Interview mit Prof. Allan McConnell, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow UK 

When do we call a phenomenon a crisis? Are there any warning signals?

Allan McConnell: Life would be much easier for academics and practitioners throughout the world if there was a universally agreed scientific definition of ‘crisis’, but it doesn’t exist – this being one of the reasons why crisis management is a tough task. Some of the standard criteria for defining a crisis are that it is unexpected, poses a high threat, produces conditions of high uncertainty, and creates the need for rapid decision making. These criteria are useful up to a point, but threats can be expected to some degree, build up slowly over time, and contain very mixed signals about whether they will escalate or fade away. As much of the psychological literature reveals, responses to emerging threats under stressful conditions can lead to many different responses from denial and taking of minimal (but fruitless) evasive action, through to over-reaction and a form of hyper-vigilance where there is near paralysis because of an obsessive focus on threats. Similar types of ‘behaviour’ occur in organisations. All this means that while some crisis may leave little room for the making sense of emerging threats (e.g. a tsunami or earthquake), very many crises (such as financial crises, hurricanes and avian influenza) leave some room for different actors (public private, media and so on) to interpret the significance of emerging warning signals in different ways. A crisis doesn’t always ‘knock on the door’ to announce its arrival. Making sense of a crisis is a political activity (with a large P and a small P) because different actors and interests will perceive emerging threats (at least to some degree) in terms of how it affects them, their jobs, their values and so on.


Against which criteria can crisis management be judged?

Allan McConnell: I would say that there are three broad sets of criteria which help provide us with some stability in judging the success or otherwise of a crisis management initiative. We will never escape the fact that one person’s success may be another person’s failure, but at least we will have reference points within which to have a debate.
First, there are crisis management processes i.e. the ways in which decisions are taken rather than the actual decisions themselves. So, for example, we can conceive of sub-criteria here such as whether the processes followed led to a resolution of the crisis in hand, and whether they were legitimate in some way (e.g. through being constitutionally appropriate, or the product of a contingency plan arrived at after consultation with stakeholders).
Second, there are crisis management decisions. Benchmarks here would include the extent to which decisions contained/eliminated threats, limited damage to life/property/institutions, and restored order/stability.
Third and finally, there is crisis management politics. The inclusion of this category is vital if we want to grasp the dynamics and impact of crisis on public authorities. Therefore, benchmarks here would relate to the impact on leader/government reputations, the extent to which the crisis was managed without serious disruption to the business of government, and the extent to which the crisis did not disturb the long-term policy agenda(s) of government.

Added to all of the above, we need to think of crises as posing two types of challenges – ground level operations for front line responders, and political-strategic challenges for political and policy elites. They are related but often distinct. The criteria above are a means of helping us realise that ‘successful crisis management’ is not a yes/no issue. Indeed, some success criteria may be achieved but others may fail to be achieved. Much depends on where we look and whose interests we take into account. Some crisis, for example, would produce very high ratings in terms of ‘political success’ (e.g. Mayor Giuliani and George W. Bush’s response to 9/11) despite being weaker (even if understandably so) in terms of the front line operational response.


How much does successful dealing with a crisis depend on the person in charge, how much does it depend on the concept?

Allan McConnell: There is no doubt that some leaders are more suited to crisis situations, because they traditionally ‘lead from the front’ and have instincts and ideas which they are determined to pursue, despite evidence and criticism. A crisis, therefore, allows them to take decisions under conditions (such as threats and uncertainty) to which they are not averse. By contrast, some leaders are more bureaucratic/technocratic minded, and under ‘normal’ conditions need to take decision based on extensive evidence-based policy briefings and slow, options appraisal. Unfortunately for them, a crisis takes them out of their comfort zone. There may be some crisis management benefit because their caution can prevent a ‘knee jerk’ response, but often they flounder. So, the leader DOES matter (and perhaps the ‘ideal’ leader is one who can switch comfortably between these two zones) but they are only one part of the equation. Successful crisis management also requires, resources, plans, training and organisational mindsets which treat the prospect of crisis seriously, rather than ‘paper exercises’ which need to be completed.  


Do states learn from a past crisis? If yes, what do they most likely do differently next time?What do you think of the idea that a state delegates crisis management to a private organisation?

Allan McConnell: States certainly can learn from previous crisis. This is one of the reasons why post-crisis inquiries try to assess the causes and consequences of failure, in order to reduce vulnerabilities and increase crisis management capacities for the future. The UK was much better placed to deal with the second outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2007, after the inquiries which revealed many flaws in its handling of the 2001 outbreak. There is no golden rule about what states might do differently next time, but they include more resources being invested in crisis training exercises, and more rigorous risk awareness strategies. However, learning from previous crises is not automatic. There may be some complacency that ‘the worst’ could never happen again. Also, new crises don’t always behave the same way as old crises. Another global financial crisis is unlikely to emerge in the same way as the recent one (just as it itself did not emerge in the same way as the economic crisis of the mid 1970s).

The issue of the role of the private sector in crisis management is a controversial one. There is no doubt that many critical infrastructures (such as those in water, gas, electricity, communications and indeed food chains) are run and indeed owned by the private sector. Commonsense would tell us that they need to be part of crisis management plans and responses. Yet such commonsense is more politically difficult to deal with. In crisis situations, there are strong expectations from citizens, media, stakeholders and others, that public authorities will be at the forefront of a crisis response. The recent BP oil spill is an example of the difficulty in two different sets of authorities, seeking to work together to resolve the crises while having to consider their own reputations and very different bases of support. So, the role of the private sector in crisis management is liable to remain vital, while also provoking debate and controversy.


Let’s assume crisis management is not on the priority list of a state, where does this state face disadvantages? Can you give an example?

Allan McConnell: If crisis management is low on organisational’/policy/political agendas, then a state has little more to rely on that luck and improvisation. I don’t want to name a specific country, but I do want to make the point that many developing countries – understandably so – do not have the resources or the political will to prepare extensively for crises and disasters, in comparison tomany more advanced countries. However, we should not become complacent about our own capabilities. As the sociologist Lee Clarke has argued, many contingency plans (such as those for oil spills) are ‘fantasy documents’. By this he means that they have political-strategic value in being able to demonstrate to everyone that organisations are prepared for crisis, but in reality they are of little use in the event of a crisis actually happening.


Can you name a country that is known to have a good crisis planning and crisis management? If so, why?

Allan McConnell: For the reasons mentioned above, I don’t want to give a specific example. It’s certainly possible to point to many countries such as Australia, UK and the US, where contingency planning and risk awareness is very well developed, but I’m not sure that the authorities there would want to be identified as a model of good practice (they may be setting themselves up as a ‘hostages to fortune’). For example, despite reforms of US Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency after 9/11, the response some four years later to Hurricane Katrina has gone done in history as a case of crisis mis-management.


What is the best practice for planning and preparing for crisis?

Allan McConnell: Planning and preparing may have limits, but it is certainly essential. The process of getting all responders together to discuss scenarios and map out tasks and roles, can often be very useful. More generally, there are several criteria which are commonly identified as ‘best practice’. The list given below is not exhaustive, but it is an important indicator of where our efforts should be channelled:

  • Developing contingency plans which are well resourced, and followed through in terms of appropriate equipment, training, trials, simulations, and learning lessons in a ‘safe’ pre-crisis environment. Such planning should involve a wide range of relevant stakeholders and responders, from ‘blue light’ organisations to volunteers and citizens groups.
  • Embedding such plans within the culture and practices of the organisation, rather than simply being an ‘add on’ to the normal business of the organisation.
  • Having a leadership that is prepared to treat planning seriously and cultivate an organisational mindset where employees are not ignored, marginalised or blamed for raising difficult and potentially threatening issues.

Taking all these together, the key message is that planning and preparing effective for crisis is holistic, involving the whole organisation rather than simply than contingency planners and risk managers who draw up plans and conceive of worst case scenarios.

Interview mit:

Prof. Dr. Allan McConnel, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow UK.

Das Interview wurde durchgeführt von:

Katharina Ludwig, Redaktorin und Webmasterin der SGVW-Wissensplattform