“No one is a recovery expert” – my learnings from working in disaster recovery over the last decade. - DisasterWISE
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“No one is a recovery expert” – my learnings from working in disaster recovery over the last decade.

Who is Jason Helps?

 

I grew up in Pakenham Upper, and my first taste of Disaster was the Ash Wednesday fires. Our property overlooked Upper Beaconsfield, and I remember Dad was out with the SES helping with the fires, and here I was, as a 14-year-old, on the roof with a fire hose.  The experience of the fires burning around our house was incredible, but what I remember more was how it impacted the lives of some of my classmates. Some from Upper Beaconsfield and Cockatoo lost their homes, and I remember it changed them. Being a teenager at the time, I didn’t understand why, but the impact this major disaster had on a community and individuals always stuck with me.

 

I joined VicPol in my early twenties, and I gravitated to regional and country policing.  I was always drawn to helping people, and in police work, especially when you live in the country, you are much more part of a community, particularly working at small stations, and your policing adapts to that. 

 

I worked for VicPol for 27 years, had emergency management roles within the Melbourne Health Network and, for the past six years, executive roles within government departments such as the Department of Health and Human Services, where I was the Regional Recovery Coordinator following the Bunyip Complex Fires.

 

For the last two-and-a-half years, I have been a Regional Recovery Director with Emergency Recovery Victoria (ERV), brought in to help coordinate the disaster response to the 2019/20 fires, with a focus on recovery activities for East Gippsland.

 

I live in Baw Baw Shire, which was, to a minor extent, affected by the Bunyip Complex fire in 2018/19 and had some impacts from floods and storms in 2021. Even though I am on the Western end of Gippsland, we have helplessly watched our neighbours in the East cop it, year in and year out.

 

In my work, I have always prioritised ‘community-centred’ relief and recovery operations, which helped me support communities across Victoria and during interstate deployments to Townsville and Lismore.

 

Why did you leave your government role?

 

I recently reviewed my role at ERV and decided to leave, seeing an opportunity to work more closely with the community and use my experience to help local government and community to navigate the recovery journey, navigate the complex funding and policy frameworks and to amplify their voice.

 

My experience in many disaster response, relief and recovery roles in both Victoria and Interstate has demonstrated to me that the government at State and Federal level want to include the community voice in their decision-making, but the systems don’t necessarily facilitate this well.  

 

In most cases, I think local governments are good at engaging community and incorporating their priorities into recovery planning. However, there still remains a challenge in this voice reaching State and Federal government decisions and policymakers.

 

What does community-led recovery mean to you?

Community-led recovery has not really been embedded consistently across Australia.  I prefer the term “Community-Centered”, which, in my view, describes an approach where the government is active in recovery but does so with the community in a collaborative and empowering way.

Following the 2019/20 bushfires in Victoria, the community-led approach was prioritised with good intent; however, this approach went too far, placing too much burden on the community.

Competitive grants, for example, are a great idea; however, when they are applied so broadly to achieve improvements to large community infrastructure that sits on government land or is controlled by the government, this creates an administrative, financial and project management burden on the community does not need.  Rather, the government should be working WITH the community to identify community needs, cultural and significant values to be protected and resilience measures; then government should manage the administrative, financial and project burdens, with the community as involved as they want to be at the time.  

Unfortunately, there is still a disconnect between the voice of ‘community-led’ groups and state- and federal-level decision-making and planning.

What lessons did you learn through your work with the East Gippsland recovery?

  • Work with the community to really understand their community and what it needs to recover and then thrive, rather than putting out grant after grant in a competitive cycle.
  • We want communities focussed on themselves and their wellbeing, not financial and project management generally, however, there are some really good examples of community grants and led projects that worked well.  Unfortunately, there are also examples of significant stress on the community from the grant process. 
  • Community needs a voice that goes through to State-level recovery governance, either a Community Advisory Panel or greater alignment of local, regional and State recovery planning and governance, which should be the case, but in practice, it does not necessarily work; decision-making should be closer to the community!
  • State and Federal governments need to ENABLE local government and community, not set up for long-term in-service roles.  For example, recovery hubs.  State and Federal governments should surge in initially to support relief and early recovery but with a focus on enabling Local Government and community to service their recovery need.   State and Federal governments should prioritise establishing effective recovery governance that supports community-centred recovery for the medium and long term.  Since the bushfires, I have seen State and Federal governments adopt these learnings and continue to evaluate them, some learnings are constantly applied and some great research being done.      
  • Government procurement and DRFA rules still don’t effectively support community-led or centred recovery as they should.  We need to establish effective and flexible mechanisms to distribute lower-value funding and support to the community.  East Gippsland Shire Council is a success story that we need to build on, the approach they took to flexibly take on Resilience and Recovery grants and the administrative burden, which were initially earmarked for State delivered competitive grants, meant the community were consulted and their priorities supported, this funding can now be directed to Community Recovery Committee supported priorities, wellbeing and regionally strategic projects, and importantly the decisions are made at a local level.  The East Gippsland Community Foundation is another success story; their ability to provide flexible funding to communities and projects through local decision-making and significantly reduced application burden has made a huge difference.
  • Rebuilding homes is a huge challenge following disasters; it is complex and emotional for homeowners and a challenge for the government to get the right level of support without inadvertently creating a dependence on government and a precedent that in future lowers individual and community resilience.  COVID-19 and the well-documented building industry and supply challenges created the perfect storm of challenges following the 2019/20 bushfires.
  • The Short-Term Modular Homes and Clean-Up programs provided by Emergency Recovery Victoria have been great programs to support those who lost homes.  Both State and Federal governments need to focus on their capacity to quickly roll out short-term housing and accommodation solutions following disasters that are cost-effective and then programs that support rebuilding without creating dependence.

What are your thoughts on developing a collaborative culture, building networks and relationships, especially when issues arise?

I’m not sure I always got this right; it is a challenge coming into the role 12 months after the disaster, particularly when some issues have already impacted the trust between the community and government. COVID-19 also impacted the capacity to engage in person at times.

However, it is vital to build open, trusting relationships.  I believe being honest, setting clear expectations of government and community roles is vital.  Listening, following up and acting on responsibilities within your roles or agency and keeping dialogue open when things are challenging or taking too long to resolve is the key.

Bringing all departments, agencies and communities together to resolve problems is challenging, but when done well, it achieves the best results; everyone owns part of the problem and contributes to the solutions.  

Having accountable government roles embedded and around the table at a regional or local level – working with the community is the key. 

Do you have any advice for people working in Disaster Recovery roles in the future?

Be Authentic; it is a tough and long journey sometimes, so look after yourself, your team and those you work in partnership with. 

Be open to new ideas, listening and learning.

No one is a recovery expert.  We are all adapting, learning and working within a community and political landscape that is changing.  Seek advice, build relationships and listen to the community.  That doesn’t mean you can deliver everything, but listen and be honest about what can be achieved, the community are passionate but also usually very fair and understanding.

If you are a community member impacted be kind to yourself, be patient with yourself and your neighbours and put your hand up when you need help or can’t achieve what you hoped, there are always people that will help.  Keep being passionate about what is important to your community. Sometimes it takes the system time to get the right outcomes, but your voice needs to continue to be heard.     

Where are you now?

I believe my experience in executive roles in recovery agencies, how they work and their decision-making, along with my regional and local knowledge of how a community works and their recovery journey, enables me to help the community and provide them with the tools and strategies to amplify their priorities.  I started my own company, Team Edge Consulting to focus on Leadership, Team- Building and Community Resilience and Recovery.  

Jason Helps

1 Comment

  • Louise MItchell
    Posted January 9, 2024 at 5:23 pm

    Great to read this Jason.
    We will miss you greatly at ERV.
    This one pager https://knowledge.aidr.org.au/media/8843/a3-comm-led-visual.pdf describes the co-production journey to community-led recovery (which you prefer community centred) – co-production intentionally to say it’s got to be a partnership between community and other supports (government, philanthropy, private sector, NGOs). I wonder how we can better do those smaller grants you mention… through people who are already set up to do them, e.g. FRRR!? Government has precedent in partnering with them on this!

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