6. Operational Planning

Humanitarian emergencies can be times of chaos. CARE staff, partners and other actors need information about what needs to be done in order to assist people. Operational plans guide the practical implementation of the response. They help everyone to know what needs to get where, when, how much it will cost, who will do the work, who reports to who and so on. The role of operational plans is to assist in doing the work to schedule, within budget, and meeting quality standards (which includes the involvement and acceptance of affected people). They do not ensure that you are doing the right work – that is the job of assessment, analysis and strategy.

Critical steps

  • Develop initial simple plans to guide the first days (in a rapid onset)
  • Bring the Emergency Response Team together to plan.
  • Bring smaller project teams come together to plan and include all the people needed for the project to work.
  • Define the objective. For individual projects you should consider making this a 25 word or less statement of what you plan to do, by when, at what cost and to what quality standards.
  • Draft a short statement that defines why you will carry out the operation/project. This should be two paragraphs at the most. Remember, this is an internal document and so does not need lots of background information or motivating language. It is to orient someone new or unfamiliar on the basic rationale
  • Define what needs to be produced/done in order to meet that objective (reports written, consultations held, shelters built, etc.)
  • Identify the tasks that need to be completed in order to make those happen.
  • Decide who will be doing which tasks
  • Work out what resources are required to do those tasks
  • Estimate how long it will take to complete them
  • Develop a schedule based on those estimates
  • Draw up a budget
  • Combine individual project budgets into a master budget, and elaborate a funding matrix.
  • Decide who the staff need to report to.
  • Based on the activities develop procurement plans, Gender Action Plan, M&E plan, recruitment plan, security management plan, and others,
  • Pay attention to safety and security from the start. Develop appropriate security management plans (link).
  • Include time and resources for coordination, reporting and other vital but less obvious tasks in your plans.

Involve the whole team. You will need information from lots of people to make a good plan. Consider all of the different people that will be needed to implement an operation – HR, M&E, Finance, Procurement, technical specialists  and others. You won’t have time to work through every little detail, but you will need to make sure that you are not making any big mistakes. Ideally, get everyone in the same room together to identify what work needs to be done, put tasks in sequence and decide who is doing them. Get input on costs too – you may have a set project budget, but the sooner you find out that some estimates were wrong, the more options you will have for doing something about that.

Take what time you have for planning. If all you have is 20 minutes, it’s better than nothing. One hour is better than 20 minutes. Three hours is better than one hour. You will save time over the course of the operation by having a team that shares an understanding of what needs to be done. You will save time by reducing the amount of re-work that needs to be done because of incorrect assumptions.

Base your plans on what you can concretely expect to do. A plan that covers a whole strategy which is only 30% funded is probably not useful. If you have the funding (or are 80-90% sure of getting it), then you need a plan. Adapt your plans as more funding becomes available.

Hold regular ERT meetings. This will allow you share information and conduct better planning. In an acute emergency these could be daily, at other points they may be weekly.

Combine project budgets into a master budget. This gives you an overview of what you have funding for, and where there are gaps. It helps to avoid double funding of some costs and lets you renegotiate if that has happened.

As you plan you will identify gaps – tasks that you didn’t anticipate, staff you need, project deliverables that weren’t considered. Note these down as gaps and search for ways to fund them – through follow-on proposals, for example.

Get clarity on reporting lines. Create an organogram that reflects the changed reality that you may be working in. Keep it relatively simple and do not attempt to capture every relationship on one diagram. At the same time, acknowledge that as you work on projects, staff will have to report for project work to a project manager in addition to their line manager.

Think about how your staff needs will change over the response. You may need many hygiene promoters now, but later you will need more engineers (or vice versa). You may urgently need international experts in the initial stages, but expect to be able to recruit national experts within the first few months. Communicate the needs for surge deployments clearly to address immediate gaps, and start recruitment processes well in advance of when you will need staff (where possible).

Plan in a way that supports staff. Emergency staff are committed and hard-working, but not superhuman. They need to rest and recharge. You will need to plan for appropriate rest days, public holidays, R&R etc. Plan your staff requirements so that you have enough staff to advance the operation given all of them will need to be taking leave etc. Plan and budget for appropriate offices, and accommodation so they have the environment and energy to do their work and psychological support to help them in a very difficult time.

Define the work. You need to know what you have to do – and this can be hidden. A task like “purchase tools” could be as simple as going to the market and buying hammers. It could also mean developing a specification, running a competitive tender, organizing a selection committee and managing suppliers. If your planning does not acknowledge the complexities of that second option, your implementation will go way off track. Get all the project team members to define their work so that it is 100% clear to them what they have to do.

Update and develop your plans as you go. You will not have the information and time to develop big, complex plans at the start of a crisis. Something simple will help you make the best choices for the first days. But if you do not expand it at some point, you could lose weeks of time later. So start simple, and find the time to make it more complete as you go along.

Do not use a project proposal as your plan. A project proposal does not have the kind and level of information that you will need to manage your project. It will be  useful input, especially in terms of defining what outputs & outcomes you need to achieve, but it is very unlikely to give you the information to manage the work on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis.

Do not try to create a single “operational plan” document. You will need a range of plans to manage an operation – security management plan, procurement plan, HR/recruitment plan, project schedules, organogram, master budgets, individual budgets, funding matrix, Gender Action Plan, M&E plan, Communications/Media plan, Advocacy Plan and perhaps others if the context needs it. CARE recommends that you aim to have all of the above as early in your response as you can, and together they make up the operational plan. You do not need to duplicate them into another document – as long as they give you the information that you need to manage the response.

Include the full costs and timing for gender equality programming in your plans. You may need to recruit more staff to conduct more ongoing consultations. You may need to have rent different vehicles that are culturally appropriate for female staff to travel to the field in. You may have to allow more time before distributions to make sure that you will provide relief items that are important for women, men, boys and girls. Not including these costs and timings might lead to unexpected delays, cost overruns or worse, not meeting the needs of different groups.

Communicate your plans. Share your plans with colleagues, particularly those in other departments or teams who you are depending on. They may need the information, or they may just be happy to be able to understand what is planned. You should also share information on your plans with the affected people that you are supporting.  Whilst you do not want to raise expectations, they should have information on what we intend to do and when.