Public Leadership Through Crisis 19: How do political leaders commonly structure their roles?

6 mins read

written by Matt Andrews

This is the second of four blogs addressing questions about political engagement in crisis response organization. The questions are: Who are political  leaders and what roles do they play in crises?  How do political leaders commonly structure their roles? How can political leaders structure their roles more effectively? I will offer some thoughts on the second of these questions here and, as usual, ask questions for you to reflect on.

How do political leaders commonly structure their roles in crisis?

Let’s start with recognizing that political leaders differ in a myriad of ways, and  political  leaders organize themselves quite differently in response to crises as well (as shown in studies like this one from Christensen et al). Different structures often  reflect different personalities, political cultures, available tools, and more.

Even with the differences, some fairly commonly observed ways politicians respond to crises. One of these ‘common responses’ pertains to how they organize their response: Many politicians centralize and try to move towards a command and control deciding and operating mode.

This is the core observation of Paul ‘t Hart, Uriel Rosenthal and Alexander Kouzmin in their 1993 classic: “One of the more enduring ideas about governmental response to crisis is the expectation that government decision making becomes highly centralized.”

In discussing “Crisis Decision Making” Hart, Rosenthal and Kouzmin detail different  models of centralization in the face of crisis. It is very worthwhile reading. I have seen three models personally, shown simply below (apologies for the rough picture):

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 4.28.20 PM

  1. A political leader (the red person in “a” above) believes they can simply command and control their usual organization (the blue hierarchy), and do so on  their own, being  the only decider and expecting operational staff to follow their orders to a tee.
  2. A political leader gathers their most trusted ‘political insiders’ into very focused decision-making structure (a limited Political Task Force or Political Crisis Committee, perhaps, shown in the red circle in “b” above), which gives orders to the operational staff  in the blue hierarchy.
  3. A political leader brings their most trusted ‘political  insiders’ into the top portion of the organizational hierarchy (incorporating some administrative experts in this group as well, as shown in the top triangle), and this mechanism (perhaps a Political and Administrative Task  Force) instructs the rest of the hierarchy in blue to act.

These structures all limit participation and variation in political decision-making. I thus often refer to them as ‘circling the wagons’ command and control models (where leaders gather their closest confidantes together to defend against the crisis threat, limiting the voice of those who think differently and might slow or get  in the way of the decision-making process).

These structures also link strategic political decisions to operations very tightly, often through ‘one-way’ delegation controls. Administrative or bureaucratic staff in the hierarchy often receive orders directly from the political leader, or through a tightly controlled cascading mechanism (where orders pass rigidly through layers of the hierarchy to ensure faithful execution according to the political intention). There is no room for departure in this kind of command and control approach, and (often) limited feedback up the hierarchy (from operational staff to political decision makers).

Politicians often opt for these kinds of structures to try and speed up their crisis response (thinking that it is  best to focus responsibility for the crisis and  streamline and expedite decisions and the process of ensuring commands are followed).

These politicians are correct in certain instances, as these structures can work—but  only under specific conditions, including the following:

  • First, the crisis must pose a threat that the political decision-maker and their close allies fully understand and do not need to learn about – such that  they know exactly what needs to be done and the key is to lock-in compliance to commands. (This does not promote learning, however, in that learning would require—amongst other things—engaging more voices in decision making, fostering more experimentation in operations, and ensuring information flows up and down and side to side in the organization).
  • Second, the political leader must be sure that they enjoy the trust and following of all societal groups affected by the crisis – such that they can guarantee compliance with orders by citizens, businesses, etc. affected (those who are likely to incur losses, or face behavioral adaptation demands) (given  that it would be very  difficult to mobilize trust and  following of other groups without including voices from those groups in the process).
  • Third, the political leaders must have complete confidence that they have de jure and de facto authority over all the organizational capabilities they need in the crisis response (so that they can order these capabilities to do what is needed to address the crisis) (given that they will not be able to order capabilities that are under the de jure  or de  facto control of political leaders they have excluded from the command and control process).

These ‘centralization-conducive’ conditions are usually met in regard to activities that organizations have done for long periods, where the focus of work is on  ensuring reliability through compliance, efficiency through syndication, and perenity through detachment (see Ventrappen and Wirtz on When to Decentralize Decision-Making, and When Not To).

The problem is that these conditions are only met in highly specific crisis situations—where the type of crisis has been seen (with quite a lot of specific overlap) before, and where the organizations needed for response are known and can  be corralled by the political leader, and where all citizens affected can be  directly and effectively influenced by the political leader. Some examples might be  localized weather emergencies (like a tornado) or food safety failures that lead to  localized crises (affecting specific production plants or locations).

In most crises, the conditions are not conducive to centralized ‘circling the wagon’ deciding and operating models. Consider a few reasons:

  • Crises are typically fraught with unknowns that can only be resolved with reference to multiple views and perspectives in an active learning process. But ‘circle the wagon’ command and control processes do not allow diversity of thought in the decision-making process, or experimentation and learning in operations. Consider Karl Weick’s views on the matter, in the seminal article “Enacted Sensemaking in Crisis Situations” (1988, 312): “The danger in centralization and contraction of authority is that there may be a reduction in the level of competence directed at the problem…. [because the] person in authority is not necessarily the most competent person to deal with a crisis, so a contraction of authority leads either to less action or more confusion.”
  • Crises often require that many  citizens and businesses adapt behavior, and  these different agents often have different political affiliations and listen to different political voices (and other social influences). If  political  leaders in power at any given time decide to exclude specific voices from the decision-making  process they run the risk of alienating the followers of those voices. Getting these followers to adhere to crisis-induced change then proves hard.
  • Crises require the mobilization of capabilities in many parts  of government and society,  which single leaders can seldom authorize on their own. Remember my  note earlier on the many political leaders that exist—at national, regional and local level, in religious and media settings, in the executive and legislature, etc. One single leader cannot mobilize organizational or social capabilities across an entire system as the centralized structure requires. Consider Arjen Boin and  Paul t’ Hart (1993, 550) on the topic, in “Public Leadership in Times of Crisis”: “Crisis-response efforts depend on many people in several networks. At the political-strategic level, efforts to radically centralize decision-making authority tend to cause more friction than they resolve because they disturb well-established authority patterns.” They go on  to  say that, “In most democracies, governance takes place in shared power settings: Political leaders and institutions share power among each other, central government shares power with supranational and subnational governments, and the state shares power with societal groups and private corporations. Unless there is an overwhelming need for drastic measures (during war, for instance), actors in the crisis-response network whose policy-making roles are abruptly diminished by the ad hoc centralization of authority will, to say the least, not be motivated to contribute their resources and comply with centrally issued policy directives.”

An additional concern about political centralization relates to a prior blog post on  the importance of ‘keeping an eye’ on the way your crisis response impacts many different kinds of public value. It is highly likely that various important  values will be under-represented if political leaders close access to their decision-making and operational processes through a centralized command and control process. This could easily result in crisis response actions having particularly adverse effects on some values (especially damaging public value in under-represented groups). This could have significant long-term impacts.

Some questions for you to reflect on:

  • Have your political leaders ‘centralized’ decision/operating structures in the current crisis?
    • What have been the positive results of this?
    • What have been the negative results of this?
  • I argue here that centralized political decision making—and control over operations—works in only some crisis situations ((i) where the  crisis is known to the political leader, (ii) where the political leader can  directly gain needed compliance from all citizens etc. affected, and (iii) the political  leader has direct authority over all entities needing to  respond). What do you think of  this argument?
    • Do you think these conditions are met in your current crisis?
  • In your current situation, are you at all  concerned that some ‘public values’ could be under-represented in the decision/operating activities are too centralized?
    • What ‘values are you particularly concerned about being excluded?

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).


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