'Every authority could use a crisis now and then'

'Every authority could use a crisis now and then'

Sometimes, leaders first need to identify an undesirable situation in order to use a crisis to their advantage.

Those were the words of a seasoned administrator and chief of one of the most criticized public agencies in our country. Organizations and the policy they administer or develop can all of a sudden find themselves in the eye of a storm. Think of the Dutch Criminal Investigation Team (IRT) during the IRT-affair, the Dutch competition authority NMa when the construction fraud inquiry was held, or the more recent affair around failing oversight by the Dutch Healthcare Authority. For long, these organizations enjoyed operating in calmer waters and suddenly a storm of criticism erupts and everything they do seems debatable.

The quote above already indicates that such a legitimacy crisis does not need to have disastrous consequences for an organization. Turbulence can have a purifying effect. Such a crisis forces authorities to reconsider the core tasks and essential support base of their organization. Political attention, societal pressure and media spotlights can help to break down barriers to reform and renewal. Astute leaders will exploit a crisis to set a new agenda, reach their goals by new means or turn their organization back to basics and get rid of unwanted fringes.

Only when a crisis evolved around a series of spectacular prison escapes, Parliament gave in to grant a long desired extra secure prison (the so-called supermax) to the Dutch prison sector. The BSE-crisis induced an important tightening of EU oversight on food safety and the creation of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The Minister of Housing ordered the Dutch public housing corporations to focus on their core business (provide affordable housing to people), after years of failed private investments and exploitations. A crisis to some (hand in the Maserati!) means an opportunity to others (reigning in a sector or an agency, preventing future excesses). To the organizations involved crisis can mean catharsis.

The crisis confronts policy makers and leaders with a strategic task: meaning making. The new book by Arjen Boin et al, The Politics of Crisis Management (completely revised edition, forthcoming) presents this as possibly the most important leadership challenge in crises. Meaning making connects all other leadership tasks in crisis: sense making of the situation at hand, crisis communication, decision making on the way forward, learning from previous mistakes. Through meaning making, leaders connect an undesirable situation to a desired future. Sometimes, leaders themselves first need to identify the undesirable situation in order to use a crisis to their advantage. Every authority should have the capacity to recognize a good crisis in time. Reading The Politics of Crisis Management will most certainly help them to do so.

The Leiden University Crisis Research Center organizes a workshop on The Politics of Crisis Management, including a discussion with the authors and critical reflections by practitioners, at the ISGA Opening Conference on November 10, 2016. Register now!