From a power outage to a pandemic or sudden staff departure, disruptions never occur on a predictable schedule. Agency continuity planning—sometimes called ‘business continuity planning’ or BCP—is a discipline that can help you pivot from a defensive, purely responsive state to an offensive, proactive one. When robust continuity plans and strategies are in place, your team won’t have to scramble to respond rapidly and improvise when unexpected outages and interruptions pop up.
Ensuring the continuity of services, care, and support is key to winning and sustaining your stakeholders’ trust. And trust is the central nervous system of your agency’s reputation. Without trust, your compelling mission, bold vision, and deep commitment to serve will eventually fall flat. Agency continuity planning will help you establish which operations are mission-critical, which services and processes you can do without for a finite period, and which activities can be wound down or halted indefinitely.
When a disruption does occur, response time is crucial to ensure that indispensable services are available, allowing your mission to continue with minimal downside impact. Ideally, agency continuity plans are created far in advance, under low-stress conditions, making it possible for cool heads to prevail during the disruption.
One Plan, One Place
An effective, useful agency continuity plan (or BCP) contains critical information that you will need to continue key services and operations in the face of any type of disruption. While many questions need to be answered as you develop your plan, it’s likely that your organization already has many of the answers! However, it’s the potency of collation that makes an agency continuity plan or BCP so powerful. By taking the time to collect and catalog procedures, processes, and points-of-contact, you remove the stress associated with having to simultaneously locate the resources most helpful and coping with a crisis in real-time.
One of the surprising and substantial benefits of creating an agency continuity plan is the process itself. When teams come together to talk about the kinds of events and circumstances that could be highly disruptive, they build resilience. That resilience continues as the team reflects how disruptions might unfold, how they will affect the organization, and what can be done to mitigate the damages and harm to the agency.
Many Voices and Perspectives
A practical agency continuity plan reflects the agency’s continuity goals and strategies from a holistic view. No one department or managerial level has all the answers. Continuity planning cannot be solely focused on information technology any more than it can only consider boots on the ground operations. As you move through the process and develop a plan, ensuring that diverse perspectives and voices are heard will make an enormous difference.
It might seem like an insurmountable task to find team members who will want to hunker down and run the marathon of creating an agency continuity plan. However, don’t assume that your colleagues won’t be interested! Start by asking for volunteers. It’s human nature to worry, and uncertainty causes stress and anxiety. Being involved in an effort to establish plans for combatting risk has the potential to ease anxiety and make people feel better.
Best Practices in Developing an Agency Continuity Plan
- Remember that it’s a plan, not a treatise or thesis! One of the challenges teams face when trying to create an agency continuity plan is worrying that everything must be included: such as every possible type of crisis and an exhaustive list of contingency strategies. The best continuity plans are easy to follow, easy to update, practical and timely. There is no such thing as a ‘finished’ plan—information in the best plans must be updated and supplemented on a regular basis. Try not to obsess about getting it ‘right.’ Focus instead on getting the information on paper and online in an accessible, readable, practical format.
- Start with the end in mind. As you form and lead a team to develop an agency contingency plan, thing about what you hope to accomplish. Will your plan be a roadmap with specific steps to follow during an interruption? Or is the plan a guideline that teams will adapt? Is the plan a compendium of key points of contact for the services and support you’ll need during a crisis or disruption? Plan development will be much easier if you’ve refined the scope at the outset.
- Ask: “who should be in the room?” A common mistake in plan drafting is to assume that one person can capably draft an agency continuity plan for the agency. Many people in your agency will have ideas and perspectives that will be valuable in bringing your continuity plan to life. If your plan assign responsibilities, refers to certain roles, or depends on collaboration, make sure you bring those players to the table to discuss and develop your continuity strategies and tactics. And from time to time, remember to stop and ask: “who’s perspective would be different from what we’ve heard today?” and “who else should we bring into the room to increase our confidence that this plan will be useful when it’s needed?” As you ponder the ‘who’ during plan development, don’t forget about the professional advisors your agency relies on for guidance year-round.
- Test your plan! According to Malcolm Gladwell, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Once you have an agency continuity plan drafted, it’s time to take it for a test drive. At a minimum, consider a plan review with team members outside of the initial drafting committee. Receiving feedback from staff who weren’t a part of the planning process will shed light on any areas that were omitted or misunderstood. One approach is to conduct a ‘functional test drive,’ whereby one department or functional team uses the draft plan to walk through a specific interruption (e.g., weather event, data breach, death of a team member, etc.). Another approach is to gather a multifunctional team to walk through an event, using the plan as a resource. Another option is to conduct a table-top exercise, such as one of the exercises created by FEMA (see fema.gov/PrepareAthon). If you have outside vendors that provide mission-critical services, consider including them in your testing protocols. For example, if your agency uses contracted transportation providers, this external partner provides a critical service that should be part of your exercises. At a minimum, make sure you know they have an agency continuity plan and who your points of contact will be if there’s a disruption.
Key questions to ask following a ‘test drive’ are:
- How was the plan helpful? How was it distracting or confusing?
- What changes to the plan are in order to make it more useful during an actual crisis or interruption? (e.g., additional instructions, greater flexibility, clearer language, etc.)
Testing is a powerful step that breathes life into the pages of your contingency plans. Your tests allow you to calmly and systematically identify any weaknesses or gaps, confirm that the objectives have been met, and improve upon the draft plan. Each test is an opportunity to update and improve as your agency evolves and adapts. The real beauty of testing comes in being able to deliver the planned response under ideal, no-stress situations.
- Update and share the plan. Instead of using words such as “draft” or “final” on your agency continuity plan document, consider putting a date on the first page, such as Agency Continuity Plan – June 30, 2021. If you update the date every time you update the plan, you’ll avoid the confusion triggered by a ‘draft’ stamp. The plan should be your plan until it is changed! And don’t keep your plan a secret; anyone who might need to use the plan during an interruption should know a) where to find it, and b) how to use it.
Consider Using My BCP to Create Your Plan
An intuitive web application, My Business Continuity Plan, is available to NY Alliance members who want to use a web tool to create an agency continuity plan. If you already have a plan, you might want to review My Business Continuity Plan to identify gaps in your plan. If you don’t have an agency continuity plan, consider using this free web application to create a plan. To get started using MyBCP, visit www.MyBusinessContinuityPlan.org/NYAlliance. Click the Registerbutton in the navigation bar to create an account for your organization. After logging in, get started by clicking My Plan in the navigation bar or the Getting Started with My BCP button.
The next step in using MyBCP is to choose one of 3 options. The options are based on the time you have available and your preferences for creating an overview document, a longer, more substantive document, or a complete agency continuity plan.
Here is an overview of the three options:
BCP Overview (20-30 minutes): Complete a single module of only six questions. The results of this exercise will produce a 1–2-page document describing your overall approach to managing an interruption to normal operations. The final product is suitable for sharing with leadership teams. Click here to access a worksheet listing the information you’ll need to complete a BCP Overview.
Intermediate BCP (50-60 minutes): The application guides users through 12 questions in two modules. The results of this exercise will produce a 5–6-page document that notes mission-critical functions and explains how you intend to manage the impacts of a disruption to normal operations. This plan is a helpful tool for management and risk teams. Click here to access a worksheet listing the information you’ll need to complete an Intermediate BCP.
Comprehensive BCP (2+ hours): This exercise guides users through all ten modules (65 questions). The results will produce a 10+ page document that is a complete agency continuity plan, exploring many different potential disruptions, a full catalog of helpful contact information and resources, and related policies and action plans. This plan can be used to support and guide your agency when it faces myriad disruptions. Choose this option if you want to dive into all of the modules in the web applications. Click here to access a worksheet listing the information you’ll need to complete a comprehensive BCP.
The options are summarized in this infographic:
Ready, Set, Go!
Don’t let an agency continuity plan simmer forgotten on the stove. Resolve today to start—or finish—a draft plan that will build resilience muscle and ensure that your agency is able to bounce back and be strong in the face of any interruption or disruption. When you build resilience, you will inspire growing confidence in your agency’s mission and good works.
By Whitney Thomey and Melanie Lockwood Herman