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

written by Matt Andrews

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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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.” Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 19: How do political leaders commonly structure their roles?

Public Leadership Through Crisis 18: Who are Political Leaders and What is their Role?

written by Matt Andrews

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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I have used a few blogs to discuss the need for governments to reorganize when facing crisis, adopting flat, fast and flexible structures. There are various versions of such structures but I propose a snowflake mechanism that allows one to have a central coordinating team (like a snowflake nucleus) that interact with organically emergent set of relating teams, all acting, learning and sharing with the full system.

I see this kind of mechanism operating in crisis responses like the 2014 Ebola experience in Liberia and the 2020 Covid-19 experience in Bahrain. These mechanisms allow for what Mark Moore calls the ‘decentralized mobilization of  energy’ where the entire governmental system works together to solve the crisis. Some might think this sounds like chaos, but it is the kind of mechanism needed when you face huge tasks fraught with unknowns and need rapid work and learning at scale.

A key question can be raised in designing such mechanism: “Where do political  leaders fit in?”

I will address four issues related to this question in the next set of blog posts:

  1. Who are political  leaders and what roles do they play in crises? 
  2. How do political leaders commonly structure their roles?
  3. How can political leaders structure their roles more effectively? And
  4. Is it ever appropriate to criticize political leaders during times of crisis?

In this blog I offer some thoughts on the first question and, as usual, ask questions for you to reflect on—thinking about the political leaders in your crisis situation and the roles they play.

Who are ‘political leaders’ and what roles do  they play  in crises?

There are many sets of political leaders in government. Perhaps the most obvious are the formal politicians who have been elected to run the executive operation of government (the President or Prime Minister, Governor or Mayor) and the formal politicians who have been elected to run the legislative branch of government (the Congress or Parliament or Town Council). Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 18: Who are Political Leaders and What is their Role?

Public Leadership Through crisis 17: ‘Keep an eye’ on how your crisis response impacts Public Value

written by Matt Andrews

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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This post captures the second part of my interview with Mark Moore (you can find the first part here). It asks how governments should think about public value in times of crisis—and especially about the potential public value tensions implied in choosing different courses of action in response to crises. For instance,

  • ‘Stay-at-home’ orders might promote public health (a public  value) but is this at  the expense of economic well-being (another public value)?
  • Rigorous contact tracing might promote public health (a public value) and even be key to helping countries break out of isolation and promote economic well-being (another public value) but is this at the expense of rights to privacy for  individuals (another public value)?

These tensions matter a lot, because the organized action of government always impacts on public value(s); creating and promoting some types of value and (potentially) undermining other types of value. Given that actions in times of crises are rapid and experimental, these impacts on value(s) can be particularly unexpected and unplanned. How does one manage such impacts?

As with prior blogs, I provide Mark’s video, then offer thoughts and questions for your reflection.

Mark begins answering my questions with some basic concepts from his work on public value, to help show how complicated the topic is—and how hard a challenge it is for governments to think clearly about the public value implications of their work (especially in times of crisis).

Continue reading Public Leadership Through crisis 17: ‘Keep an eye’ on how your crisis response impacts Public Value

Listen to our fourth virtual discussion on Leadership Through Crisis

On April 17th, 2020, we hosted a fourth virtual discussion with Matt Andrews, who answered audience questions on his new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series.

Here are some of the questions he answered:

  • I am curious to explore the impact of the COVID-19 on the global value chain. For sure it impacted in a way the supply chain, but what will the global value chain post covid-19 be?
  • I would like to have your thoughts about the impact on the travel industry and possible evolving requirements for global travel going forward.
  • What will the role of public investment and public infrastructure? Do you expect a Keynes’ come back?
  • If we think about the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda, how do we should change and improve a new narrative?

Thank you to ALL those who attended our third session and for engaging with us. If you missed the session, you can listen to it here. We are now holding these virtual sessions every Friday morning at 9am EST. Follow our blog to get registration information!

 

BSC’s new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in crises. Each blog offers a few ideas as well as questions for reflection, thus creating a space for learning and contextual reflection.

Public Leadership Through Crisis 16: Empowering work and learning, even if things seem chaotic

written by Matt Andrews

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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The last few blog posts have offered various lessons from practice – in Liberia’s 2014 Ebola crisis and Bahrain’s current Covid-19 crisis. I offered these lessons at this point partly because they provide excellent applied narratives on the importance of adopting fast, flat and flexible organizing structures when faced with crises. Regular readers will know that I like the ‘snowflake version’ of such structures (where many satellite teams locate themselves organically around a central coordinating  nuclear  team). I  will offer more detail on various aspects of these in-practice structures in posts to come – including how political leadership relates to the snowflake, what ‘nuclear’ teams could look like, what information flow through structures might be useful, how satellite teams can be identified, how work could be organized, etc.

In this post and the one that follows, however, I want to share the broader idea on why fast, flat and flexible structures are vital in the face of crisis, and offer thoughts on how leaders (or authorized supervisors) might see their role in such a system, and how leaders might navigate the public value concerns organizations face in crisis situations. 

To  offer these thoughts, I’d like to introduce readers (and viewers) to Mark Moore, a Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School whose work on public management is legendary. His work on Public Value has had a significant impact on public policy education and thinking across the globe. He participated in a Zoom interview with me, and I am breaking it into two parts (one in this post and the other in the next post).

This part of the post reflects on Mark’s comments about the importance of leaders mobilizing work and learning through the crisis, even if it seems chaotic. Here is the video; my thoughts follow, with (as usual) a set of questions at the end for your reflection.

 

I began this discussion by asking Mark for thoughts on how to organize in chaos (often what crises pose for us), and particularly about the challenge of getting bureaucratic leaders to let go of controls and allow flexible coordination.  Mark responded by reflecting on the difficulties encountered during crisis: resources are overwhelmed and not in the right places, gaps persist, [my addition] people face a direct threat, and lack knowledge on exactly what to do.

Given this perspective, Mark notes, “the idea that we can manage our way out of crisis using plan and control is misplaced.” Existing organizing structures—and  the controls they provide—were not created for the crisis, are over-stressed by the  crisis, and do not allow the learning you need to deal with the crisis.

Mark opines, however, that you have an unusual asset in crises: “the urgency to do tasks”. He notes that, “During crises you can’t forget about the task [as organizations sometimes do]” … “The tasks are staring you in the face all the time.”

Mark suggests that the goal of leadership in times of crisis should be to leverage this urgency and promote learning through the creative action of ‘your people’. “Can  you depend on your people to just start acting, [and] report on what they do, so that information can be recorded and you as an organization can learn?

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 16: Empowering work and learning, even if things seem chaotic

Register for our new Executive Education program: Leading Economic Growth (online)

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As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to evolve in the US and around the world, we believe now is an important time to convene policymakers and practitioners around the critical economic issues all cities, regions, and countries are facing.

leg-graphic-v2-hr-01In response, Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education is shifting its longstanding residential Leading Economic Growth program to a highly engaging 10-week online format for spring 2020. The online program will cover all of the content of the residential course. 

As participants you will learn new ways to think about your country’s growth challenges and to develop a strategy for addressing these challenges—including ideas on what you can do, how you can do it, and in what kind of structures, just as you would have on campus. The online program will be delivered over 10 weeks, and each week will include two self-paced sessions and one live session with the faculty chairs Ricardo Hausmann and Matt Andrews. The design of the online program includes important team-based opportunities for robust peer engagement throughout.

Visit the course website and register here.

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Public Leadership Through Crisis 15: The COVID-19 Crisis in Bahrain

written by Matt Andrews

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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Hamad Almalki is the Undersecretary for National Economy at Bahrain’s Ministry of Finance and National Economy. He is a graduate of the Edward S. Mason mid-career Masters in Public Administration program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

My Zoom interview captures Hamad’s reflections (as of April 3) on Bahrain’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. It is an interesting case, especially because Bahrain has –to date—managed to control the crisis better than most other countries (as evidenced in the relatively flat  curve here—the red line at the bottom of the chart, showing  the situation on April 2-3).

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It should be noted that Bahrain is an island-state in the Middle East with a population of about 1.5 to 2 million people. That makes it about the same size as Philadelphia in the United  States, or just more than twice the size of Boston. It is similar in size, or larger, than many countries (including Latvia, Estonia, Trinidad and Tobago, Timor-Leste, Cyprus, Mauritius, Malta, Iceland, and more). I make this observation because the case will be more relevant to specific places or levels of government than others (as with all cases).

This post works progressively  through different parts of the interview, such that readers (and listeners) can more easily digest thoughts emanating from the full 1.5 hours. As with all blog posts, I conclude with a set of questions for reader reflection.

PART 1. A strong, inclusive, coordinated head start

Bahrain began preparing for the Covid-19 crisis 3 weeks before they experienced the first case. They “watched China very closely” and knew it was just a matter of time before the virus came to their shores. A 24 hour War Room was operational by February 13, coordinating an inclusive, varied group of experts focused on three streams of work – medical, economic, and social. The focus on  all three streams from the start has meant that Bahrain has been able to balance concerns in all three streams at all  times. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 15: The COVID-19 Crisis in Bahrain

Public Leadership Through Crisis 14: Lessons on Crisis Communication from Liberia’s Ebola epidemic

written by Matt Andrews

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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Peter Harrington is an alumni of the Harvard Kennedy School, and a former fellow with the Building State Capability program (BSC). In 2014, Peter worked with the  Africa Governance Initiative helping Liberia’s government deal with its Ebola epidemic. He assisted in an area called ‘Social Mobilization’; an area of the organizational response focused on engaging citizens—and  fostering behavioral  change in the citizenry—through communication.

In this podcast interview, Peter describes his experience and I summarize his thoughts  therafter.

Here are some key  takeaways from the interview.

1.  Liberia’s organizational structure made a huge difference

You will hear Peter speak about the Incident Management System (the IMS) at the beginning of the podcast. This was the organization created to respond to the crisis. Peter notes that it was ‘hierarchical but also remarkably flat’ like the snowflake mechanism discussed in a prior blog post.

Peter describes the IMS as being composed of many ‘teams’. Some teams focused more on ‘hard’ aspects of the crisis response (like logistics) while others focused on ‘softer’ aspects of the response (like communications, psychosocial concerns, and others). Remember prior blog posts where we discussed the importance of having clear roles and keeping in your lane —  these teams were a way of ensuring both things happened at the same time (people knew what they were doing and did not interfere with what others did).

Peter notes that this structure was both flat and hierarchical. Each team had a leader and all the team leaders reported daily to Tolbert Nyenswah who was the ‘Tzar’ of the IMS. Member of the international community slotted into teams (so they too  played specific roles). Each and every team was led by a Liberian. Peter notes that  Tolbert Nyenswah and his close team at the center of the ‘snowflake’ was like a  ‘server’ – the connection hub where all parts of the response came together. Other teams analyzed the problems, came up with ideas, implemented, monitored, produced data, etc. The central team processed the knowledge, ensured it was shared, made decisions, followed up with decisions, and orchestrated the overall coordination. Read more about this  kind of structure in blog post 11. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 14: Lessons on Crisis Communication from Liberia’s Ebola epidemic

Public Leadership Through Crisis 13: Tolbert Nyenswah on leading through Liberia’s Ebola epidemic

written by Matt Andrews

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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Tolbert Nyenswah is a Senior Research Associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2014 he was the head of the Liberian Incident  Management  System (IMS), leading the operational aspects of the government’s response to the Ebola epidemic. Following this, he led the establishment of Liberia’s First National Public Health Institute and became its First Director General and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) 2017-2019.

This is a podcast of a conversation with Tolbert on his experience (interviewed by Peter Harrington and Matt Andrews). Brief summary thoughts follow, with questions for leaders facing crises today.

1.  This can be terrifying

Tolbert relates to the Covid-19 challenge facing many leaders, noting that he was asked to create the Incident Management System when the crisis had already begun  (not in preparation for it): “When you’re in a dire situation where people are in the streets, [you have] no best practice testing capacity … and you are setting up an incident management system at the same time … Before you really understand what the process is about, especially when information is weak …”

I  am sure may leaders feel like this in the face of crisis: unprepared and with much to do. In addition, Tolbert  notes, the country was in a politically fraught position: “The president was in a very, very uncomfortable position as a leader .. in fact political leadership were calling for the president’s resignation [arguing that] the government should step down.”

At 6:38 into the interview, Tolbert simply says, “It was terrifying.” If  you feel you are in the same boat … read on – terrifying things can be dealt with. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 13: Tolbert Nyenswah on leading through Liberia’s Ebola epidemic

Public Leadership Through Crisis 12: Course correct; it’s hard, but you must—and can—do it

written by Matt Andrews

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).

My last blog post recounted, briefly, how Liberia changed the organizational structures it used to respond to the 2014 Ebola crisis, mid-stream through the crisis.  I wanted to tell the story primarily to demonstrate how the country ultimately adopted a flat, fast, and  flexible ‘snowflake’ like structure  (in the Incident  Management  System). Studies show that other countries and organizations adopt similar structures when facing crisis, including Korea during the MERS crisis and private corporations. In upcoming blog posts I will discuss how you might think of adopting a similar structure—especially establishing your core team, thematic focal points, and thematic teams. Even as I share these ideas, please remember that there is no one-size-fits-all crisis response organizational structure; the experience suggests that you do need to adapt your organization to the realities of your crisis  situation, but the structure that works for you will be heavily contingent on your situation.

In this post, however, I want to pause and reflect on an implicit challenge embedded in the Liberian story: how do you, as a leader, course correct when you realize you’ve made mistakes in responding to the crisis? The shift in Liberia was in ‘how’ the government was working, but you could also have shifts in ‘what’ your response looks like, ‘who’ is involved, and more. How do you, as a leader, make these changes and still maintain support and confidence of your followers?

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This is a tough topic for any public leader. But it is really important. As discussed in earlier blog posts, you will make mistakes and/or realize there are things you did not know and have to adapt around. It is impossible not to make mistakes when you face the uncertainty associated with crisis, and the many questions posed by such uncertainty—What should we do? How should we do it? When? Where? With whom? For whom? For how long?  At what cost? Your mistakes will arise because decisions are based on biased and half-informed assumptions and ways of thinking common when dealing with what Michael Osterholm calls the “fog of war” (in  relating to influenza pandemics):

“The “fog of war” describes the level of ambiguity in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term captures the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability and the capability and intent of the adversary during battle. The conceptual similarities between the fog of war and the fog of pandemic preparedness are unmistakable:

  • We really don’t understand our capability … to respond.
  • We have only a very general sense of what the pandemic influenza virus is capable of doing in terms of human illness or the social, political, and economic collateral damage.
  • We can’t predict with any certainty how the next pandemic virus will behave …”

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 12: Course correct; it’s hard, but you must—and can—do it