by Noor Mohamed.
Crises come in many shapes and forms. Conflicts, man-made accidents, and natural disasters chronically shatter the peace and order of societies. The new century has brought an upsurge of international terrorism, but also a creeping awareness of new types of contingencies – breakdowns in information, and communication systems, emerging natural threats, economic disaster and bio-nuclear terrorism – that lurk beyond the horizon. At the same time, age-old threats (floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis) continue to expose the vulnerabilities of modern society. In times of crisis, citizens look at their leaders: presidents, prime ministers and mayors, local politicians and elected administrators, public managers and top civil servants. We expect these policy makers to avert the threat or at least minimize the damage of the crisis at hand. They should lead us out of the crisis; they must explain what went wrong and convince us that it will not happen again.
Five leadership tasks
1. Sense making
The acute crisis phase seems to pose a straightforward challenge: once a crisis becomes manifest, public leadership must take measures to deal with the consequences. Reality is much more complex, however. Most crises do not materialize with a big bang; they are the product of escalation. Policy makers must recognize from vague, ambivalent, and contradictory signals that something out of the ordinary is developing. The critical nature of these developments is not self-evident; policy makers have to “make sense” of them. Leaders must appraise the threat and decide what the crisis is about. However penetrating the events that trigger a crisis – jet planes hitting skyscrapers, thousands of people found dead in mass graves – a uniform picture of the events rarely emerges: do they constitute a tragedy, an outrage, perhaps a punishment, or, inconceivably, a blessing in disguise? Leaders will have to determine how threatening the events are, to what or whom, what their operational and strategic parameters are, and how the situation will develop in the period to come. Signals come from all kinds of sources: some loud, some soft, some accurate, some widely off the mark. But how to tell which is which? How to distil cogent signals from the noise of crisis?
2. Decision making
Crises leave governments and public agencies with pressing issues to be addressed. These can be of many kinds. The needs and problems triggered by the onset of crisis may be so great that the scarce resources available will 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 highly restricted. Crises force governments and leaders to confront 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. The classic example of crisis decision making was the Cuba Missile Crisis (1963), during which United States President John F. Kennedy was presented with pictures of Soviet missile installations under construction in Cuba. The photos conveyed a geostrategic reality in the making that Kennedy considered unacceptable, and it was up to him to decide what to do about it. Whatever his choice from the options presented to him by his advisers – an air strike, an invasion of Cuba, a naval blockade – and however hard it was to predict the exact consequences, one thing seemed certain: the final decision would have a momentous impact on Soviet-American relations and possibly on world peace. Crisis decision making is making hard calls, which involve tough value trade-offs and major political risks. An effective response also requires interagency and intergovernmental coordination. After all, each decision must be implemented by a set of organizations; only when these organizations work together is there a chance that effective implementation will happen. Getting public bureaucracies to adapt to crisis circumstances is a daunting – some say impossible – task in itself. Most public organizations have been designed to conduct routine business that answers to values such as fairness, lawfulness, and efficiency. The management of crisis, however, requires flexibility, improvisation, redundancy, and the breaking of rules. Effective crisis responses also require coordination of the many different groups or agencies involved in the implementation of crisis decisions; these organizations are all under pressure to adapt rapidly and effectively. Coordination is pivotal to prevent miscommunication, unnecessary overlap, and conflicts between agencies and actors involved in crisis operations. 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 coping find it difficult to align their actions. Moreover, a crisis does not make the public suddenly “forget” the sensitivities and conflicts that governed the daily relations between authorities and others in fairly recent times.
3. Meaning making
A crisis generates a strong demand from citizens to know what is going on and to ascertain what they can do to protect their interests. Authorities often cannot provide correct information right away. They struggle with the mountains of raw data (reports, rumours, pictures) that quickly amass when something extraordinary happens. Turning them into a coherent picture of the situation is a major challenge by itself. Getting it out to the public in the form of accurate, clear, and actionable information requires a major communication effort. This effort is often hindered by the aroused state of the audience: people whose lives are deeply affected are anxious if not stressed. Moreover, they do not necessarily see the government as their ally. And pre-existing distrust of government does not evaporate in times of crisis. 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. When they have made sense of the events and have arrived at some sort of situational appraisal and made strategic policy choices, leaders must get others to accept their definition of the situation. They must impute “meaning” to the unfolding crisis in such a way that their efforts to manage it are enhanced. If they don’t, or if they do not succeed at it, their decisions will not be understood or respected. If other actors in the crisis succeed in dominating the meaning-making process, the ability of incumbent leaders to decide and manoeuvre is severely constrained. To this end, leaders are challenged to present a compelling story that describes what the crisis is about: what is at stake, what are its causes, what can be done. Whatever one might think about his subsequent policies, there is no disputing that President George W. Bush was effective in framing the meaning of the September 11 attacks to the American public and to the world. This appears all the more true when we compare Bush with his Spanish counterpart Jose ´ Marı ´a Aznar who, after the March 2004 attack in Madrid, hastily tried to pin it down as yet another ETA atrocity. He failed miserably – a few days after the attack an outraged electorate voted his party out of power. Leaders are not the only ones trying to frame the crisis. News organizations use many different sources and angles in their frenetic attempts at fact-finding and interpretation. Among this cacophony of voices and sentiments, leaders seek to achieve and maintain some degree of control over the images of the crisis that circulate in the public domain. Their messages coincide and compete with those of other parties, who hold other positions and interests, who are likely to espouse various alternative definitions of the situation and advocate different courses of action. Censoring them is hardly a viable option in a democracy.
Governments – at least democratic ones – cannot afford to stay in crisis mode for ever. A sense of normalcy will have to return sooner or later. It is a critical leadership task to make sure that this happens in a timely and expedient fashion. Crisis termination is two-fold. It is about shifting back from emergency to routine. This requires some form of downsizing of crisis operations. At the strategic level, it also requires rendering account for what has happened and gaining acceptance for this account. These two aspects of crisis termination are distinct, but in practice often closely intertwined. The system of governance – its rules, its organizations, its power-holders – has to be (re)stabilized; it must regain the necessary legitimacy to perform its usual functions. Leaders cannot bring this about by unilateral decree, even if they may possess the formal mandate to initiate and terminate crises in a legal sense (by declaring a state of disaster or by evoking martial law). 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. Political accountability is a key institutional practice in the crisis termination game. The burden of proof in accountability discussions lies with leaders: they must establish beyond doubt that they cannot be held responsible for the occurrence or escalation of a crisis. These accountability debates can easily degenerate into “blame games” with a focus on identifying and punishing “culprits” rather than discursive reflection about the full range of causes and consequences. The challenge for leaders is to cope with the politics of crisis accountability without resorting to undignified and potentially self-defeating defensive tactics of blame avoidance that serve only to prolong the crisis by transforming it into a political confrontation at knife’s edge.
A final strategic leadership task in crisis management is political and organizational lesson drawing. The crisis experience offers a reservoir of potential lessons for contingency planning and training for future crises. We would expect all those involved to study these lessons and feed them back into organizational practices, policies, and laws. Again, reality is a bit messier. In fact, it turns out that 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. Crises become part of collective memory, a source of historical analogies for future leaders. The political depiction of crisis as a product of prevention and foresight failures would force people to rethink the assumptions on which pre-existing policies and rule systems rested. Other stakeholders in the game of crisis-induced lesson-drawing might seize upon the lessons to advocate measures and policy reforms that incumbent leaders reject. Leaders thus have a big stake in steering the lesson-drawing process in the political and bureaucratic arenas. The crucial challenge here is to achieve a dominant influence on the feedback stream that crises generate into pre-existing policy networks and public organizations. The documentation of these inhibiting complexities has done nothing to dispel the near-utopian belief in crisis opportunities that is found not only in academic literature but also in popular wisdom. A crisis is seen as a good time to clean up and start anew. Crises then represent discontinuities that must be seized upon – a true test of leadership, the experts claim. So most people are not surprised to see sweeping reforms in the wake of crisis: that will never happen again! They intuitively distrust leaders who claim bad luck and point out that their organizations and policies have a great track record.