In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 14, 2018 Volume 48 Issue 4

Combining Formal and Informal Structures in Crisis Response

Friday, December 14, 2018

Author: Willow Brugh, Galit Sorokin, and Gerald R. Scott


Crisis response is often highly fragmented; formal, informal, and ad hoc response entities all spring into action with little coordination or communication. Attempts to improve coordination during crises by synchronizing and planning outside of a crisis setting often fail because of either lack of representation from informal and ad hoc response groups or competing priorities and requirements in formal organizations.

Working with formal and informal response groups, this project sought to improve coordination by creating a game to help responders develop the knowledge, skills, and networking capacities necessary to interact and coordinate with each other in the field. We were able to codify traits of their capacities in a game format from which others can learn. We used a method for facilitation and engagement that optimizes for both the adaptability of the network (informal) and the predictability of the centralized (formal). Understanding the other “side” through this game framework can help response communities learn to coordinate with greater equity, efficiency, and impact.

This project was undertaken with two goals: (1) to foster a bridging process between the two response communities and (2) to develop a tool to improve crisis response by identifying and addressing systemic failures due to gaps between informal and formal crisis response groups. Our research covers the creation of the game and two iterations, but is not an in-depth qualitative study of the interactions that took place during game play. Further improvement of the game through play testing and iteration will allow it to be more playable and useful for its stated goals.


Tabletop exercises—scripted sessions in which participants talk through how they or the organization they represent would respond to particular events—are a common tool that formal response organizations use to develop concepts and policies. Informal responders, while they may be represented at these sessions, seldom participate at the same level or frequency and so their viewpoints may go unrecognized (Perry 2004).

During our 3-day workshop the sessions provided an opportunity for the development of understanding and cooperation between the formal and informal response communities and of organizational strategies that can improve resiliency, response, and recovery in the face of disasters. Through play testing and iteration during their time together, members of these polarized groups demystified their strengths and limitations by working together to design and create a card game usable during tabletop exercises or otherwise.

The game we developed is now playable by others and open to ongoing improvements. In fact, it has been used in training workshops conducted by offices of emergency services seeking to understand and improve the integration of volunteers and informal response organizations in their disaster response operations, and it led to insights for collaboration opportunities during the responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

This paper explains the problem, why building a game was the course of action chosen, the methods we used to create the game, and preliminary results.

Background: Formal and Informal Response Groups

Response organizations operate along a continuum from the very formal (organizationally stable, with consistent, slow-changing methods) to the very informal (organizationally dynamic, with frequently changing artifacts such as how-to guides and updates about ongoing work). In this paper we focus on the two ends of the spectrum to illustrate the most problematic disconnections in the system.

Formal Agencies

Official (formal) response agencies generally have either professional specialists or operational staff supporting response missions as well as articulated channels for accessing resources needed for response and recovery, but they create encumbered mobility of response and information (Quarantelli 1988). Formal disaster response agencies are (1) government organizations whose overall purpose or specific task is to respond (e.g., FEMA) or (2) nongovernment organizations that exist, plan, and train before the required response (e.g., the Red Cross).

The centralized, hierarchical structures for formal agencies’ operations foster vertical communication in the organization but inhibit horizontal communication, particularly with external entities: Personnel know how to talk to who they’re allowed to talk to, but that’s it. And aid is delivered in big blocks of materials to preestablished points of relief that are accessible for mass deliveries and to majority crowds (Bharosa et al. 2010; Boin and ‘t Hart 2010; LaPorte and Consolini 1991). For people to receive this aid they must leave their home and be easily mobile, located within reach of a center, and able to use the material (which is made and packaged for large-scale distribution and consumption). They must also be “legible” to the state: documented citizens without any legal issues. Because of these parameters, often the populations most at risk (e.g., marginalized people, the disabled or elderly, undocumented immigrants) are the least likely to be assisted.

Informal Groups

Emergent (informal) response groups—such as Occupy Sandy (, the “Cajun Navy,” and volunteers in Mexico City after the September 2017 earthquake (NPR 2017)—form as a direct result of the crisis itself. They organize quickly through both local and digital networks, and include members of the local population, community leaders, and grassroots and nonprofit networks already established and operating in the area. Remote groups form through similar social and professional ties, but primarily via digital channels.

Informal response entities often have or are able to quickly gather high-resolution information and data. Neighborhood needs are rapidly assessed, support and failure points are known, and local knowledge is quickly disseminated. But they may be unable to respond out of their own capacity, as local material or services are scarce and access to appropriate resources is extremely limited, if available at all. Informal groups may have a comprehensive mapping of pocket populations and their needs, but lack the professional abilities to anticipate and document resource needs, let alone deliver the necessary relief (Sobel and Leeson 2006; Whybark 2007). Large-scale recovery operations—such as -removal of debris, provision of acute medical care, and restoration of critical infrastructures—tend to be beyond their scope (Majchrzak et al. 2007).

The Need for Coordination

Given the complementary capabilities, knowledge, resources, information, and access of formal and informal response groups, the potential for increased effi-ciency, recovery, and accessibility and decreased response time, duplication of efforts, and waste is immense. Yet there are few channels for such coordination, and even less trust between formal agencies and informal groups. Lack of visibility into one another’s operations, limited understanding of logistical mechanisms, and cultural differences contribute to the lack of trust (Shklovski et al. 2008).

Faced with this challenge, it is tempting to simply encourage the two actors to behave in ways more similar to each other—the informal more predictably, and the formal with more agility (Harrald 2006; Mendonça et al. 2007). But closing the systemic gaps hinges on an understanding between the two sectors, making their operational abilities visible to each other. With understanding comes trust and a willingness to coordinate. When trust is established, dividing tasks and responsibilities becomes part of the response process as information becomes reliable and actors (and their actions) are accountable to a shared mission. Failure to collaborate impacts all crisis responders and the populations -affected by their efforts.

The disconnect between formal and informal response systems arises in part from cultural differences (-Schneider 1992; Shklovski et al. 2008; Yates and Paquette 2011). “The government” is considered untrustworthy and unreliable to grassroots-level responders, whether because of its bureaucratic structures and histories and perceived agendas or because of a cultural and operational disconnect. And because grassroots groups and their efforts are not formally -vetted, hierarchically accountable, or catalogued in a referential manner, formal institutions do not consider them trustworthy or reliable for strategic integration in their efforts.

Visibility and, where possible, transparency open up possibilities for collaboration and cooperative problem solving. Understanding how other groups operate can lead to suggestions for mutual courses of action. -Formal and informal response groups working effectively together create a more holistic response ecosystem, with fewer gaps and greater relief capacities (Bharosa et al. 2010; Majchrzak et al. 2007).

To begin the bridging process, this project brought together different types of response groups with the intent of increasing cross-visibility, codifying understanding, and developing trust to improve crisis response.

Organizational Theory, Collaboration, and Cooperation

Formal organizations share certain characteristics—some level of hierarchy, bureaucracy, and norms of internal and external communication—that can be used in organizational theory models to describe and enhance understanding of how they function. Bureaucratic political theory, epistemic community theory, and game theory each provide insights on how cooperation and collaboration[1] can develop in an often discordant emergency response ecosystem (Scott 2003).

Bureaucratic Model of Organization

Allison and Halperin (1972) provide a bureaucratic model of organizations based on three variables: who plays, what determines a player’s position, and how positions are aggregated into an outcome. The model assumes that cooperation is not the natural state of affairs. The authors describe a noncooperative bargaining process in which “organizations rarely take stands that require elaborate coordination with other players” (Allison and Halperin 1972, p. 49).

The authors argue that a player’s stand is largely determined by both the institutional goals and biases that the player represents and the player’s personal goals. The model is helpful in our context for understanding why players might take a position that does not support efforts to address a disaster. In addition to the response at hand, individuals representing a formal organization may be concerned about other things such as availability of resources for future needs, public image, hierarchical pressures not related to the response, or the security of organizational information and systems. Such concerns may draw the players’ (disaster responders’) positions further apart as they seek to increase their personal or organizational position, power, and/or resources.

On the other hand, the Allison-Halperin model allows for organizational motivations that move the positions closer together or make cooperation more valuable. These motivations might include the potential to improve the disaster response, an inability to meet certain organizational response tasks, or insufficient resources.

Epistemic Community Theory

Epistemic community theory suggests that cooperation can arise among members of various organizations even when there are significant bureaucratic barriers to it. According to Haas (1992, p. 3), “an epistemic community is a network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area.” Although Haas was writing about international politics, epistemic communities are also found in the disaster response ecosystem. Responders and emergency managers move from organization to organization, attend conferences together, and work together in training exercises and events. Strong epistemic communities help to create trust among individuals across organizations, allowing for cooperation and collaboration even without a bureaucratic mandate for them.

In an alternative model, Axelrod (1984) shows how cooperation can evolve and that an organization’s strategy in responding to the actions of other organizations can significantly impact how the cooperation progresses. In Axelrod’s model, reciprocation consistently breeds cooperation (pp. 155–158). Variations of this strategy that include some level of “forgiveness” for “defection” can be even more effective.

Game Theory

Recently there has been more focus on deliberate change in organizations seeking innovation and improved collaboration, using models and techniques that shift the focus of leaders from “directing” to “enabling” by supporting initiative and risk -taking at all levels. The resulting changes (1) have been endorsed by all types of organizations (although they are implemented more readily by organizations that are less -rigidly -hierarchical), (2) often lead to more intra- and extramural collaboration as individual efforts to collaborate are supported by leadership (Hoskisson et al. 2017), and (3) illustrate the utility of a game--theoretical model of organizational change and collaboration (Arsenyan et al. 2015).

Other changes in organizational norms—such as recognition of the usefulness of play in work (Vesa et al. 2017), the use of design thinking as a mechanism of organizational change (Brown 2009), and globally distributed teams (Jimenez et al. 2017)—can make the use of games a potentially transformational means to improve interaction between the formal and informal aspects of disaster response.

The Project

In creating and play testing the game, we focused on reducing duplication of effort between formal and informal organizations to support more effective placement of resources; on understanding how trust impacts the ability and motives of various actors; and on building visibility and trust between the different groups.

The objective of the game was to create understanding about why some actors behave the way they do and to thereby create a faster feedback loop around lack of collaboration and ineffective response. The game is meant to instill frustration as systems-level issues become apparent and players who can see each other cannot interact because of arbitrary and stale system mechanics they themselves have perpetuated. Players are encouraged to create new rules to the game, and these may affect how they comport themselves before and during response.


We undertook this project as action research because it (1) presents a problem that warrants immediate implementation of identified solutions and (2) involves members of both the formal and informal disaster response communities in the identification, design, and development stages (Creswell 1998). We began with several questions about the use of game play:

  • Can we create a game that adequately approximates the structure and dynamics of a disaster response ecosystem?
  • Does the use of such a game in an organizational setting identify common, recurring, and detrimental barriers to collaboration?
  • Does game play induce strategies of cooperative -reciprocity among participating individuals and organizations?
  • Does use of the game open up opportunities for exploration that other methods don’t?

Gioia and Chittipeddi (1991) provided the methodological foundation for this research. Their study concerned an effort of deliberate change, and the goal of our game-building project was similarly to instigate change in how formal and informal organizations interact in disaster response.

Selection of Game Development Team

To represent formal and informal perspectives, invitees for the game creation group were from local response groups (the Empowered Communities Project, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, Salvation Army Crisis Response); international NGOs (Save the Children, Oxfam, UNICEF); the private sector (Microsoft, Monkey Brains, Cisco, Airbnb); nonprofits (Meedan, Public Labs, Sarapis, Open -Referral, Benetech); and informal groups (Occupy Sandy, -anarchist responses to the refugee crisis).

Nine individuals were able to participate: three from informal response entities, two from formal response organizations, one from a nonprofit, two from cross--sector coordination groups, and one from the private sector.

Figure 1

Figure 2

3-Day Workshop for Game Design

Day 0

  • Participants established trust before the start of the planned activities through unstructured time and meals together.

Day 1

  • A “Universe of Topics” exercise captured participants’ feelings and ideas so that they each felt heard and could see how much/how little their goals overlapped.
  • Participants did a visual thinking exercise to describe how their ecosphere works.
  • Participants posited some factors for a game (e.g., players, resources, pain points; figure 1).

Day 2

  • Participants played Pandemic (a board game in which players work as a team to treat infections around the world while gathering resources for cures) to immerse in game mechanics and instigate conversation.
  • Individuals proposed their own game structures and gave each other feedback.
  • Participants explored shared factors of their proposed games to coalesce around one game model to develop further together.
  • Participants made a prototype, troubleshooting the parts that didn’t work. It was okay to be wrong.

Day 3

  • Participants visualized the game flow to identify effective aspects (figure 2).
  • Play testing revealed what parts were unclear, imperfectly designed (e.g., a player comes out ahead because of ill-conceived math rather than a well-played game), or superfluous.
  • The game was revised based on these discoveries and play tested a second time.
  • Participants documented how the game works and next steps (while it was fresh in people’s minds).


The nine participants produced and have since play tested our prototyped card game. It is called ENCAPE (Emergent Needs, Collaborative Assessment, and Plan Enactment) and has four parts:

a how-to-play guide;

  • a 98-card deck for 4 “personas” (Concerned Citizen, Ad Hoc Response Network, International NGO, and Municipal Government[2]) with 4 connection cards (for one persona to team with another and share resources), 20 special resource/action cards specific to each persona, 30 resource/action cards for any player, 10 missions, 30 updates;
  • templates to generate more cards of each type; and
  • a process for capturing and enacting feedback from play testers.[3]

The game reveals how different player types behave, how duplication of efforts and subsequent waste impact the response ecosystem, and how working together might enhance response efficiency.


While much research has been done into the workings of formal structures, and some into informal structures, very little has been done into how they overlap or what the costs and benefits of doing so might be. ENCAPE revealed two main areas for improvement in disaster response specifically through cooperation or collaboration in formal and informal efforts: deduplication of efforts and reduction of waste.

Duplication of Efforts

During every crisis there are a few predictable challenges, such as calls for help from stranded or endangered people, individuals separated from their loved ones, basic needs for resources. Although these are well-known and expected elements of a crisis, efforts to address them are often duplicated by formal and informal groups. There is some coordination among groups, but it is limited to one “side” of the spectrum or the other: formal entities share with other formal entities when allowed to, and informal groups share with other informal groups when they are visible to each other.

It is not possible to avoid all duplication of effort. Even formal groups are forced into coordination during a response, regardless of investment of resources in precrisis partnerships. The informal sector is by definition unorganized until an event occurs, with energy expended in doing what they can rather than in becoming familiar with existing resources.

Waste of Resources

Lack of coordination and collaboration can be obvious in the lack of sufficient resources in some places and an excess in others. ENCAPE focuses on three types of resources:

  • Information is necessary for understanding needs and context. Waste in this area shows up as information overload due to lack of data structures (the information becomes overwhelming and inactionable).
  • Materials are necessary for medical services and rebuilding homes, for example. They are wasted when left unallocated or unused (e.g., food rotting on runways) because of unpredictable variation in need-supply flows or complications in distribution.
  • Labor is necessary for the use of both information and materials. Ineffective volunteer and employee management results in a paralyzed workforce constantly seeking direction or permissions, unable to mobilize in a focused and timely manner. This causes a loss of trust in the organization’s ability to act intelligently or be worth showing up for.

Cautions about Findings

This paper describes the impetus and workshop that generated a game to improve understanding of opportunities and barriers in crisis response coordination and collaboration. Deep qualitative research (transcription, coding, and analysis) of the workshop and additional play testing sessions are needed. Much of the understanding of formal/informal issues comes from the authors’ direct experience working with emergency response groups.

Future Research

While some research focuses on informal organizational structures, it is nowhere near as broad or deep in the disaster response sector as research on formal organizations. Benefits from the combination of these two methods will require a deeper understanding of each, as well as of the consequences of doing so.


The research described here was funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense through the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Joint Interagency Field Experimentation and performed for Georgia Tech Research Institute by Willow Brugh. Joint Interagency Field Experiments (JIFX), week-long collaborative learning events hosted quarterly by NPS, bring together representatives from academia, technology industries, NGOs, and governments (local, state, federal, and international) to explore the application of emerging technologies to meet government needs and improve humanitarian and disaster response capabilities. One outcome of JIFX has been the development of a collaborative culture among participants. Topical working groups and design groups often run in parallel with technology experiments; the game development sessions described here were one such activity.

This paper was edited by Cameron Fletcher to be human-readable.


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[1]  For this game, “cooperation” means simply “staying out of each other’s way” and “collaboration” implies actively working to the benefit of the other.

[2]  The game still lacks the private sector lens, something we hope to remedy in further play testing.

[3]  These resources are available via links at and-informal-crisis-response/.

About the Author:Willow Brugh is the project manager at Truss Works and an affiliate at the MIT Center for Civic Media. Galit Sorokin is an independent contractor. Gerald Scott is deputy director of the Naval Postgraduate School Joint Interagency Field Experimentation.