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Leading in a Crisis: The Mega-Challenge of Coordination

With many layers of leadership and various responding agencies, making sure crisis response efforts are tightly coordinated is critical. Here is some guidance on how to keep stakeholders working in tandem.

The global impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic can be defined as a "super wicked problem" — it is not just a fast-moving public health crisis but one that requires coordinated policy interventions on numerous fronts. Governments must respond to immediate public health demands while trying to “get out in front” of the problem, by anticipating different scenarios and readying institutional capacity for varying levels of outbreak.

This requires intense consultation, intelligence gathering (and sharing), coordination, assignment of responsibilities, and monitoring — at political and bureaucratic levels. These actions are supported by robust existing coordinating mechanisms but also require new "adhocracies" — temporary organizations (special committees, task forces, coordinating units, etc.) created for special, time-limited purposes such as crisis management — to work across organizational boundaries, levels of government, and sectors.

Managing these coordinating mechanisms raises three particular challenges:

  • mapping and managing coordinating mechanisms,
  • developing repertoires for thinking beyond the immediate demands of the crisis, and
  • ensuring reliance across the system.
We explore these challenges and provide recommendations for effective coordination.

Challenge 1: Coordinating a mega-crisis

COVID-19 is a mega-crisis that has affected financial markets, labor markets, public transit, food distribution systems, airlines and ports, border controls, the budget and tax system, social assistance programs — the list goes on.

The need for coordinated decision-making and aligned operations is enormous. Each of these diverse domains typically has various combinations of vertical and horizontal networks at the political and bureaucratic levels with varying distributions of authorities and collegiality depending on distributed governance arrangements.

If they are left to themselves, there will be a messy "soup" of structures and processes working past one another or even at cross purposes. As we have discussed in a previous paper in this series, all of these organizations are also managing their own internal resilience and capacity.

Recommendation: Organizations managing responses to a mega-crisis, including government departments and agencies, can ensure a coordinated approach by doing the following:

  • Set up a coordinating "war room" to see the big picture: Department or agency "war rooms" may see emerging issues and connections before the central cabinet-level war room. These war rooms must continuously compare notes, quality-proof situational awareness, and identify emerging coordination gaps and bottlenecks;
  • Create visual mapping capability: Define what you will do to reach your objectives using a simple visual format;
  • Identify issues and authorities associated with the overall mega-crisis;
  • Identify the issues that relate to the organization’s mandate and how they relate to others;
  • Map formal and informal networks within and across governments and the for-profit and nonprofit sectors associated with them.

Challenge 2: Balancing existing and newly created coordinating mechanisms

A federal system brings the extra challenge of having many institutional and service delivery arrangements mirrored at the national and sub-national levels. Various levels of government, ministers responsible for intergovernmental relations and their supporting institutions loom as pivotal agents for coordinating across governments and managing communications in a mega-crisis.

The question is whether these committees, networks, and supporting secretariats are up to the task of responding to the new challenges and the heightened pace of action. When gaps become apparent, top political and public service system leaders may need to create adhocracies to take on different crisis management functions.

Adhocracies require adept leaders to quickly assemble the right mix of staff, organize them into relatively flat structures, tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity while anticipating needs and providing direction, and navigate the time-challenged and compressed political-bureaucratic interfaces associated with crises.

A critical decision is whether to establish new adhocracies or committees. An effective adhocracy requires highly capable leadership, the right team to support leadership, and regular communication, direction and support from prime ministers, lead ministers, and top public-service leaders. Despite the "fog of war," decisions to create new adhocracies should be made judiciously and their links to existing coordinating mechanisms should be clear.

In assessing whether such adhocracies are needed, and personnel can be found to staff the new arrangements, leaders must consider the following “home truths”:

  • Things will change: The nature of threats and challenges presented by the crisis will evolve beyond the original focus at the point of an outbreak, requiring new types of expertise and resources to be brought into the response effort (and thus into the existing coordination and collaborative structures). For example, the 2011 Tohuko earthquake in Japan started as a natural disaster, evolved into a nuclear accident and then became an energy policy game-changer.
  • Other work can wait: The pressures of attending to other important but less urgent issues will start to build up. While ministers and top civil servants are consumed by crisis response duties, sooner or later "the system" will start to murmur that the other business of government can’t wait indefinitely, and the vacuum of direction and decision-making will be noticed and criticized by stakeholders. It should not be necessary to drag leaders out of their crisis management bunkers to grasp and attend to the emerging reality.
Recommendation: Conduct regular stock-takes of how well the constellation of established and new coordinating mechanisms and their leadership are working. New mechanisms may be required, some established mechanisms may be elevated in importance, while others can be taken offline. Such stock-takes can lead to culling and renewing the mix of coordinating mechanisms, and prepare leaders and systems for facing the question of when and how to scale down the crisis response regime and stage a smooth return to "normal" agendas, institutions and processes.

Challenge 3: Looking at the longer term

All crises require "out-of-the-box" and scenario-based thinking to anticipate new challenges and demands. Mega-crises kick this up an order-of-magnitude not only because of the manifold problems but also because they intersect in difficult-to-predict and often incomprehensible ways. This intensifies as a mega-crisis extends beyond the relatively normal three- or four-week crisis into months or years.

Thinking about longer-term challenges should be assigned to special dedicated adhocracies or task forces. The activities will involve identifying possibilities, scenarios, informational and authority needs: Regular briefings should be scheduled for those most centrally involved in managing the crisis to get them to focus on "what’s next" (more often) and "what’s on the horizon" (less often). These briefings should be carefully prepared and condensed so even crisis-weary leaders can best take in the information and return guidance.

Recommendation: These regular briefings should involve the following:

  • reality-test existing beliefs and assumptions about the likely path of events and the impacts of current response measures;
  • mobilize necessary additional expertise, resources and stakeholder voices; and
  • encourage strategic policy deliberation beyond the reactive mode of crisis response.
Arjen Boin is a professor of Public Institutions and Governance, Department of Political Science, Leiden University.

Paul ‘t Hart is a professor of public administration at the Utrecht University School of Governance and the Netherlands School of Public Administration (NSOB) in The Hague.

Evert Lindquist is a professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria. 

This story has been republished with permission from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Read the complete series here.