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- Crisis and the Modern Society
- Challenges of Crisis Management
- Sense Making
- Making Critical Decisions
- Meaning Making
- Terminating a Crisis
We speak of crisis when a community of people— an organization, a town, or a nation—perceives an urgent threat to core values or life-sustaining functions, which must be urgently dealt with under conditions of deep uncertainty. Crisis management pertains to all activities addressing that threat and aimed at minimizing its consequences.
Crisis and the Modern Society
Public authorities face a variety of crises, such as natural disasters and war, financial meltdowns and terrorist attacks, epidemics and explosions, and infrastructural dramas and failures of information and communications technology (ICT). Crises are not routine events (e.g., fires or traffic accidents). Crises are inconceivable events that often take politicians, citizens, and the media by complete surprise.
Crises create tough challenges for public authorities and their organizations. Citizens expect public authorities to safeguard them from the threat, make critical decisions, and implement them— under considerable time pressure and in the absence of essential information about causes and consequences. Two factors make it increasingly hard to meet these challenges.
First, the very qualities that increase welfare and drive progress in modern societies make them vulnerable to crises. Modern society has become increasingly complex and integrated. Complexity makes it hard to fully understand emerging vulnerabilities, which, as a result, can go long unrecognized; attempts to deal with them often produce unintended consequences (fueling rather than dampening the crisis). Tight coupling between a system’s component parts and those of other systems facilitates the rapid proliferation of disturbances throughout the system. Crises may thus have their roots far away (in a geographical sense), but they can rapidly snowball through global networks, jumping from one system to another and gathering destructive potential along the way.
All this makes it very hard to recognize a crisis before its consequences materialize. When a crisis begins to unfold, policymakers often do not see anything out of the ordinary. Hidden interactions eat away at the pillars of the system, but it is only when the crisis is in full swing that policymakers can recognize it for what it is. Once a crisis has escalated into view, authorities can only try to minimize its consequences.
Second, the contested nature of crisis complicates the situation. A crisis rarely, if ever, “speaks for itself.” The definition of a situation is, as social scientists say, the outcome of a subjective process and is continuously subjected to the forces of politicization. One person’s crisis is another’s opportunity. For public authorities, this spells trouble: Many seemingly innocent events can be transformed into crises. Western citizens have grown impatient with imperfections; they have come to fear glitches, and they see more of what they fear. In this culture of fear—sometimes referred to as the “risk society”—the modern mass media play an amplifying role (Ulrick Beck, 1992).
Challenges of Crisis Management
Crisis management has two dimensions. The technical-administrative dimension pertains to the coping capacity of governmental institutions and public policies in the face of emerging threats. But there is also a political dimension: Crisis management is a deeply controversial and intensely political activity. A combination of these dimensions translates into what Arjen Boin, Paul ‘t Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sundelius have identified as the five critical challenges of crisis management: sense making, decision making, meaning making, terminating, and learning.
Crises seem to pose a straightforward challenge: Once a crisis becomes manifest, crisis managers must take measures to deal with its consequences. Reality is much more complex, however. Most crises do not materialize with a big bang. Policymakers must recognize from vague and contradictory signals that something out of the ordinary is developing. They must appraise the threat and decide what the crisis is about.
Crisis managers often find it hard to meet this challenge. The bewildering pace, ambiguity, and complexity of a crisis can easily overwhelm normal modes of situation assessment. Stress may further impair sense-making abilities. Organizational pathologies can produce additional barriers to crisis recognition.
Some categories of people are known for their ability to stay clearheaded under pressure. They have developed a mode of information processing that enables competent performance under crisis conditions. Veteran military officers, journalists, and fire and police commanders are known for this. Some organizations have developed a proactive culture of “looking for problems” in their environment. These so-called high-reliability organizations have somehow developed a capacity for thorough yet fast-paced information processing under stressful conditions. The unresolved question, as noted by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, is whether organizations can design these features into existing organizational cultures.
Making Critical Decisions
During a crisis, critical decisions must be made. Scarce resources may have to be prioritized. This is much like politics as usual, except that in crisis circumstances the disparities between demand and supply of public resources are much bigger, the situation remains unclear and volatile, and the time to think, consult, and gain acceptance for decisions is restricted. Crises confront governments and leaders with issues they do not face on a daily basis, for example, concerning the deployment of the military, the use of lethal force, or the radical restriction of civil liberties. Crisis decision making is making hard calls, which involve tough value trade-offs and major political risks.
An effective response to crisis requires coordination. After all, each decision must be implemented by a variety of organizations; effective implementation requires that these organizations work together. Getting public bureaucracies to adapt to crisis circumstances is a daunting—some say impossible—task. Most public organizations were originally designed to conduct routine business in accordance with values such as fairness, lawfulness, and efficiency. The management of crisis, however, requires flexibility, improvisation, redundancy, and the breaking of rules.
Coordination is not a self-evident feature of crisis management operations. The question of who is in charge typically arouses great passions. In disaster studies, the “battle of the Samaritans” is a well-documented phenomenon: Agencies representing different technologies of crisis management find it difficult to align their actions. Moreover, a crisis does not make the sensitivities and conflicts that governed the daily relations between authorities and others before the crisis disappear.
An effective crisis response is to a large extent the result of a naturally evolving process. It cannot be managed in a linear, step-by-step, and comprehensive fashion from a single crisis center. There are simply too many hurdles that separate a critical decision from its timely execution in the field.
In a crisis, leaders are expected to reduce uncertainty and provide an authoritative account of what is going on, why it is happening, and what needs to be done. Leaders must get others to accept their definition of the situation. If they are not successful, their decisions may not be understood or accepted.
Public leaders are not the only ones trying to frame the crisis. Their messages coincide and compete with those of other parties, who hold other positions and interests and who are likely to espouse various alternative definitions of the situation and advocate different courses of action. If other actors succeed in dominating the meaning-making process, the ability of incumbent leaders to decide and maneuver is severely constrained.
It is often difficult for authorities to provide correct information right away. They struggle with the mountains of raw data (reports, rumors, and pictures) that are quickly amassed when something extraordinary happens. Turning these data into a coherent picture of the situation is a challenge. Getting it out to the public in the form of accurate, clear, and actionable information requires a major public relations effort. This effort is often hindered by the aroused state of the audience: People whose lives are deeply affected tend to be anxious and stressed (distressed). Moreover, they do not necessarily see the government as their ally.
Terminating a Crisis
Crisis termination is twofold. It is about shifting back from emergency to routine mode. This requires some form of downsizing of crisis operations. At the strategic level, it also requires rendering an account of what has happened and gaining acceptance for it. These two aspects of crisis termination are distinct, but in practice, they are often closely intertwined. The system of governance—its rules, its organizations, and its power holders— has to be (re)stabilized; it must regain the necessary legitimacy to perform its usual functions. Leaders generally cannot bring this about by unilateral decree, even if they possess the formal mandate to terminate crises in a legal sense. Formal termination gestures can follow but never lead the mood of a community. Premature closure may even backfire: Allegations of underestimation and cover-up are quick to emerge in an opinion climate that is still on edge.
Accountability debates can easily degenerate into blame games. Crisis leaders can be competent and conscientious, but that alone says little about how their performance will be evaluated when the crisis is over. Policymakers and agencies that failed to perform their duties prior to or during the critical stages may manage the crisis aftermath well, thus preventing losses to their reputation, autonomy, and resources. Crises have winners and losers. The political (and legal) dynamics of the accountability process determines which crisis actors end up where.
A crisis offers a reservoir of potential lessons for contingency planning and training for future crises. One would expect all those involved to study these lessons and feed them back into organizational practices, policies, and laws. This does not always happen, however. Lesson drawing is one of the most underdeveloped aspects of crisis management. In addition to cognitive and institutional barriers to learning, lesson drawing is constrained by the role of these lessons in determining the impact that crises have on a society.
The depiction of a crisis as a product of prevention and foresight failures would force people to rethink the assumptions on which preexisting policies and rule systems rested. Other stakeholders might seize on the lessons to advocate measures and policy reforms that incumbent leaders reject. Leaders thus have a large stake in steering the lesson-drawing process in the political and bureaucratic arenas.
- Boin, R. A., ‘t Hart, P., Stern, E., & Sundelius, B. (2005). The politics of crisis management: Public leadership under pressure. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Janis, I. L. (1989). Crucial decisions: Leadership in policymaking and crisis management. New York: Free Press.
- Perrow, C. (1999). Normal accidents: Living with high-risk technologies (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Turner, B. A. (1978). Man-made disasters. London: Wykeham.
- Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2002). Managing the unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of complexity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.