3 Jan 2013

Co-producing safety requires a changed culture in public administration

Mid December I was invited as a keynote speaker in an interesting Danish conference in Copenhagen. Much of the content of the day was devoted to the attacks in 2011 in Oslo and Utoya Norway (see earlier blog) and how we can improve preparedness for such sad events, but also other topics popped up of which some had also been mentioned by participants of the conference end of August in Davos Switzerland (also see an earlier blog). I would like to share these topics with you. One is the organizational culture in response organizations that makes it difficult to improvise in crisis times, and –related to this– the cooperation needed between response organisations and with citizen groups or communities.

          We plan for uncertain situations and exercise preparedness in the face of the unknown. If we plan in a too detailed way and develop too precise procedures, we will not be flexible enough to react to new and evolving situations. When we investigate scenarios we should keep in mind that these are just examples or prototypes of what could happen and that reality may be very different. Therefore, exercises should not focus on properly using procedures but rather on flexible problemsolving, in a less detailed but more effective way.

          In a crisis per definition structures collapse and hierarchies may not function in chaotic situations. However, many authorities have a culture of command and control. This makes it difficult to improvise in crisis times and flexibly answer to changing situations. A cooperative and flexible leadership style is also needed. This helps bridge cultural differences among different organizations in the response network, by bringing together experiences to find new solutions. The coalitions that need to be build in crisis times consist of organisations and public groups that may differ for each crisis situation.

          In developing countries community approaches in disaster management have been promoted in for several decades. Authorities and NGOs active in relief activities are expected to do so in contact with local civil groups. UN sources mention that this close cooperation still requires a shift in the culture of public administration. But it seems that for this, by now, western countries can learn from experiences in developing countries. Somehow Western European publics seem to delegate crisis preparedness to authorities, as indeed there are many specialist crisis response organizations. However, crisis response depends on a co-production with citizens and strong ties between expert organizations and citizen groups are an important resource. An example of such an inspiring philosophy can be found on the website of the American organization FEMA.

Some sources:
- Dynes, R.R. (1994), Community emergency planning: False assumptions and inappropriate analogies. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 12(2), 141-158.
- Maskrey A. (2011), Revisiting Community-Based Disaster Risk Management. Environmental Hazards, 10(1), 42-52. (also see UNISDR)
- FEMA (2011), A whole community approach to emergency management: Principles, themes, and pathways for action. New York: Federal Emergency Management Agency. http://www.fema.gov/library/viewRecord.do?id=4941