US Helicopter Wing Reserve crewman looks down on New Orleans, 2005. Source: US Department of Defense.

How to govern for crisis

By Tom Christensen, Per Laegreid and Lise Rykkja

What makes a well-functioning governmental crisis management system? In an article just published in Public Administration Review, we argue that such a system needs dynamic interaction between governance capacity and governance legitimacy. Structural arrangements and cultural context matter, alongside the nature of the crisis. This means that both organizational arrangements and the legitimacy of government authorities will affect crisis management performance. This opens up important new territory for research by public administration scholars.

Major crises, whether they are caused by a hurricane, a tsunami or a terrorist attack, impact on and constrain public administration. Crisis management is a core government responsibility that is challenging to fulfill. What is more, major crises strike at the core of both democracy and governance and hence constitute challenges not only for capacity but also for accountability, legitimacy, representation, and citizens’ ability to get their demands effectively met. Intriguingly, government capacity for dealing with major crises is a subject that public administration scholars have yet to explore at length. The links between governance capacity and governance legitimacy have received even less attention.

In our article, we highlight the importance of building organizational capacity for crisis management by focusing on the coordination of public resources, decision-making systems, and governance tools, as well as by studying peoples’ perceptions, attitudes, and trust towards government arrangements for crisis management. Major crises may sound a “democracy alarm” and often result in a crisis for democracy as well as demands for new and refined arrangements to deal with them.

We argue that a well-functioning democracy needs an effective administrative apparatus as well as high levels of trust in government. While crises always require government capacity, this must stand in a dynamic relationship with legitimacy and trust. The match or mismatch between governance capacity and behavior on the one hand, and citizens’ expectations on the other, will affect perceptions of crisis management performance. When governmental preparedness and crisis management match the expectations of citizens, the response process works well and governmental performance is perceived as good. However, when there is a mismatch between capacity and expectations, the government response process runs into trouble and distrust prevails.

The size of the gap between organizations’ response to a crisis and citizens’ expectations determine the success or failure of governmental crisis management performance. The gap can be closed either by strengthening capacity or by reducing expectations, or by a combination of the two. More governance capacity will not necessarily lead to better crisis management performance, however. We have to ask what citizens expect the governance apparatus to be able to do, and how what it does is presented and perceived. Citizens’ view of the legitimacy and acceptability of suggested measures to handle crises, and their willingness to put preventive measures on the political agenda, are therefore core aspects of crisis management. A major issue for further exploration is then how governance capacity for crisis management affects legitimacy and governance representativeness, and how responsive the various public authorities are to citizens’ demands in this area.

A tested general theory of crisis management does not exist. Crisis research has tended to concentrate on technical and managerial issues or a strategic and political security perspective. We argue that in order to understand how government arrangements for crisis management evolve, how well they perform and what the limitations and potential of such arrangements are, we need to take into account structural and institutional elements as well. An institutional approach assumes that political context is important, asserting that crisis management plays out in specific institutional, political, and organizational contexts that influence performance in different ways. The complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity of crisis management is defined and tackled within and across organizations and ministerial areas of responsibility, and at various administrative levels with specific characteristics.

Boston marathon bombing, 2013. Source: Wikimedia.

In an organization theory-based institutional approach, a central argument is that both structural features, institutional norms/values and context matters. Also, the nature of the crisis is important. When facing transboundary and unique crises, and when urgent decisions have to be taken under uncertainty, the combination and balance of capacity and legitimacy strategies is especially important.

A main conclusion is that there is no optimal formula for harmonizing competing interests and permanent tensions, or for overcoming uncertainty and ambiguous government structures and making policy choices that everyone will accept. Flexibility and adaptation are key assets, but will be constrained by the political, administrative, and situational context. Contemporary government systems in general and crisis management systems in particular, are characterized by interdependency and diversity. A better understanding of governance capacity and governance legitimacy and the interaction between them, combining structural and cultural features with insights about citizen attitudes and trust, is complicated and context-dependent, but should be pursued in future research.

Tom Christensen is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo.

Per Lægreid is a professor in the Department of Administration and Organization Theory at the University of Bergen.

Lise H. Rykkja is a research professor at the Uni Research Rokkan Centre.

This comment is based on Christensen, Tom, Per Lægreid, and Lise H. Rykkja. “Organizing for Crisis Management: Building Governance Capacity and Legitimacy.” Public Administration Review (2016). DOI:10.1111/puar.12558.