Internal audit report outlining results of the assessment of the Review of Options to Managing the Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic at Transport Canada.
On this page
- Management response and Action plan
- Appendix A – McKinsey & Co: When nothing is normal: Managing in extreme uncertainty
The Office of Incident Management (OIM) was mandated to modernize the incident management processes within Transport Canada (TC), including the development and implementation of an Incident Command System (ICS) to structure and organize incident response. Although the Transport Canada Situation Centre (SitCen) normally handles safety and security incidents, a decision was made that the Department would manage COVID-19 through a separate structure. The activation of the National Emergency Coordination Centre (NECC) in late January 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to test the ICS.
Through consultations with senior executive management in the spring of 2020, Audit and Evaluation was requested to identify options for managing the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic.
To identify and assess options for managing the on-going COVID pandemic emergency. Specifically, to help determine the option that would work best for the department when managing an extraordinary event such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which is unlike “regular” emergency events.
In addition to reviewing key documents, the Audit and Evaluation team conducted interviews with staff within the department (TMX, NECC employees), other government departments (Service Canada, Parks Canada, Government Operations Centre, Department of Fisheries and Oceans), and departments of transportation in foreign governments (United Kingdom, United States).
The report summarizes the analysis carried out leading to the recommended approach for the department by identifying:
- objectives that need to be met in order to successfully manage the COVID-19 pandemic;
- requirements that need to be in place for the successful implementation of the recommended approach;
- key criteria against which options are assessed to determine the best option;
- potential options; and
- recommended approach
COVID-19 fundamentally changed the way organizations operate. It is evident that a more agile manner of decision-making is required in order to be successful in the new environment.
The Review examined options relating to various senior level bodies, which could potentially support the Minister’s and Deputy Minister’s (DM) decisions. It also examined options for an efficient and effective reporting structure and identified some best practices.
Based on the options analysis, to continue to successfully manage TC’s response to the pandemic, it is recommended that the COVID-NECC:
- Should be governed by a committee composed of senior managers selected by the Deputy Minister to set priorities and make strategic decisions. Depending on the severity and duration of the crisis, the committee would be composed of either: primarily Directors General (DGs) under the direct leadership of an Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM); or the DM directly leading a cross-section of ADMs and DGs.
- Should be reporting to the Executive Director, Emergency Management thereby benefiting from an existing structure with functional support such as administrative services, and with experience in crisis management.
Statement of Conformance
This Review conforms to the Government of Canada’s Policy on Internal Audit and to the Institute of Internal Auditors’ International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing, as supported by the results of an external assessment of Internal Audit's Quality Assurance and Improvement Program.
The COVID-NECC function was activated in January 2020 to support the Department in its efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Department was implementing its ICS, a decision was made to mirror the organization of the COVID-NECC function based on ICS. In a short timeframe, the COVID-NECC was established. To support the COVID-NECC, the Programs branch provided a concierge service to support executives in quickly onboarding staff. The COVID-NECC included distinct units typical in an ICS structure, development of new procedures, and the mobilization of staff. Management and employees of the COVID-NECC worked to coordinate TC’s role in relation to other government departments and agencies, helped in the development of interim measures, supported internal staff, and triaged massive amounts of information.
Although the current structure of the COVID-NECC function has several different responsibilities such as planning, operations and logistics, one of its primary mandates is to keep detailed records of actions taken for lessons learned for future events and to act as the information triage and notification hub for the Department during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-NECC also:
- Manages the central repository of information for the pandemic as it relates to the transportation system. The COVID-NECC function gathers information from a multitude of sources, sorts and consolidates it, and shares it with senior officials in the Department. It also shares transportation related information with other departments and agencies namely the Government Operations Centre (GOC) within Public Safety Canada. This includes consolidating information from the various trackers (e.g. Industry Engagement Tracker, Summary of Current Actions, etc.) to produce daily key points for the Privy Council Office (PCO) and the GOC.
- Provides support in convening and participating in meetings such as the National Incident Management Group (NIMG) and other Interdepartmental Coordination Groups.
- Prepares overarching briefing materials and other information for TC Executives.
- Liaises around the clock with other government departments to collect, share and triage information and provide input.
- Participates in whole-of-government planning initiatives, such as the development response plans and table top exercises.
The COVID-NECC however does not conduct modal specific planning or response activities.
Given that the activation of the COVID-NECC function was an early test of the ICS, in addition to an After Action Review and Report led by the Emergency Management Branch, Internal Audit and Evaluation was requested to help determine an option that would work best for the department when managing an extraordinary event such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which is unlike “regular” emergency events.
The objective of the review was to identify and assess options for managing TC’s response to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic emergency. The results of this review are relevant as Transport Canada’s response to the pandemic evolves and the Government of Canada focuses on vaccination efforts. As part of this review, it is also important to consider whether the roles and responsibilities of the COVID-NECC are still part of a unique emergency response, or whether they have now progressed to a more generalized emergency management or program management role. The following sections provide an analysis of the options available to the Department and recommends a potential solution.
Objective 1: Senior management is able to make informed and timely decisions
To respond to the department’s needs and drive the departmental response, a dedicated decision-making body should be identified.
1.1 Requirements for Objective 1:
The following requirements must be in place for the recommended option to meet Objective 1:
Requirement 1: A clearly identified decision-making authority
One of the key elements for a sound decision-making model is a clearly identified decision-making authority; this ensures that decisions are made quickly and by the right authority. As identified in the National Exercise Program COVID-19 Pandemic First Wave After Action Report (After Action Report), the decision-making processes were often unclear. Previous and current COVID-NECC employees identified the importance of having a clear decision-making authority in order to minimize duplication of tasks and multiple reporting mechanisms. In the US Department of Transportation, this authority was delegated to the equivalent of TC’s Deputy Minister. In the UK, the COVID Unit reports to the Parliamentary Secretary (equivalent to the Minister at TC).
Requirement 2: Organizational structure with clear roles and responsibilities to facilitate timely decision-making
Multiple executives noted the importance of a clear reporting line between the COVID-NECC function and the decision-making authority. A clear reporting line would minimize approvals and hasten information flow to enable timely decision-making. As such, the person leading the COVID-NECC function should report to the chair of the senior executive committee referenced in the criteria below. This would reduce inefficiencies, confusion regarding priorities, and duplication of tasks.
1.2 Key Criteria for Objective 1
To determine the best option to meet the needs of objective 1, the following criteria can be used as a differentiating factor:
Key Criteria A: A senior executive body to support the DM in setting strategic priorities, tasking and generating proposals/recommendations to the Minister/Cabinet
To properly support the decision-maker, it is essential to identify the executive team that can foresee the impacts to the public and all stakeholders to identify strategic priorities, assign and coordinate analysis and generate recommendations. This executive team should consist of relevant TMX members and DGs, similar to the senior executive-level committees in the UK and the US. Subject matter experts should also support the team from within the relevant functional groups. Interviews support the importance of this senior executive team, in addition to the COVID-NECC function, that performs strategic and policy analysis from the Departmental perspective. Clearly identifying the executive team and any associated processes for the integrated decision-making model would reduce confusion.
1.3 Options analysis
The following options have been analyzed against the key criteria identified in section 1.2
|Option 1: Transport Canada Executive Management Committee (TMX)||Option 2: Safety and Security Senior Management Committee (SSMC)||Option 3: A modified National Incident Management Group (NIMG)||Option 4: A new COVID-specific decision making body|
|Description||TMX would be the decision-making body, supported by functional leads, functioning much like in regular day-to-day business.||SSMC would be the governing body, supported by functional leads. Decisions to manage COVID-19 would be formulated as recommendations at SSMC and brought to the key decision makers (Deputy Minister, Minister).||The NIMG is the current governing body for the COVID-NECC function and is composed of DGs who are involved with the COVID response. The composition of this group would be altered to include other key players within the Department and its mandate more focused on strategic decision-making regarding COVID-19.||A new body would be assembled composed of a cross-section of ADMs, RDGs, the Associate Deputy Minister and Deputy Minister. Functional leads would support the body in order to make informed recommendations and decisions on current pandemic priorities.|
||This governance structure does not currently exist - initial time and effort are required to establish this new governance committee|
1.4 Recommended options: Option 3 or 4
The COVID-NECC should be governed by a committee composed of senior managers selected by the Deputy Minister to set priorities and make strategic decisions. Depending on the severity and duration of the crisis, the committee would be composed of either: primarily Directors General under the direct leadership of an ADM (Option 3); or the DM directly leading a cross-section of ADMs and DGs (Option 4). Either option clarifies the COVID-NECC governance by creating a governing body composed of the key senior executive decision-makers. Both options would also ensure a horizontal approach and ensure representation from the necessary parts of the department.
Objective 2: An adequately resourced function acting as the situational awareness nexus and clearing house for information and data to support the achievement of all objectives.
The COVID-NECC function should be located within a defined organizational structure, allowing clear lines of reporting to support senior management and to provide timely and relevant information to all stakeholders.
2.1 Requirements for Objective 2:
The following requirements must be in place for the recommended option to meet Objective 2:
Requirement 3: Determine the funding approach and number of resources needed
A decision should be made whether to continue to staff the COVID-NECC function on a temporary basis, or to fund it directly with a dedicated budget. Currently the COVID-NECC function is loaned staff from EM and from the rest of the Department on a rotational basis, based on staff availability. A process to determine the number of staff required for an optimal and “lean” COVID-NECC function is required to accurately estimate resource requirements. A standalone option would require more resources for operating as a responsibility center compared to other options where the function would be contained within an existing organization.
Requirement 4: Minimize employee learning curve to maximize efficiency
To enable the COVID-NECC function to begin operating immediately after scaling up, the pre-identified individuals who are qualified to fill the positions, both at the working level and in leadership roles, should be equipped with the necessary training prior to joining. A list of required skills, knowledge and training for each position should be pre-identified and provided to facilitate the achievement of this requirement. This minimizes interruptions to the normal operations of the COVID-NECC function during peak time when work load is high.
Requirement 5: Follow a methodology suitable to TC’s emergency preparedness and response approach, and works in unison with OGDs
All interviews with TMX members noted that to work synchronously with other government departments, it is important to utilize a common methodology for managing the COVID response. Interviews and research support that the current ICS methodology used by the COVID-NECC function is appropriate for managing emergency events with national/international exposure and a prolonged impact. However, the majority of departments interviewed (Parks Canada, DFO, and DOT of US) did not use an incident management system to manage their COVID-19 response.
2.2 Key criteria for Objective 2
In order to determine the best option to meet the needs of objective 2, the following criteria were used as differentiating factors:
Key criteria B: Organizational structure with clear roles and responsibilities to facilitate timely decision-making
Multiple executives noted the importance of a clear reporting line between the COVID-NECC function and the decision-making authority. A clear reporting line could minimize approvals and hasten information flow to enable timely decision-making. As such, the person leading the COVID-NECC function should have a reporting relationship to the chair of a senior executive body (in Criteria A). Although the reporting relationship does not need to be direct, a more direct reporting relationship may be more efficient by reducing confusion regarding priorities and minimizing duplication.
Key criteria C: Ability to quickly and efficiently scale up or down the COVID-NECC capacity
As the pandemic moves through its life cycle, e.g. wave 1 and 2, the staffing required to support the operations of the COVID-NECC function may also change. Stakeholders within TC identified that timely decisions are critical to managing the Department’s COVID response. Therefore, should the need arise, a group of designated Emergency Response staff and subject matter experts from various groups within the Department must be made available in order to quickly staff the COVID-NECC with minimal additional training.
One of the lessons learned identified in this review was that the COVID-NECC staffing approach during the first wave (asking for volunteers within the Department) created 1) delays as it made the COVID-NECC function dependent on the availability of employees in other directorates and 2) inefficiencies when comparing the time required to train new staff versus the short period of time that staff remained in the position before rotating out. Similar lessons were also observed in the After Action Report.
Between the waves of the COVID pandemic, the COVID-NECC’s operations should be temporarily reduced. During a “down” period, only the core COVID-NECC functions should be staffed in order to monitor the COVID environment and answer questions raised by the COVID Committee or the DM, with the ability to quickly staff additional resources should the monitoring status change.
2.3 Options analysis
The following options have been analyzed against the key criteria identified in section 2.2
|Option 1: Intermodal Surface Security & Emergency Preparedness (ISSEP)||Option 2: Emergency Management||Option 3: Stand-alone within Safety and Security|
|Description||The COVID-NECC function would report directly to the Director General, ISSEP. Currently, the function reports to the DG ISSEP or the ADM, Safety and Security depending on the task. The COVID-NECC Lead would be staffed for the duration of the COVID-NECC being active.||The COVID-NECC function would be situated within the emergency management group, reporting to the Executive Director, Emergency Management, who would be the COVID-NECC functional Lead when it is active. A Chief heading the COVID-NECC function, or several chiefs leading various functions, would report to the Lead and would manage operations.||The COVID-NECC function would be situated within the Safety and Security group, reporting to the ADM, Safety and Security. A COVID-NECC functional Lead position would be staffed for the duration of the COVID-NECC function being active.|
2.4 Recommended option: Option 2
The COVID-NECC should be reporting to the Executive Director, Emergency Management thereby benefiting from an existing structure with functional support such as administrative services, and with crisis management experience.
Objective 3: Timely and relevant information is provided to decision makers and shared as needed to other stakeholders.
The COVID-NECC function should fulfill its main functions of collecting, triaging and sharing information by ensuring timely and relevant information is provided to decision makers in an efficient and effective manner. Best practices and lessons learned are presented here, as informed by research and interviews with members of TMX and senior management across Transport Canada, COVID-NECC employees, and emergency management employees.
3.1 Requirements for Objective 3:
The following requirement must be in place in order for the recommended option to meet Objective 3:
Requirement 6: Relevant Information is easily accessed, mined, categorized, and communicated to the right audience
To provide situational awareness, the COVID-NECC function must gather relevant information and ensure that it is easily accessed, mined, and categorized in an efficient manner. The COVID-NECC function also needs to disseminate this information effectively, meaning to the right audience, including the Senior Executive Team (in Criteria B) that generates recommendations to support the decision-maker. To fulfill this role, it is essential to clearly identify the stakeholders and their varying information needs.
Through our review, we concluded that no alternative options were required to meet the requirements of Objective 3. Instead, we concluded that the inefficiencies related to information gathering that occurred when the COVID-NECC was first set-up are now being addressed. A number of improvements have been made with the introduction of better templates and coordinated requests resulting in fewer requests for updates. Although there still exists a need to better coordinate the input from various programs and regions, and provide them with timely feedback regarding the outcomes of the information shared, the COVID-NECC remains the best structure. Some senior executives noted that it would improve efficiencies if the collected information was made readily accessible to all key players.
3.2 Lessons learned
To further support Objective 3, the following lessons learned should be taken into consideration to improve current practices:
Clear mandate for the COVID-NECC:
As the COVID-NECC function was quickly stood up during the first wave of the pandemic, its mandate was not clearly defined and numerous procedures and terms of reference remained draft. The COVID-NECC role was unclear both to the staff who were brought into the COVID-NECC function and many stakeholders in the department. This may have created confusion when COVID-NECC employees were completing daily tasks, when branches in the department received requests for information, and when the work was compared to the other situation centre (i.e. the SitCen, which traditionally performed this role in emergency management). Therefore, it is important to clarify and communicate to all stakeholders the mandate of the COVID-NECC function to gather and triage information. As such, it will be clear that the COVID-NECC function will not take over the strategic and policy analysis that should continue to be performed by subject matter experts in the policy units and programs.
Communicating taskings and requests to the COVID-NECC:
Interviews with COVID-NECC chiefs and staff identified that taskings and requests came from many different stakeholders within the department; and it was not always clear to whom the COVID-NECC reported, nor senior management’s expectations of the COVID-NECC function. At times, directorates also communicated COVID-related information directly to the ADMs without keeping the COVID-NECC function in the loop.
TC’s Legal Services Branch has been leading a departmental tiger team to develop and implement a policy and guidelines to ensure the preservation of documentation related to Transport Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is essential to help ensure TC is prepared to comply with litigation obligations, as well as any audits and/or ATIP requests to the department. As the COVID-NECC function is a member of this working group, clarifying the information gathering role of the COVID-NECC function would minimize the risk of the COVID-NECC function not being aware of COVID related information.
Organizing and communicating information in a manner that serves the needs of a Senior Executive Team:
As one of the key objectives of the COVID-NECC function will be to serve the needs of the governing body and their information requests, it will be efficient to organize the incoming information according to the types of requests made by the governing body. Equally important is the need to clearly define the process to manage the return of information back into the modes, regions and programs to help inform policy and strategic decisions.
Organizing key records in a manner that best supports a Senior Executive Team:
To facilitate rapid decision-making and improve information flow to the decision-maker, the Deputy Minister’s Office established a practice for individual branches to directly access and update information on the DMO’s shared drive; this has streamlined the layers of information flow to support faster decision-making. The COVID-NECC function could benefit from implementing a similar approach.
3.3 Overall good practices currently in place
As part of the review, a number of good practices were identified, many of which are also referenced in the After Action Report. The following good practices relate strictly to the objectives of this Review:
- Multiple senior executives mentioned the COVID-NECC function provided a helpful forum for information exchange within the department, by coordinating input from different areas, presenting reports and organizing meetings for information sharing on a regular basis. For example, some executives interviewed found it particularly helpful to participate in weekly meetings, with participation of the ADM S&S, the RDGs and other relevant DGs, throughout wave 1 of the pandemic.
- The COVID-NECC function has put in place an RDIMS structure to organize and store relevant information making it easier to find information. This structure has been shared with the entire department, through TC’s COVID-19 Documentation Preservation Initiative led by Legal Services, as the primary repository for COVID-related information.
The COVID-NECC function, with support from the Digital Services Directorate, has developed a digital hub to track and provide access to information collected across the organization and from partners. The COVID-NECC digital working group has integrated existing and built new visual dashboards to monitor current departmental PPE stocks, the status of flights to remote communities, COVID expenditures, and use of HR Code 699, among other useful metrics. This repository of authoritative incident information centralizes programmatic, economic, industry and partner information to better support sense making, collective situation awareness, and evidence based decision making. In the future, this hub will have advanced capability to provide visualization of key indicators. The dashboard has been live since February 2020, and access has so far been provided to senior executives (DGs and above), liaison officers from across the department and Regional Emergency Coordination Centres, and others, as required. As a next step, the COVID-NECC function plans to provide access to a broader audience including those at the working level that have a need for the information to support their COVID-19 response activities. The hub will also be available to support future incidents.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that organizations can never be fully prepared when faced with extreme uncertainty. Regardless of the level of preplanning and testing, there will always be unknown risks facing the transportation sector and requiring the Department to respond. However there is an increasing amount of research Footnote 1 that recommends organizations facing extreme uncertainty – defined as novel situations with large impacts, sustained duration and rapid changes – to embrace new forms of leadership, a more agile operating model and ways of working. Managers need to tolerate more ambiguity, speed up operating and decision making cycles, and develop a culture of constant review, refinement and revision. In addition, to be sustainable over time, the operating model must remain flexible to seize new opportunities as the situation evolves.
Management response and Action plan
|Number||Recommendation||Management Response||Action Plan and Target Dates|
|1.||The COVID-NECC should be governed by a committee composed of senior managers selected by the Deputy Minister to set priorities and make strategic decisions. Depending on the severity and duration of the crisis, the committee would be composed of either: primarily Directors General under the direct leadership of an ADM (Option 3); or the DM directly leading a cross-section of ADMs and DGs (Option 4). Either option clarifies the COVID-NECC governance by creating a governing body composed of the key senior executive decision-makers needed. Both options also ensure a horizontal approach and ensure representation from the necessary parts of the department.||The decision-making body for the COVID NECC will be the NIMG (option 3). The NIMG membership includes all implicated departmental Directors General.||
Re-initiate regular NIMG meetings, following the Transport Canada National Incident Management Group Guidance protocols.
The frequency of meetings will be monthly, or as required. In keeping with the methodology and doctrine for emergency management, as the situation changes (level of activity and decisions required), the frequency will be adjusted.
Target Date: March 2021
|2.||The COVID-NECC should be reporting to the Executive Director, Emergency Management thereby benefiting from an existing structure with functional support such as administrative services, and with experience in crisis management.||Agree||
The NECC has been moved under the Executive Director Emergency Management, who will become the NECC Director.
In the short term the organization structure will not change. As efficiencies are found or as the situation changes, the organizational structure may change. This fluidity is In keeping with the methodology and doctrine for emergency management.
Target Date: February 2021
Appendix A – McKinsey & Co: When nothing is normal: Managing in extreme uncertainty
The following summarizes key lessons from recent McKinsey & Co research Footnote 2 which underscores the importance of defining and employing a new operating model to effectively manage during conditions of extreme uncertainty. Given the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in modern memory, it is not surprising that organizations need a new management model to sustain operations under such conditions. The magnitude of the uncertainty organizations face in this crisis—defined partly by the frequency and extent of changes in information about it—means an effective operating model must enable continuous learning and an adaptive response as the situation evolves.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession have affected most large organizations around the world. Organizations continue to scramble to address rapidly developing changes in the public-health environment, public policy, and public behavior.
Duration and magnitude of a crisis are important determinants of uncertainty
The COVID-19 crisis has undermined most of the assumptions of the traditional planning cycle. Existing management operating models are no longer effectively supporting managers in addressing the challenges this crisis presents. Managers seeking up-to-date information discover that existing processes are too rigid and unsuited to the highly uncertain environment making it difficult for a timely response. They know they need: flexibility, the capability to act collectively, quickly, and across the whole organization as challenges arise. And they need to work this way over an extended period. Some organizations have therefore begun to experiment with new operating models that allow managers to work together.
Awareness of potential pitfalls needed regardless of the operating model
- Optimism bias – managers cannot or will not believe how bad the situation could get, and the organization ends up planning for a much milder scenario than transpires.
- Information instability – conventional business strategy is most often based on assumptions about a probable course of events. In today’s crisis a “most likely” planning scenario is unachievable
- Wrong answer – in addition to the instability of information, leaders must also be sensitive to the possibility that information thought to be clear and certain could turn out to be wrong. The operating model must be able to absorb initial wrong answers and override them quickly – assumptions need to be updated continuously.
- Paralysis by analysis – although data is often confusing and changing, delayed decision making is not advisable in a fast moving severe crisis – no action has consequences. Managers should act on what they know and adapt their strategy as new information becomes available.
- Organizational exhaustion – constant change, lack of stability exposes managers and their teams to the risk of exhaustion eroding mental and physical health over time and deteriorating the quality of work outputs.
- Early warning system – a fundamental operating principle in normal times is to develop an understanding of the kinds of events that might trigger a crisis.
- Integrated nerve center – leaders must have an organizational operating model to quickly understand the nature and dimensions of the crisis and to oversee a holistic response. A small group with the authority to lead the response.
- Transparent operating principles – a high-level approach to guide actions based on defined operating principles communicated through-out the organization.
An agile integrated operating model needed
Recently, some organizations have adopted more agile techniques to make planning more flexible and responsive to outcomes from pilots or trials. However, the approach is rarely deployed in the Executive -suite to manage the whole organization.
Operating in crisis mode requires continuous learning via an accelerated cycle of discover, design and execute. Frequent iterative decision-making sessions are deployed to diagnose the current situation, consider its implications, explore how it may evolve and then to define and execute appropriate actions. The speed of the learning and redesign cycle must match the evolving situation. The organization must accept they will often be wrong and must quickly learn and readapt – failing fast and failing better each time.
The shift from crisis mode back to sustainable operations is more an evolution than a transformation. The integrated nerve center needs to remain ready for reactivation but decisions and actions increasingly return to day-to-day activities within business units.
In summary, extreme uncertainty-defined as novel situations with large impacts, sustained duration and rapid changes-creates an environment requiring new forms of leadership, a new operating model and ways of working. Managers need to tolerate more ambiguity, speed up operating and decision making cycles and develop a culture of constant review, refinement and revision. And the operating model needs to be sustainable and flexible to seize new opportunities as the situation evolves.