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The politics of crisis management.

Understanding the drivers for successful disaster response across government

Australia similar to many countries in the Asia-Pacific experiences a regular cycle of natural disaster preparation, response and recovery. Over the past decade there have been a series of key events; the 2009 Victorian bushfires, 2011 Queensland floods and 2017’s Cyclone Debbie, which have firmly shone the spotlight on how governments at different levels respond to these disasters.

The public retain high expectations of government’s ability to plan, prepare and respond to disasters. Public perceptions are also not nuanced across agency or departmental lines but are rather based on success of the overall response. Beyond public perception, crises are also occurring not in a vacuum but where changes in the public sector mean that whole of government, or connected forms of working are a highly pervasive mantra. There is a unique interdependency which is created between politicians, department bureaucrats and emergency responders, given that the response to disasters requires action from all parties. Yet, the intersection between policy, politics and operational response can be tricky to navigate noting that there are different motivations, leadership structures and organisational cultures.

The politics of crisis management.

The politics of crisis management.

The Australian experience has shown that successful disaster responses cannot be delivered in isolation but are based on integration across agency and departmental boundaries noting that overall integration is as important as any single component element. Within this, it is clear that there is a shared success model “our success is your success,” where rightly or wrongly in the eyes of the public it is the collective response which is judged.

To date, there appears to have been a missing framework to understand the inputs into successful or failed responses across the political, bureaucratic and emergency response agencies. A unifying approach is particularly important in Australia’s federal system of government. Under Australia’s federal system, there is a national level government responsible for national resources such as the army and funding large scale reconstruction through the national disaster recovery arrangements. State level governments are charged with the preparation, planning and response to disasters. By its nature, this system provides fertile ground to analyse both the intersection of state and federal governments as well as across the political-operational divide. Through research which was undertaken into two large scale disasters in different states, the 2009 Victorian bushfires and 2011 Queensland floods, a number of critical factors have emerged which form the basis to explain success or failure: whole of government arrangements, the nature of crisis management, executive leadership, inter-organisational coordination, organisational culture, social capital and institutions of state. Using such an approach provides the opportunity to look at how these areas impact policy, politics and emergency responses. Let’s consider each of the abovementioned inputs in more detail to understand the implications for how to approach the management of crises:

Whole of Government; more than the sum of its parts

Although strong commitments have been expressed around whole of government working, it is often a difficult construct to operationalise across departments and agencies. The lack of incentive or motivation around connecting across agencies represents a crucial hurdle to collaborative working. Implementing whole of government across different strands of government such as: political, bureaucratic and operational agencies is complex, given that each strand brings a different world view and emphasis on collaboration. Key to enhancing chances of success is a recognition of the challenges and embedding people and strategies to act as boundary spanners between agencies.

Crisis management, preparing for the worst.

Crisis management, preparing for the worst.

Every Crisis is Unique

Every event is different with their own challenges and complexities. There is also a key difference between smaller events and the ‘once in a generation’ type which can push systems to and beyond breaking point. There is however an unexplored opportunity which is provided in a moment of crisis. Crises provide the necessary imperative and sense of urgency in which to engender connected forms of working. During a crisis, there is recognition of a store of collective goodwill where ‘turf wars’ are put aside for the greater common good. When the ‘war’ is over it is often difficult to harness that same collaboration and cooperation across agencies.

Leading from the Front

There are many debates about the kind of leadership which is needed to successfully navigate the complexity of a disaster. Although we’ve moved on from the Commander-In-Chief approach with a recognition of the importance of decentralised leadership structures, direct responses from the executive leadership are important to provide authority and mandate in the acute crisis phase. Beyond the leadership which is needed to meet internal organisational challenges there is also the need to meet public expectations about highly engaged, accountable and visible leadership ‘on the ground’ as events are unfolding.

Coordinating and Connecting the Dots

Inter-agency coordination is at the heart of understanding acclaimed and accomplished responses or failures and breakdowns. There is strong recognition of the need to have coordination mechanisms in place during ‘peace time’ that can be leveraged during a crisis. Having structures in place which facilitate consistent and informative dialogue between all parties, is seen as a pre-condition towards integration during the heat of a major event.

Crisis management, responding to the challenge.

Crisis management, responding to the challenge.

Organisational Culture, we are one but we are many

There is recognition that there needs to be closer collaboration between operational and non-operational agencies to improve integration, with strong advocacy for an emergency management doctrine. An emergency management doctrine recognises that overall system coordination is as important as the response of individual agencies. Fundamentally there is a need to acknowledge that individual agencies can maintain their own culture but also feed into a greater sense of purpose that supports crisis response.

The Ties that Keep us Together

Creating and fostering professional relationships across agency boundaries in disaster preparation provides the ability to harness a collective capacity for action based on trust during an acute crisis phase. The lived experiences of having been through previous events with a similar group means that there is an existing social capital which does not require the creation of relationships on the run, a key risk during large scale disasters. Instead existing social capital between members and agencies can be used at the time it is most needed.

The State Machinery: Institutions of State

The balance between having appropriate structures and people able to work within these confines is paramount to response capacity. Legislative frameworks around disaster management provide the tangible structure around coordination mechanisms and serve a fundamental role which cannot be ignored. Legislative frameworks do need to allow sufficient flexibility in the face of crises where emergent needs arise. This can be seen as part of an adaptive response system guided by key principles but able to adapt to the needs of the on the ground response.

The framework provided above is not intended as an exhaustive guide to structuring emergency responses, rather it is intended to highlight the considerations which can impact on the success or failure of a disaster response. Given the pressures on politicians, bureaucrats and emergency responders, it is useful to have a series of key talking points which can frame not only individual responses but the relationships between key agencies before, during and after a crisis.

For more information, email georgec@sydney.edu.au

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Dr George Carayannopoulos holds a PhD from Sydney University and is an affiliate member of the Bushfires and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. His research areas include; public policy development, crisis management and interagency coordination. George has held a number of senior positions in the research development sector and has a background in policy development, analysis and evaluation. In recent years he has presented at a number of conferences including: the 2017 Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) Conference and the 2016 International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) Conference. He has a forthcoming book Disaster Management in Australia which assesses the inputs behind ‘successful’ or ‘failed’ crisis responses and is interested in how his research can be leveraged in an applied context.

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