/video guides. Since June 2020, the CMT team has facilitated more than 170 virtual CMEs and training sessions with posts worldwide. As overseas missions continue to adapt to challenges and process lessons learned, so has CMT.
CMT’s mission is to act as a catalyst to energize, grow, and support a culture of crisis preparedness and leadership at American diplomatic missions, both overseas and across the U.S. foreign affairs community. They do this by preparing posts—through instruction, training, and exercises—to effectively respond before, during, and in the aftermath of crises that threaten U.S. interests, the Department’s mission, and American citizens overseas. This mission remains the same; however, what has changed is what they have learned over the past 18 months and how they accomplish their mission.
LMS, in conversation with experienced leaders in the field, has pulled together best practices that can inform their preparation for future crises. For instance, during the 2020 Chief of Mission conference, conversations with Ambassadors Michele Sison (Port-au-Prince), Alaina Teplitz (Colombo), and James Story (Caracas) provided insights into how to instill crisis preparation at post. The conversations led to six topline messages to prepare in a crisis: setting the tone before, during, and after a crisis; communicating frequently, broadly, and honestly with messages designed to reach all key constituencies; testing accountability systems regularly; modeling resilience and taking care of your people; creating organized lines of effort; and engaging Washington proactively to communicate clearly what resources post needs. All of these principles apply, with added urgency, as the world navigates the ongoing pandemic. These principles also emphasize that learning, planning, and preparation is a continual, iterative process.
CMT’s training team is prepared to work with posts to achieve these goals. CMT offers customized exercises to prepare posts for crises and to identify potential risks and vulnerabilities. These exercises also provide opportunities for leaders to model crisis preparedness through their own participation. CMT can provide additional support even when not at post through their library of exercises or by custom-designing an exercise scenario. In circumstances where posts anticipate possible crises (e.g., contested elections, hurricane season), CMT can facilitate virtual exercises in coordination with the post’s geographic bureau and the Operations Center’s Office of Crisis Management and Strategy.
A standard training program includes sessions for the entire mission community, including a session for the Emergency Action Committee (EAC) and an exercise combined with hands-on activities. CMT trainers work closely with posts to develop scenarios that reflect local realities while coordinating efforts with other partners at the Department, Department of Defense, and USAID. More information on CME activities for posts can be found on the CMT SharePoint site (Intranet-only link). Posts must hold CMT-led CMEs every 24-30 months and at one-year tour-of-duty posts every 12 months. Due to current Department guidance regarding international temporary duty travel related to the pandemic, CMT plans on delivering all statutorily mandated CME training virtually through the end of 2021, with few exceptions.
To deepen CMT’s relationship with each mission’s Washington support structure and personnel—especially with locally employed (LE) staff who provide long-term support—each regional bureau is paired with a team of CMT trainers dedicated to support the post’s CMEs and training. Region-specific training teams can be found by contacting the CMT division.
To supplement CMEs and training, LMS has expanded its offerings to support personal and professional crisis leadership and management development. As part of training requirements (12-FAH-1), all EAC members are required to complete a distance learning course, PD543: Emergency Action Committee, within 45 days of assuming their role. This 90-minute course is designed to prepare EAC members for their roles and responsibilities before, during, and after a crisis. CMT recommends that post leadership encourage other mission personnel—including key LE staff—to enroll as it provides crucial grounding in how Washington interacts with posts during a crisis.
To supplement its exercises and training, CMT developed its CMT SharePoint site to serve as post’s one-stop shop for crisis preparedness and training as well as provide links to crisis management entities throughout the Department. The site includes access to a 90-minute Overseas Crisis Management Overview distance learning course (PD534DL). CMT recommends that overseas staff, including: U.S. direct hire, LE staff, eligible family members, and members of households, take the course every two years or before their scheduled CME.
CMT stands ready to support tailored engagements with each post through its Remote Crisis Management Exercise training page on the CMT SharePoint site for Recovery and Reconstitution Operations. The site includes resources and training materials to help posts reorient their teams and operations, especially as hybrid workplaces become more common. This online content is designed to be completely self-directed, and can help post leadership and EACs to engage stakeholders in its crisis response planning process.
Also, the CMT SharePoint site recently launched book and video guides—entitled Crisis Strength Builders—that summarize crisis preparedness topics aimed at facilitating crisis preparedness discussions at post. Titles include former-Ambassador Prudence Bushnell’s account of the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings, among others. Additionally, CMT’s “Undaunted” blog features unique perspectives on crisis leadership and management from Department leaders, posts, and CMT staff. Recent blogs have featured earthquake preparedness, authorized/ordered departure, the COVID-19 pandemic repatriation process, and Japan’s triple disaster of 2011 when a massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown struck the Fukushima area.
CMT’s most recent restructuring to a region-focused portfolio and the launch of several post-centered products reflects the LMS’ commitment to providing Department colleagues with the training, resources, and staff support it needs to be prepared for the next crisis and/or natural disaster. Most recently, CMT trainers held a crisis management exercise with Embassy Conakry, days before civil unrest erupted and an attempted coup. Fortunately, the embassy staff were prepared and leveraged the training they had just received. Yet, training does not occur overnight. CMT urges post colleagues to engage in conversations and training on crisis preparedness on an ongoing basis and contact CMT for any assistance.
Lara K. Harris is the acting associate dean of the Foreign Service Institute’s Leadership and Management School.