Prof. Dr. Reto Steiner - Scholar of Public Management DEUTSCH ENGLISH

Crises as a Challenge for Public Management

The devastating tsunami in Japan in March 2011, along with the subsequent reactor accident in Fukushima and the long-term financial crisis in Europe, are the most recent examples of the vulnerability of modern societies. In such challenging situations, the media is quick to speak of a crisis that it presumes will be adequately managed by governments and administrations.

This contribution discusses two questions: (1) When can we speak of a crisis? and (2) What does successful crisis management look like, or is such a thing even possible?

While the concept of crisis, etymologically speaking, indicates a (neutral) turning point, today one speaks of a crisis primarily with an understanding of the concept that carries negative connotations. It is thus a situation in which normal activities are no longer possible. This can affect an entire society, as, for example, in the case of a tsunami, but it can also affect individual groups like managers, who, for example, are no longer able to perform public services due to a strike. This was the case when the employees of the Swiss National Railways (SBB) went on strike in Bellinzona, and the railway management and the government were fiercely attacked by the media and the public, and ultimately forced to find a solution to this crisis.

Crises can develop gradually, for example, the demographic change of an aging society in which the financing of the social support systems is no longer ensured, or they can be completely unanticipated events. Here, one speaks of a black swan as a metaphor for “rare events that have extreme impact on the business”. In particular, natural catastrophes that cannot be anticipated belong to this category.

Whether this situation is called a crisis or only an unusual event is of secondary importance. What is decisive is the perception of the event by the public and the participating players. Arguing from a constructivist viewpoint, crises may well be categorized as such using indicators; however, along with the actual facts, the behavior and expectations of the public are just as important. The determination of threshold values shows the subjectivity of the presumed objectives. Thus, for example, the air pollution in Beijing at the beginning of 2013 was higher than it had ever been since measurements began. However, while the data were characterized as extremely dangerous by various participants, the Chinese government deemed the air pollution to be only elevated.

If one attempts to manage crises, then two approaches are possible. First, one can concentrate on managing an acute crisis and attempt to manage it according to defined rules. This corresponds to the actions of an airplane pilot when the motors fail. Here, one is dealing with an instrumental procedure. When it is utilized, one sees relatively quickly if the rules are not functioning or have been inadequately practiced. It becomes critical when there are no processes in place because one has not thought about such a crisis, or about one of such magnitude.

A second approach is when the institutions, policies, and procedures are designed - apart from a concrete crisis event - in such a way that they are capable of mastering concrete crisis situations. The goal of this is not to make all crises solvable by means of organizational design, but rather only to increase the probability that crises are prevented whenever possible, or at least recognized early and then successfully managed.

Appropriate institutions can make an essential contribution to reducing the probability of or managing crises. This requires institutions having a stable character, which perform an integrating function in society by making it possible for the individual societal groups to express their opinions and which are simultaneously open to collaboration with civil society. Institutions that function on the network concept have an advantageous starting point with respect to crisis management.

With respect to policies, those required are the ones that deal with critical developments, for example, demographic or climate change, in a timely manner. At the same time, in order to minimize risks, a balance must be found between incentive-oriented political programs, which result in a self-stabilizing and desirable balance in the political arena, and mandatory planning measures regulated by requirements and rules.

The extent to which political and administrative authority should be exerted during a concrete crisis situation is controversial, since the rights (of the state) to intervene can conflict with civil rights. There is a consensus that, at a minimum, established tools and organizational structures are needed, which are created specifically for the purpose of crisis management, for example, the fire department and emergency task forces.

The key question remains: When can crisis management be considered successful? Basically, one can distinguish among three forms of success: managerial success, solution success, and political success. One speaks of managerial success when the structures and procedures assist, as planned, in solving the crisis, and when the procedures are legally authorized and supported.

A solution success exists when dangers are averted and when life and property, as well as institutions, are damaged as little as possible and order and stability are again restored.

Political success exists when the government and executive managers receive high approval from the voters, when pressure on the government is withdrawn, and when the basic policy direction is supported.

The problem with crisis management lies in the fact that frequently success cannot be measured in black-and-white terms. Thus, goals are often only partially achieved and, furthermore, a success in one area can be a failure in another. Perhaps, for example, one is successful in reducing terrorist attacks, but this is achieved at the cost of freedom. Furthermore, short-term successes are not synonymous with long-term success.

Successful management requires the consideration of both tactical and political levels. On the tactical level, it is important to correctly diagnose the problem, to mobilize the necessary personnel, technologies, and financial resources, to communicate effectively, and to avert risks. On the political level, one must make sense of the crisis and communicate its meaning to the public, make decisions, end the crisis, and learn from the mistakes that were made. In such cases, crisis management does not mean an exact return to the original state of affairs, but rather that the government and society emerge from the crisis stronger than before. Severe flooding may devastate a region – but precisely the lessons learned from such an event enables a society to build cities that may be more resistant to flooding and to create drains that can better help in meeting future challenges. This task, which is the key to good governance, must be tackled by politicians and administrators, along with civil society.