The role of a program office in disaster recovery


James Duggan, PMP

Program Manager, The City of Calgary

In June 2013, a major storm system crossed the southern region of the Canadian province of Alberta, resulting in heavy rainfall and severe flooding. The city of Calgary, home to 1.2 million people, was one of the areas hard hit by the flooding. Many individuals, homes and businesses were impacted. The flooding also resulted in extensive damage to municipal infrastructure, much of it critical.

Recovering from a disaster presents significant challenges from a program management perspective. Among these are organization and coordination of the program, communication, initiating the program with incomplete information and maintaining focus. This paper discusses the role that a program office played in coordinating and managing the infrastructure recovery efforts. Key lessons learned from the experience are presented that may be applied in similar situations, including almost any large program. At the same time, the value of program management is reaffirmed.

With management support the program office became an effective and essential tool in helping to mitigate financial and reputational risk associated with the city's infrastructure recovery efforts.


In June 2013, southern Alberta and the city of Calgary experienced severe flooding as a result of a major rainstorm that settled west of the city in the Rocky Mountains. The runoff that resulted from the rainfall overwhelmed the banks of the two rivers that converge in the city. The flood impacted many individuals, homes and businesses. In terms of actual numbers, approximately 75,000 residents of the city were under a mandatory evacuation order, and in the aftermath of the flood, 4,000 businesses were impacted, including the city's central business district.

Although first responders handled the emergency response to ensure public safety and protection of life and property, it was the responsibility of a recovery team to begin operations and the process of rebuilding.

The local authority, The City of Calgary, was faced with a situation where there was extensive damage to public infrastructure. An initial assessment identified bridges, roadways, public transit, a wastewater treatment facility, numerous city buildings, parks and recreational pathways that were damaged as a result of the flooding. Information technology and communications infrastructure was also impacted. The initial assessments quantified a total of 185 projects with an estimated cost to repair or rebuild of CDN$445 million.

Confronted with this overwhelming situation, the challenge became how to organize and manage this program of work. The solution started with applying sound program management principles by organizing the program of work and establishing a program office to administer the program. The program office facilitated definition and coordination of the emerging program. It ultimately fulfilled a role in ongoing management of the program, including monitoring of progress and reporting.

The discussion below consists of three parts. The first describes the initial setup of the program and program office. The second is an overview of a basic framework that was used to focus program activities. The third presents lessons learned from the experience. The lessons presented are useful for ensuring readiness to deal with a disaster and establishing a recovery effort. In general terms, they also reaffirm the value of a program office, and program management.

The Program Office

In the early hours, days and weeks following the flood event, even while a state of local emergency was in place and response efforts were under way, a large program of municipal infrastructure recovery work was emerging. As previously mentioned, 185 projects were identified with a total estimated cost of $445 million ($CDN). The emerging program was also complex. The projects involved many different types of infrastructure that had been damaged to varying degrees by the floodwaters. Complexity was increased by multiple funding sources that would fund the program, including provincial and federal government disaster assistance programs, insurance and internal sources.

There was additional complexity due to the involvement of many different departments within the city that were responsible for their own infrastructure. In many cases, each had its own internal practices as well.

The large number of projects, the associated costs and multiple funding sources introduced substantial risk to The City of Calgary. There was financial risk due to the need to fulfill specific funding requirements to justify costs incurred and ultimately obtain reimbursement. There was also risk of damage to reputation if the city was perceived as not being efficient and cost effective.

The program office played a role in mitigating the above-mentioned risks by serving as a central point of coordination, monitoring and reporting.

This role started in the early days of the response with the program office coordinating initial damage assessments and compiling information received from the field on the damaged infrastructure. Early efforts continued with organizing the work into projects and an overall program. Estimates from the early damage assessments were aggregated and used to establish internal budgets and approvals. Information gathered and organized by the program office was also used to apply for provincial disaster assistance and to work with other funding sources.

Once the initial coordination was completed, ongoing program office responsibilities included monitoring and reporting program progress, maintaining program alignment with funding sources and forecasting.

The program office enabled the city at any given time to have a comprehensive view of what was damaged, the progress on repairs, the approved budget and the status of funding for the entire program.

It was decided early that although the program office should have full-time staff, it would be a small core team that would work with an extended team of representatives from impacted areas of the organization.

The core program office team consisted of one full-time staff member supplemented by two full-time contract staff. The extended team consisted of 15 members whose workload and commitment varied depending on the recovery work taking place in their home department. The extended team was referred to as the program coordination team. Other members of the extended team included representatives from the finance, procurement and risk management (i.e., insurance) areas of the organization.

With the size and resulting complexity associated with a program of this nature came the challenge of defining and communicating program objectives simply and clearly. This led to the idea of developing a basic framework for communication and other purposes. This framework is described in the following section.

A Framework for Infrastructure Recovery

The scope and diversity of the infrastructure recovery program presented many challenges, not the least of which was communication. The challenge was to communicate the objectives of the program quickly and easily to many stakeholders at different levels of the organization with different responsibilities.

A basic framework was developed to summarize the objectives of the program, which were to quantify and manage the scope of the recovery program, complete recovery work and obtain reimbursement of costs from sources available to fund recovery efforts. The framework is shown in Exhibit 1.


Exhibit 1: The municipal infrastructure recovery program framework.

The infrastructure recovery program framework consists of three parts: Projects, Corporate Finance and Funding Sources. The three parts correspond to the need from a program perspective to (1) quantify the scope of work (projects); (2) ensure that there is a formal budget in place, including necessary approvals (Corporate Finance); and (3) identify and ensure linkage to funding (Funding Sources).

The framework proved to be extremely useful in communicating overall program objectives, not just to senior leaders whose direction and support was required, but also to team members involved in the day-to-day recovery efforts. The framework guided planning activities and helped maintain focus. It also shed light on the role the program office played in integrating the major components of the program and was a tool for facilitating discussions on program risks and how they were being mitigated.

Development and communication of this framework was one of the first responsibilities of the program office. This framework became a simple, effective and essential tool used by the program office in communication and ongoing management of the program. It especially helped in terms of speaking to the financial risk associated with the program and in maintaining senior management support.

Lessons Learned from the Experience

The following sections of this paper describe lessons learned from the experience of being involved in the infrastructure recovery program. While the lessons that follow will be useful in establishing and operating a program office with the task of managing a program of disaster recovery projects, they also reaffirm the value of program management and the role of a program office in general.

Lesson #1: The Relationship Between Disaster Response and Recovery

The first lesson involves recognizing that disaster response and disaster recovery are related but not the same. Exhibit 2, by summarizing emergency management planning frameworks as found in documents such as the National Disaster Recovery Framework published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (2011) and The Emergency Management Planning Guide published by Public Safety Canada (2010), illustrates the relationship between response and recovery.


Exhibit 2: The relationship between disaster response and recovery.

As Exhibit 2 shows, the immediate focus after a disaster event will be on response. Disaster response involves specific efforts to ensure public safety and the protection of life and critical infrastructure. It is by necessity urgent, extremely focused and directed work. In contrast, disaster recovery is fundamentally about returning a community to a state of normalcy in as short a time as possible. However, it must be recognized that recovery will start while response is under way and will extend well beyond the disaster response phase. Response is a sprint and recovery is a marathon, and they do overlap.

Although Exhibit 2 does not go into great detail, it is important to note that there are often multiple stages of recovery. At the very least there may be an early or short-term recovery that is focused on rapid damage assessments and restoration of critical infrastructure and services. Later stages of recovery will involve repairs and reconstruction of less critical infrastructure. Follow-up phases of recovery afford the opportunity to incorporate disaster mitigation or resiliency features.

The lesson to take away is that establishing the recovery program office helped bring focus to recovery even while response efforts were under way. Care needed to be taken that the program office did not get in the way of disaster response efforts, and this was accomplished by viewing recovery as a parallel and complementary effort to response. The program office effectively served as a bridge from disaster response to recovery. The program office brought formality and structure to the recovery program that began and is continuing to facilitate achieving recovery objectives and manage risks.

Another lesson from a more general perspective is that understanding this model helped the infrastructure recovery program establish and manage scope. This was done through a process of clarifying and keeping separate disaster response activities as well as other projects to address resiliency or mitigation. Any large program could potentially benefit by using similar models to understand the context, which in turn could help define and manage interactions and relationships with other programs.

Lesson #2: Be Prepared!

Every organization needs to have a business continuity plan. This plan helps ensure that the organization is prepared to continue delivery of critical services in the event of a disruption. Local authorities also have business continuity plans. In addition, they employ emergency response plans to ensure that preparations are in place to deal with disasters or other emergency situations. The City of Calgary's emergency response plan includes a recovery framework.

The benefit of having a recovery framework as part of an emergency response plan is that it facilitates the initiation of recovery efforts early and in parallel with response. It is through the recovery framework that the program office can be defined and initiated when it is required to organize and lead recovery efforts.

Although Calgary's recovery framework included necessary direction to initiate recovery, a lesson learned is that the framework could be more robust by including guidance on program management and specifics for establishing a program office. This should include the people, roles and skills required for a fully functional program office that is flexible and scalable to the recovery effort.

Another element to incorporate into the recovery framework is key recovery activities. The inclusion of high-level recovery activities provides the foundation for an overall program management plan. An example of where additional guidance would be of value is damage assessments. Damage assessments are initiated very early in the recovery process and include identifying the impacted areas and the assets located in those areas, organization of teams to assess assets including quantification of damage, prioritization and initial cost estimates. The information gathered during the assessment phase is foundational for creating the program management plan for the recovery program.

It is also the role of the program office to provide direction to project managers working on projects within the program. Project managers need specific information on scope management, cost management, funding source requirements, procurement information, record keeping and reporting. This information needs to be provided to project managers in order to support longer-term recovery objectives, including financial recovery and responding to audit requests. The Project Management Methodology for Post-Disaster Reconstruction published by the Project Management Institute (2005) supports the requirements mentioned and is a potential starting point for thinking about the role and responsibilities of project managers in post-disaster scenarios. Being prepared is about having mechanisms in place to establish a recovery program and program office early in parallel with disaster response. The ideal model is one that is flexible and scalable to the scope of the recovery effort. This will support recovery in the short term and position the recovery for success in the long run. A recovery program, as is the case with other programs, requires thinking about both the short term and long term.

Lesson #3: Program Governance

As with any program, an appropriate governance model is essential to success. The very nature of the infrastructure recovery program and the challenges associated with it required a strong governance model. In the aftermath of a disaster, organizations will be inclined to rush back to normal operations as quickly as possible. Although a return to normal operations is the ultimate objective of recovery, losing focus on recovery efforts can result in gaps and a failure to meet program objectives. This can impact the organization from a financial perspective and negatively affect reputation.

An essential role of the program office is to ensure that appropriate program governance is in place and maintained. Strong governance demonstrates the importance of the program and the need to maintain it as a high priority. Program governance must also take into account being at the appropriate level to be effective in dealing with risks and issues that may surface and escalation, if necessary.

The infrastructure recovery program governance and organization model is shown in Exhibit 3.


Exhibit 3: The infrastructure recovery program governance and organization model.

The governance model for the infrastructure recovery program consisted of a recovery steering committee and the recovery director. The recovery steering committee and recovery director oversaw the entire recovery, of which the infrastructure recovery was a major part. The recovery steering committee fulfilled the role of a program governance board, as defined in The Standard for Program Management – Third Edition, published by the Project Management Institute (2013). The recovery steering committee consisted of the city manager, all of the general managers, the chief financial officer and the city solicitor. It also included representatives from the communications area and the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA).

As mentioned above, the governance model for the infrastructure recovery program included a program sponsor. The program sponsor, who was the overall recovery director, was the chair of the recovery steering committee and fulfilled an integration role in broader recovery efforts. The program sponsor was also the first point of escalation for significant issues.

Having the appropriate governance and sponsorship in place benefited the infrastructure recovery program in many ways. One example was in establishing the program coordination team. Senior leaders in their steering committee role supported efforts to appoint staff from their areas to participate as part of the team. Another benefit was that because the steering committee consisted of all the senior leaders of the organization, it simplified communication of overall program progress.

It is true for all programs that a critical success factor is establishing and maintaining appropriate governance. Without proper governance, the risk of program failure increases dramatically. The lesson from this discussion is reiteration that governance that appropriately spans or matches the scope of a program facilitates program delivery and success.

Lesson # 4: Procurement of Goods and Services

Procurement of goods and services presents unique challenges from a disaster recovery perspective. There is extreme urgency during the early recovery stage as assessments on critical infrastructure are required and repairs, or in extreme cases, reconstruction, will begin.

The role of the program office with respect to procurement is to monitor and facilitate compliance with good practices. Though processes and practices may seem frivolous to some and a waste of time to others, poor procurement processes can lead directly to cost overruns on projects or situations where funding sources may deny cost reimbursement requests as a result of improper procurement practices. Auditors will often focus on procurement practices, and if a lack of due diligence is found, the result will be damage to reputation and trust, which will severely hinder recovery efforts in the long run.

The infrastructure recovery program office facilitated compliance by ensuring that procurement staff was engaged as part of the overall program coordination team. Communication was also prepared and distributed to project managers through the program coordination team.

A lesson learned from the experience of initiating the infrastructure recovery program was to be ready with guidance for project managers and others involved with procurement of goods and services related to recovery. In addition, going back to the idea of being prepared, it can be advantageous to prequalify suppliers that can be engaged on short notice, particularly in the areas of damage assessments and recovery administration.

Lesson #5: Progress Reporting and Forecasting

A significant role of a program office is to be an aggregator and disseminator of information pertaining to the program. The value of this is that it provides consolidated information on the program in a consistent manner. Accurate and timely information is critical for decision making and adjustments to the program.

A large, diverse program such as the infrastructure recovery program presents challenges from a reporting perspective. These include consistency in reporting from project managers. In a large program most will be from different areas of the organization that may have different internal practices. Others will be consultants and contract staff from outside the organization.

Other challenges include fulfilling internal stakeholder needs at different levels of the organization and external needs. Local authorities need to be prepared to demonstrate accountability and transparency.

A key program office role is to establish consistency at the project level to facilitate program reporting and forecasting. Processes and tools need to be set up early to establish a pattern and need to be maintained for the duration of the program. Examples of program reporting are shown in Exhibits 4 and 5.

Exhibit 4 shows a summary of program progress and a forecast from an overall scheduling perspective.


Exhibit 4: Example of program progress to schedule summary and forecast.

The top line in the graph represents the total number of projects within the program. Even though the total number of projects varies, the scope has not significantly changed. This variance is due to consolidation of projects, cancellation of other projects and breaking down larger projects into smaller ones. Subsequent lines show the number of projects in a given month by the program status. The program status captures progress at significant phases or stages in the project life cycle—for example, complete, substantially complete and under construction.

The left side of the chart (left of the vertical line marked as Today) shows program progress based on the status reported for each project on a monthly basis.

The right side of the chart (right of the vertical line marked as Today) is a forecast showing the projected completion of the program. This is an aggregation of information provided at the individual project level. The program will be complete when the total recovery projects line is met by the projects completed line. All other lines will meet at the bottom of the graph.

Exhibit 4 is also a tool to communicate and manage program risk in that it incorporates the deadline for financial reimbursement requests to the provincial disaster recovery program. This is the dotted vertical line in the graph. Projects in the shaded area to the right of the dotted line may be at risk of losing funding. Showing this communicates the need for further risk mitigation from a financial perspective.

Another example of program reporting is in Exhibit 5. It shows a summary of program cost and funding information. The chart is comprised of key financial elements represented in the columns.


Exhibit 5: Example of program budget, cost and funding summary.

The first column on the left is the approved budget. The second column represents the current estimate at completion as provided by project managers. The third column shows actual program expenditures.

The next columns tell the funding story with the current estimated funding recoveries by major funding source, followed by approved funding, cost reimbursement requests submitted and actual funds received.

Program completion will be indicated when all of the columns in Exhibit 5 are aligned.

The charts in Exhibits 4 and 5 are examples of reporting provided by the program office to support communication and decision making. The information available from the program office was utilized in regular formal reports to senior management, city council and media briefs, and was also made available to the public through an interactive map on The City of Calgary website.

Program reporting and forecasting requires communicating with front-line project managers to ensure they are aware of their responsibilities. They need to pay extra attention to managing scope, costs, procurement, risk and schedule because recovery will be under constant scrutiny. It is worth emphasizing that funding sources will require evidence of cost and the reasonableness of expenditures.

A lesson is to be prepared to provide support to project managers in the early stages of recovery. Support can be in the form of checklists or quick references with the essential information project managers need.

This includes project cost accounting information and funding source requirements, as these are essential to support reporting and forecasting at the program level.

Another lesson learned is that disaster recovery puts extra pressure on organizations to coordinate efforts as well as to maintain the integrity of the program from scope, cost, schedule, risk and funding perspectives. There are increased demands for timely and accurate information and reporting.

The Conference Board of Canada acknowledged these challenges in an independent assessment of recovery efforts (Vroegop, 2015). The board's acknowledgment includes a reference to the use of a program management approach to facilitate a comprehensive view of the recovery program, including the ability to report progress and forecasts. Alleviating these issues comes down to being prepared. A program office provides the structure and a means through which these challenges can be addressed.

Concluding Comments

When a disaster occurs, the immediate focus will quite rightly be on response. At the same time, recovery efforts will need to get under way to facilitate a return to a state of normalcy.

Leveraging a program office and many of the associated practices applies well to facilitating disaster recovery efforts. A program office is effective in ensuring that there are mechanisms to establish objectives and tracking of progress toward achieving them. It also serves the purpose of linking projects, budget and funding and that each receives the required attention. All are necessary for a successful recovery.

In summary, leveraging a program office as part of disaster recovery is in and of itself a robust and practical risk management strategy. Although there will likely be a perceived risk of a program office slowing down or impeding recovery efforts, ultimately a flexible and scalable approach to applying sound program management principles will contribute toward meeting overall recovery objectives. A program office will bring focus and consistency to disaster recovery efforts, and most important of all, financial risk as well as the potential for organizational reputation to be damaged can be effectively mitigated.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2011). National disaster recovery framework. Retrieved from

Project Management Institute. (2005). Project management methodology for post-disaster reconstruction. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2013). The standard for program management – Third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Public Safety Canada. (2010). Emergency management planning guide. Retrieved from

Vroegop, R. (2015). The road to recovery: The City of Calgary and the 2013 flood. Ottawa, ON: The Conference Board of Canada.

© 2015, James Duggan
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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