Extraordinary Governance Challenges: Book Review of The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure - Public Administration Review, 69(1), 159-161, 2009

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Extraordinary Governance Challenges: Book Review of "The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure" - Public Administration Review, 69(1), 159-161, 2009
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  Book Reviews 159    Arjen Boin, Paul ’t Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sunde-lius, Te Politics of Crisis Management: Public Lead-ership under Pressure (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 182 pp. ISBN: 9780521845373, $84.00 (cloth); ISBN: 9780521607339, $29.99 (paper).    A reading of the daily news reminds us that the threat of crisis is an ever-present reality for public administrators. In Te Politics of Crisis  Management,  Arjen Boin, Paul ’t Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sundelius detail the context of management and politics in which a leader operates during a crisis. Tey also give practical guidance to leaders based on their extensive research, teaching, and training in the field. With its multinational cadre of authors, this book may appeal to an international audience. Te opening chapter outlines the intellectual framework for the rest of the book and introduces the demands placed on public leadership in times of crisis. We, as citizens, expect policy makers to avert threats or minimize the damage of the crisis at hand, to lead us out of the crisis, to explain what went wrong, and to convince us it  will not happen again (1). It is in this context that policy makers must supervise the operational aspects of crisis management, communicate with stakeholders, discover  what went wrong, account for their actions, initiate ways of improvement, and reestablish a sense of normalcy (1). Crisis management, then, is shorthand for a set of inter-related and extraordinary governance challenges (2). Boin and his colleagues are quick to acknowledge the subjective nature of a construed threat, which is reflected in their definition of a crisis as “a serious threat to the basic structures or fundamental values or norms of a system, which under time pressure and highly uncertain circumstances necessitates making vital decisions” (2). Tis definition highlights the three key components of crisis: threat, uncertainty, and urgency (2). It is also broad enough to encompass a range of crises and does not necessitate actual harm done. Te normative assumption underlying the authors’ approach is that public leaders have a special responsibility to safeguard society from the adverse consequences of crisis (10). Te authors also closely adhere to the phase model of crises (incubation stage, onset, and aftermath), with slight adaptations to ac-count for the political perspective of their book (10). From this perspective, crisis leadership involves five critical tasks: sense making, decision making, meaning making, terminating, and learning (10). A chapter is devoted to each of these tasks, organized so to illus-trate the central claim that the authors hope to de-fend. Te book concludes with a chapter on lessons for prudent leadership. Accordingly, as the authors explain, this monograph is an exercise in theory build-ing and policy reflection rather than in theory testing and policy design (ix). Chapters 2 – 4 highlight a theme that runs through the book, which is the complex nature of the crisis envi-ronment and the limited ability of a leader to manage that complexity directly or forcefully. Te authors argue that crises are ubiquitous phenomena that are virtually impossible to predict with any sort of preci-sion, although it is possible to grasp the dynamics of a crisis once it becomes manifest. Te difference Timothy R. Dahlstrom Arizona State University Extraordinary Governance Challenges Timothy R. Dahlstrom is a doctoral student in the public administration program at Arizona State University. He has an interest in government leadership and leadership experience with the federal government in civilian and military capacities. Previously, he was an adjunct instructor at the University of Phoenix. E-mail: tcdahls@cox.net  160  Public Administration Review • January | February 2009 between triumph and tragedy hinges on the ability to produce and revise adequate assessments of highly unusual, ambiguous, and dynamic situations (19). Te issue tackled in chapter 4 is crisis management as political communication. Why do leaders succeed or fail in shaping the people’s understanding of a crisis and in building public support for their policies? Tis is called meaning making: communicating a persua-sive narrative that explains, among other things, what has happened, how it can be resolved, and who is to blame. Yet it is exceedingly complex and diffi cult to shape the political and societal meaning-making pro-cess. Te picture of crisis communication that emerges from this chapter is one of a delicate, negotiated order (87). Te authors also argue in chapter 3 that success-ful crisis management depends not so much on criti-cal decision making but on facilitating response implementation and coordination throughout the response network (43). Accordingly, leaders are im-portant — not as all-powerful decision makers but rather designers, facilitators, and guardians of an institutional arrangement that produces effective decision-making and coordination processes (64). It seems Robert Denhardt’s assessment, in his book In the Shadow of Organization (1981), that ambiguity  will increasingly be a hallmark of decision making, and that the involvement (rather than control) of many individuals in group decisions will be necessary, has materialized in the field of crisis management. Tis view of leadership is consistent with the effective leadership described by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (2001). Agreement by such notables should inform leadership education and research in crisis management, particularly because this view flies in the face of the classic notion of crisis leadership in  which the leader makes the critical decision at just the right time. Te unstated perspective of Boin and his colleagues, as I understand it, is largely that of a processual approach to crisis management. Te characteristics of this ap-proach focus on managerial dynamics, viewing the source of the crisis as a set of nonlinear interactions, and taking a systematic approach to explanation of the crisis. However, on important points they deviate to a factual approach. Regarding the nature of occur-rence, the authors see a crisis more as the unpredict-able surprise of the factual approach rather than as a progression in intensity with precursor signs and antecedents of the processual approach. Also, crisis management efforts in this text concentrate on reac-tion and fatalism rather than the prevention, learning, and proactivism of the processual approach. Te scant reference to crisis prevention is the Achilles’ heel of this text. It is certainly that of the factual approach and may, in practice, be that of the field as a whole. Te study of risk management usually begins with risk avoidance, mitigation, and transfer as strategies used to lessen the risks assumed by an organization. How-ever, when the risk rises to the level of crisis, this work suggests the default mode is to assume the risk and attempt to manage it. According to the authors, there seems to be little that organizations can do to avoid or avert crisis. A brief mention is made of “high-reliability” organizations, but these and organizational learning are dispensed with in short order, without much given to help us develop actionable ideas. Surely, annually recurring natural disasters and declarations of war by  jihadists would warrant emphasis on crisis prevention and learning rather than seeing them as near termi-nally constrained, as this text does. Te authors note that in some sectors institutionalized learning is well developed, but they do not detail the characteristics of such organizations or their learning processes. Tey do, however, explain that much organizational learn-ing depends on the leader’s perspective, whether reformist or conservative. Te final chapter attempts to transfer knowledge from academia to the corridors of public power (137). Te authors make clear that their recommendations do not tell policy makers what to do and decide when crises emerge. Rather, they offer suggestions and ideas about how prudent leadership in crises might be exer-cised and organized (137). Leadership in crisis re-sponse will inevitably require a two-pronged strategy: dealing with events “on the ground” and dealing with the political upheaval and instability triggered by these events (139). Neglecting one or the other is detrimental to crisis leadership. One of the diffi culties of reading this text is identify-ing who is to benefit from this book. Te text con-flates leader, policy maker, and crisis manager, using these words interchangeably. Tis may be a function of the text being an exercise in policy reflection rather than policy design. However, it creates problems for both, as the various titles do not necessarily equate  with equivalent positions or authorities. Tis confla-tion does not allow us to understand who the in-tended audience is, whether it is public servants, nonprofit managers, or aid organization executives. It does, however, allow flexible application for the needs of a variety of organizational situations, and this may be what the authors intended. Te Politics of Crisis Management is neither a high-level theory text nor a hands-on how-to book. Rather, it occupies a middle ground in reviewing some of the current research as well as identifying important prac-tical concepts in the area of crisis management. Ac-cordingly, it should speak to both theoreticians and practitioners. Teoreticians will find many points for areas of further research. Practitioners will find ideas for use in policy and management considerations. At the same time, these diverse sets of readers may be  Book Reviews 161   frustrated by what the book lacks. It does not go far into the literature of the various fields that it high-lights, and actionable information for practitioners is quite sparse. Given these features, readers might best consider this book a starting point rather than a final destination. With the addition of outside case studies and additional resources, this book could serve as a compact core text for a course on crisis management. It would also be appropriate for executive-level ad-ministrators when considering policies and systems for crisis management, or for crisis leadership development. Digesting the book is easy and lucrative, as it is dense  with information, written in clear and direct prose, and incorporates citations to other work. Te many examples used come from throughout the world and from a variety of crisis situations. Tankfully, they are neither filled with hyperbolic heroism nor posited as archetypal cases to follow. Rather, they are, as in-tended, illustrative of the concepts under discussion. In view of its offerings, Te Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure should prove a good resource for understanding the dynamics of crisis and navigating the complex field of crisis management.
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