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Bellavita, Christopher. Review ofThe Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure. Homeland Security Affairs 18, Article 12. hsaj.org/Articles21490

I opened an e-mail from a friend who led a large urban homeland security agency. “This is the best thing I’ve ever read about crisis leadership,” said the friend who is not prone to hyperbole. “You have got to read this book.”

The book was The Politics of Crisis Management (which I will often refer to as Politics). I agree with him and his recommendation. Politics is now in its second edition, indicating the book is valuable to more than just me and my friend.

Learning To Be A Crisis Leader

The United States Coast Guard Deepwater Horizon after-action report notes that being a good leader does not automatically qualify someone as an effective crisis leader.[1]

Many Government Agencies and private corporations’ grow’ leaders from within. They also often bring in proven leaders from outside to provide new leadership and direction for the organization; however, the skills of organization and the ability to manage and lead are only baseline competencies when a crisis arises. The outcome of a crisis or the success of a response to the crisis is directly related to effective crisis leadership. Some leaders are naturally suited for such a role, but often are not the ones who find themselves confronting a crisis or are not the ones placed in the position of leadership when the crisis occurs…. The review of the response to the Deepwater Horizon incident found that very few leaders at any level had [the characteristics of a crisis leader]. Many had some but most did not have the training or experience necessary to develop these characteristics. Some should not have occupied crisis leadership positions.[2]

Experience may be an effective way to learn how to be a crisis leader. However, it is rare for someone to go through more than one or two major crises in their career. Boin, ’t Hart, Stern, and Sundelius believe personal experience is insufficient.

Direct personal experiences with crises are valuable, but scarce and inherently ambivalent diagnostic resources. It is naturally tempting for people to overgeneralize from the experience of one or two vividly remembered personal experiences to the neglect of the wider experience base. For this reason alone, personal experiences of crisis can and should be complimented by knowledge of the experiences of others.[3]

Politics is about the experiences of others. The book contains lessons from crisis leaders and from scholars who have studied major crises in North and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and Africa.[4] It is a resource for people who want to prepare to lead during a crisis.

About the Book

The Politics of Crisis Management is premised on the assertion that “governance has increasingly become a matter of crisis management.”[5] The book’s primary intent is to identify what “public leadership at the strategic level can do to minimize the consequences of—and make the most of the opportunities associated with — crisis.”[6] 

The authors take the reader on a journey through “the strategic, political dimensions of crisis leadership: issues of conflict, power, and legitimacy…, [and focus]… on leadership … [of] the overall direction of crisis response and political processes surrounding those responses.”[7]

The book is written for scholars and practitioners. It is not a how-to book, nor does it offer the faux comfort of a ten-step effective crisis leadership program. Politics points a way toward discovering one’s own solutions. 

The authors note that no two crises are the same. The world they write about is not the realm of order, stability, or predictability. The book assumes the public leader’s domain is complex, uncertain, and subject to the “ubiquity of surprise.”[8] Politics contributes to the literature that acknowledges the complexity of contemporary crises and the implications of that complexity for leadership.

The book is a well-structured discussion of the challenges and opportunities crises create. It is short (173 pages), meaning it actually may be read. It is academically solid, as evidenced by its 25-page bibliography. The writing is unfailingly intelligent and clear. It is difficult to know who the primary author was for which section. The book speaks with a single voice. That is challenging to accomplish in any book with multiple authors, let alone done as well as in Politics.

Boin, ’t Hart, Stern, and Sundelius[9] provide readers with a framework to guide leaders through the dynamics of significant crises.[10] Their supporting evidence is drawn from “several decades of crisis research, direct observation of crisis managers in action,… and ongoing dialogue with experienced and reflective practitioners.”[11] Politics is a thoughtful and extended discussion about what it means to be strategically competent and politically savvy during a crisis.

The Politics of Crisis Management is descriptive, interpretive, and prescriptive. It describes what is known about crises from research and experience. It offers a convincing interpretation of selected crisis literature and demonstrates how that understanding applies to approximately three dozen crises. The book ends with a synthesis of lessons practitioners can consider when faced with their own crises.

The heart of the book is a five-element model for understanding the strategic and political demands crisis leaders face. Strategic in this sense means figuring out what to do from a big picture perspective. Politics means the interplay of power as allies and opponents use crises to advantage themselves and their interests while avoiding blame.

The five elements are:

  1. Sense making. This is about making sense of a situation, gathering and processing information to figure out what is going on, sometimes before an event becomes recognized as a crisis.
  2. Decision making. Complex crises rarely have one person in charge of everything. This second element is about determining who must do what to react to the crisis and coordinate the response.
  3. Meaning making. This phase is about authoring and communicating a “convincing, helpful, and inspiring” story about the situation, what it means, and what is being done to mitigate the crisis.[12] Significant crises can have multiple narratives. Crisis leaders need to be adept at creating the dominant story.
  4. Accounting. When does a crisis end? Answering this question is more complicated than it might appear. The blame game rarely waits until a crisis is over. Within the circulating storm of finger pointing and calls for accountability, crisis leaders must explain “what was done to prevent and manage the crisis.”[13]
  5. Learning. The final phase is transforming experiences into knowledge and developing reforms to prevent or mitigate future crises. It will not surprise anyone that the authors are pessimistic about the ease with which lessons learned from a crisis are incorporated into new practices.

About Crises

Hegel wrote that “History is not the soil in which happiness grows.”[14] Much of homeland security’s brief history is marked by the sadness engendered in crises: the 2001 terrorist attacks, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Deepwater Horizon, Boston Marathon bombing, Oso landslide, earthquakes, pandemics, civil unrest, super tornadoes, wildland fires, more hurricanes, critical infrastructure failures, and too many school and other mass shootings to count.[15] 

 “[Crises] are our new reality,” write Lagadec and Topper in their prescient How Crises Model the Modern World article. “Black swans have become the norm.”[16] One is tempted to claim that homeland security, as an enterprise, is colored by an almost continuous series of overlapping crises. However, such a claim requires a working definition of crisis.

Academic disciplines contributing to crisis management have produced “definitions, frameworks, and sometimes practical tools….” with limited and sometimes counter-productive impact.[17] According to Lagadec and Topper, the voluminous crisis literature has led to

[Many] definitions that overlap and sometimes diverge….  By essence, crisis is a very complex and elusive phenomenon. The very notion of crisis is structurally resistant to clear-cut definition and capture. Hence, crisis management theory cannot be so easily ensnared in usual frameworks. And crisis management cannot be a series of fixed, easy to teach and apply “best practices.”[18]

Politics supports a similar view. The book’s initial chapter demarcates the authors’ positions about crisis origins, definitions, typologies, and related questions of interest to people who follow crisis literature. I found the chapter to be a valuable overview of the crisis management field. Some of it reminded me of the two-decade continuing conversation about “what is homeland security.” But most of the chapter was a necessary statement of the assumptions underpinning the authors’ approach to crises.

Boin, ’t Hart, Stern, and Sundelius’ definition of crisis spotlights three elements: threat, urgency, and uncertainty:

“[Crises]… are critical junctures in the lives of systems—times at which their ability to function can no longer be taken for granted…. In our definition of crisis, a social system — a community, an organization, a policy sector, a country, or an entire region — experiences an urgent threat to its basic structure or fundamental values, which harbors many ‘unknowns’ and appears to require a far-reaching response.”[19]

The authors focus on “significant crises.” They also recognize that “crises are in the eye of the beholder.”[20] The perception of a crisis is shaped by “people’s frames of reference, experience, memory, values, and interests….”[21] The subjective sense of crisis results from “the intricate interactions between events, individual perceptions and fears, media representations, political reactions, and… government efforts at meaning making.”[22]

I like this subjectivist construction because it allows one to depart from the authors’ disciplined and contained emphasis on “significant crises” and expand the use of their framework to a broader variety of crises.

What the Book Contributes to Homeland Security

There are four reasons why I consider Politics to be an exemplar for homeland security research.

  1. The book addresses a topic that is an uncontroversial addition to the still-evolving list of the homeland security problem set.
  2. The book demonstrates how research can promote effective homeland security practices. It illustrates how one can learn by reflecting on existing research and experience to construct one’s own conceptual, even theoretical perspective about what to do next.[23]
  3. The book models what a useful homeland security textbook looks like.
  4. The book demonstrates how knowledge from “external” disciplines contributes to an expanded understanding of an issue essential to homeland security practitioners.

Crisis Leadership is Within Homeland Security’s Problem Set

An academic field of study can be characterized by: 1) the domain it studies and the problems within that domain; 2) the research methods it uses to understand and address those problems; and 3) the results derived from applying methods to problems, as evidenced by research or practices.[24]

The effort to frame what is and is not a homeland security issue has persisted for two decades. Whether the field has progressed with that quest depends on one’s perceptions, the textbooks one uses, the agency one works in, and the thought community one inhabits. I do not believe the academic part of homeland security has yet cohered around a problem set. Other people concerned with this question disagree.[25]

Problems and issues studied under a homeland security academic umbrella morph as a consequence of the changing political, economic, and social dynamics of the American experience. A homeland security “problem” can be what the Department of Homeland Security says it is, what research is funded, or what gets attention in the media. The problem set can and has changed when presidential administrations change or new focusing events happen.[26]

Many of today’s primary security issues— climate, cyber, elections, human trafficking, gun violence, pandemics, and violent domestic extremism—have little in common with the international terror and disaster focus of 20 years ago. Artificial intelligence, biological technology, cryptocurrency, social cohesion, and other dilemmas wait on the sidelines for their focusing event. 

Politics addresses a topic I believe is a central, uncontroversial, and timeless problem within Homeland Security: crisis. Whether it is children at the border, pandemics, civil disturbance, wildland fires, floods, or cyber intrusions, how to lead during a crisis is a strong candidate for inclusion into the Homeland Security problem set. 

Politics is an Exemplar of Homeland Security Research

Besides coherence around problems, homeland security scholarship can benefit from agreement about the methods used to address those problems and credible examples illustrating how the methods contribute to the field’s theoretical and practical knowledge.[27] Politics illustrates how research can be done about a core element of the Homeland Security problem set.

The primary methods in Politics are literature reviews and case study analysis. The authors survey the crisis literature to identify what is known and unknown about crisis leadership. They use that information to create and illustrate a framework for understanding a leader’s strategic and political tasks during a crisis.

Most chapters begin with what the authors term a “key question” followed by a “core claim” regarding the question. For example, from the Sense Making chapter

“In this chapter – and this is our key question – we ask what factors affect the effectiveness of sense making before and during crises…. In this chapter – and this is our first core claim – we argue that many types of impending crises are very difficult to recognize in advance.”[28] [emphasis in the original]

The rest of the chapter summarizes the research and case study interpretations to support the key claim, its corollaries, and the fuzzy edges of knowledge that touch those claims.

All seven chapters provide an inquisitive reader with more questions than answers. In that respect, the book offers a feast of hypotheses for future research. For practitioners, Politics identifies habits of mind and practice that can be used to prepare for and function effectively during a crisis.

Politics Models What an Effective Homeland Security Textbook Could Be

Some textbooks are based on a fill-the-bucket approach to learning homeland security. The dominant assumption of many of these texts is something like, “Here is what you need to know about homeland security. Learn it. There will be a test.”

The Politics of Crisis Management takes a modest approach. It does not try to capture the myriad issues, institutions, laws, conflicts, or ideas that describe homeland security. Instead, the book presents a subset of research and analysis helpful to people who want to understand how to be more effective in their part of the homeland security environment.

The book shows how research can be used to promote effective practice. It illustrates how one can learn by reflecting on research and experience to construct one’s own conceptual, even theoretical perspective about what to do next.

Knowledge from External Disciplines Contributes to a Deeper Understanding of A Fundamental Issue for Practitioners

Homeland security can be understood as a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, and probably other compound words that end with “disciplinary” academic field.[29] I understand that to mean homeland security practitioners and scholars are comfortable taking ideas from anywhere if the ideas will advance understanding and effectiveness.

Here are some of the theoretical and disciplinary ideas Boin, ’t Hart, Stern, and Sundelius draw on for their book: organization theory and behavior, public policy processes, history, psychological and cognitive theories, political science, leadership theories, group theories, communication theories, narrative theory, complexity theory, public administration, economics, media studies, and decision theory.[30]

The willingness to draw from multiple ideas and apply them to contemporary problems is one of the hallmarks of homeland security as a transdisciplinary academic and practitioner endeavor.[31]

A Wider Use of the Crisis Framework

The authors emphasize that their work presents what they learned from their studies of major crises with significant political dimensions. I believe—as a hypothesis—that their crisis framework can be used more broadly than the authors intend.

Lagadec and Topper assert that “in the past decades, crises have been multiplying exponentially, and [people’s] power over them is looking increasingly fragile.”[32] “Black Swans,” they write, “are increasingly becoming the norm.”[33]

Some people look at the continuously evolving and shifting homeland security agenda and entertain the idea that the United States is in perpetual crisis.[34] Pick your issue: borders, immigration, cyber security, disasters, pandemics, climate change, income inequality, conspiracies, violent extremism, workforce recruitment and retention, mis- and disinformation, intelligence, trust in police, infrastructure, income inequality, mass shootings, transnational crimes, energy, social cohesion, drought, food insecurity, privacy, surveillance, and the diminishing confidence in national, state, and local government institutions.

On the other hand, there are reasons for optimism. The country may have been in much worse shape in the 1960s and 1970s.[35]   Most days there are no terrorist attacks. Most communities are not experiencing presidentially declared disasters. Millions of people enter and leave the United States yearly with minimal fuss.[36] The country is learning to live with perpetual COVID.  

 “Crises are in the eye of the beholder,” write the authors.[37] That dictum opens the door to both an elastic definition of what constitutes a crisis and a wider relevance for the usefulness of the Politics framework.

Communities can experience what they consider a budget crisis. Organizations can go through a leadership crisis. Individuals can experience a career crisis. For almost any situation someone perceives as “extraordinary, volatile, and potentially far-reaching in [its] negative implications,”[38] the Politics framework can be helpful. 

A situation someone perceives poses a threat, is urgent, and is awash with uncertainty[39] can be clarified by asking the five questions from Politics:

  • What do we have here?
  • What decisions do we need to make, and who should be involved in making and carrying out those decisions?
  • What story do we tell about what is going on that is convincing, comforting, and inspiring?
  • How do we bring this crisis to an end?
  • How do we learn from this?

Boin, ‘t Hart, Stern, and Sundelius offer an approach to thinking and acting that could mitigate the consequences of a “crisis,” regardless of its strategic or political significance.    That is more than the authors promise for The Politics of Crisis Management. But authors only get to decide what they want their book to be about. The reader gets to determine what they get from the book and what they do with the ideas.

About the Author

Christopher Bellavita teaches in the Center for Homeland Defense and Security master’s degree program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He serves as the executive editor of Homeland Security Affairs. He received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He may be reached at christopherbellavita@gmail.com.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bellavita, Christopher. “Changing Homeland Security: In 2010, Was Homeland Security Useful?” Homeland Security Affairs 7, Article 1 (February 2011).

Birkland, Thomas A. Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events. Georgetown University Press, 2006.

Boin, Arjen, Paul ‘t Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sundelius. The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure. 2nd edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.  Lectures on the philosophy of world history. Introduction, reason in history. (translated from the German edition of Johannes Hoffmeister from Hegel papers assembled by H. B. Nisbet). (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

Ichikawa, Jonathan Jenkins and Matthias Steup, “The Analysis of Knowledge”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Krishnan, Armin. “What Are Academic Disciplines? Some Observations on the Disciplinarity vs. Interdisciplinarity Debate.” ESRC National Centre for Research Methods NCRM Working Paper Series. University of Southampton, January 2009.

Lagadec, Patrick, and BenjaminTopper. “How Crises Model the Modern World.” Journal of Risk Analysis and Crisis Response, 2, no. 1 (May 2012).

McIntyre, David H. How to Think about Homeland Security: Volume 1 – The Imperfect Intersection of National Security and Public Safety. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

Mills, C. Wright. The Sociological Imagination. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).

Ramsay, James D., Keith Cozine, and John Comiskey, eds. Theoretical Foundations of Homeland Security. 1st edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2020).

Ramsay, James D and Irmak Renda-Tanali. “Development of Competency-Based Education Standards for Homeland Security Academic Programs,” Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 15, no. 3 (September 8, 2018).

Stember, Marilyn. “Advancing Social Sciences Through the Interdisciplinary Enterprise.” The Social Science Journal 28, no. 1 (1991).


Notes

[1] United States Coast Guard, “BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Incident Specific Preparedness Review,” Washington, D.C., January 20, 2011. 57-58.

[2] United States Coast Guard, “BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” 59.

[3] Arjen Boin,  Paul ‘t Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sundelius. The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure, 2nd edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016) 163.

[4] https://www.dhs.gov/geographic-regions

[5] Boin, et al., The Politics of Crisis Management, 3.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Arjen Boin is Professor of Public Institutions at Liden University. Paul ‘t Hart is Professor of Public Administration at the Utrecht School of Governance. Eric Stern is Professor of Political Science at the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cyber-Security at SUNY Albany. Bengt Sundelius is Professor of Government at Uppsala University and the Swedish Defence University.

[10] I will ignore in this review the distinctions between managers and leaders.

[11] Boin, et al., The Politics of Crisis Management, 145.

[12] Ibid., 15.

[13]Ibid., 15.

[14] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1975). Lectures on the philosophy of world history. Introduction, reason in history. (translated from the German edition of Johannes Hoffmeister from Hegel papers assembled by H. B. Nisbet). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 79. I encountered the Hegel quotation in Lagadec, Patrick, and Topper, Benjamin. “How Crises Model the Modern World.” Journal of Risk Analysis and Crisis Response, 2, no. 1 (May 2012): 22.

[15] See the Homeland  Security Digital Library timeline of significant events for specifics https://www.hsdl.org/c/timeline/.

[16] Lagadec and Topper, “How Crises Model the Modern World,” 21 and 23.

[17] Ibid., 22 and 23.

[18] Ibid., 22.

[19] Boin, et al., The Politics of Crisis Management, 5

[20] Ibid., 146

[21] Ibid., 146

[22] Ibid., 146

[23] “Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist…” From “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” In Mills, C. Wright. The Sociological Imagination. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). 224.

[24] Christopher Bellavita, “Changing Homeland Security: In 2010, Was Homeland Security Useful?” Homeland Security Affairs 7, Article 1 (February 2011). https://www.hsaj.org/articles/52; See also Krishnan, Armin. “What Are Academic Disciplines? Some Observations on the Disciplinarity vs. Interdisciplinarity Debate.” ESRC National Centre for Research Methods NCRM Working Paper Series. University of Southampton, January 2009.

[25] See, for example, James D. Ramsay and Irmak Renda-Tanali, “Development of Competency-Based Education Standards for Homeland Security Academic Programs,” Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 15, no. 3 (September 8, 2018); James Ramsay, Keith Cozine, and John Comiskey, eds. Theoretical Foundations of Homeland Security. 1st edition. ( New York, NY: Routledge, 2020); David H. McIntyre, How to Think about Homeland Security: Volume 1 – The Imperfect Intersection of National Security and Public Safety, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.)

[26] See the discussion of focusing events in Thomas Birkland, Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events. Georgetown University Press, 2006.

[27] I am using knowledge here to mean “belief that has been verified as true.”  See the discussion of this idea in Ichikawa, Jonathan Jenkins and Matthias Steup, “The Analysis of Knowledge”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-analysis/.  I am unaware of systematic efforts to showcase the core methods and exemplars of homeland security research.  That could be an activity for a future issue of Homeland Security Affairs.

[28] Boin, et al., The Politics of Crisis Management, 23

[29] For a discussion of the distinctions, see Marilyn Stember,  “Advancing Social Sciences Through the Interdisciplinary Enterprise.” The Social Science Journal 28, no. 1 (1991): 1–14.

[30] For a list of other disciplines that contribute to the crisis management literature, see Lagadec and Topper, “How Crises Model the Modern World,”22.

[31] Transdisciplinary is defined by Stember as “integrated study concerned with the unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the [single or multi] disciplinary perspectives.” 4

[32] Lagadec and Topper, “How Crises Model the Modern World,” 22

[33] Ibid., 21

[34] See, for example, “President Biden will deliver bold action and immediate relief for American families as the country grapples with converging crises.” https://www.whitehouse.gov/priorities/,   “Anxiety Grows Among Americans as Crisis After Crisis Spirals Out of Control”, https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2022-07-15/anxiety-grows-among-americans-as-crisis-after-crisis-spirals-out-of-control, and “Seven in ten Americans say the country is in crisis, at risk of failing” https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/seven-ten-americans-say-country-crisis-risk-failing .

[35] See, for example, the comments of Tony Fratto, “a communications consultant who served as deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush,” in https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2022-07-15/anxiety-grows-among-americans-as-crisis-after-crisis-spirals-out-of-control .

[36] https://www.condorferries.co.uk/us-tourism-travel-statistics

[37] Boin, et al., The Politics of Crisis Management,  146

[38] Ibid., 145.

[39] These are the core features of the Politics crisis definition.


Copyright

Copyright © 2022 by the author(s). Homeland Security Affairs is an academic journal available free of charge to individuals and institutions. Because the purpose of this publication is the widest possible dissemination of knowledge, copies of this journal and the articles contained herein may be printed or downloaded and redistributed for personal, research or educational purposes free of charge and without permission. Any commercial use of Homeland Security Affairs or the articles published herein is expressly prohibited without the written consent of the copyright holder. The copyright of all articles published in Homeland Security Affairs rests with the author(s) of the article. Homeland Security Affairs is the online journal of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS).


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