Expectations vs. Reality in Crisis Management

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) describes how the public expectations for crisis management differ from what usually happens in practice.

Pal writes (p. 340-343):

“The ground has shifted in many ways, and public policymaking under pressure is an increasingly important feature of doing policy work. The intensification of international terrorism in recent years is one obvious example, but is not the whole story. Dealing with natural disasters such as floods and forest fires has always been part of the government’s responsibility, but it may be that, as a result of climate change, the incidence of these events is increasing (Briceno, 2004; James, 2007). And the scale can be devastating, as when Hurricane Katrina flattened New Orleans (Brinkley, 2006). The combination of interdependencies in things like trade (mad cow) and technology (Internet) means that emergencies and threat events can spread rapidly and paralyze whole populations, if not industries and economic processes, as the financial crisis and continuing economic crisis show. Pandemics and public health risks appear to be on the rise; the listeriosis crisis in late 2008 almost destroyed Maple Leaf Foods. And finally, the public mood, while perhaps more supportive of governments that are addressing emergencies or attacks, is still suspicious. Coupled with a media bias toward “gotcha journalism,” this can make for a volatile environment in which to deal with emergencies. If things are badly handled, even to a modest degree, there is a new potential for escalation into full-blown crisis. …

“It is important to remember the actual, political context of crisis and policymaking under pressure. Crises and emergencies are difficult to handle at the best of times, but if they are becoming both more frequent and with wider-reaching consequences, we should not be surprised that crisis management as a real process will sometimes look different than what we might hope from a “lessons learned” approach that does not take into account the real dynamics to which decisionmakers are exposed.”

Unrealistic expectations

Pal draws on Boin and t’Hart’s review of the literature (2003) to describe six broad public expectations about crisis management that are not borne out in reality:

  1. To begin with, there is a public expectation that leaders should put public safety first. In reality, policy leaders always have to balance the costs and benefits of mitigation and prevention. It is simply too costly to have absolute, 100 percent safety; rather, it is a question of how much risk can be reasonably tolerated.
  2. A second public expectation is that leaders should prepare themselves for worst-case scenarios, a recommendation that we made earlier. In fact, the evidence from both private and public sector organizations seems to be that, unless one has experienced crisis in the past, or is operating in a community with similar experiences, the organizational and leadership reflex is to place a low priority on continual crisis preparation. In part this is due to a rational calculation that there may be zero benefit from investing time in preparation for an event that may never occur. As well, less rationally, organizational leaders may be reluctant to confront weaknesses in their organizations.
  3. A third expectation is that leaders should heed warnings about future crises. The reality is that many crises take time to build, and, in practice, all kinds of warning signals are misinterpreted or ignored, usually because the crisis, by definition, is a “new” event and does not fit the frame of reference of authorities.
  4. A fourth expectation is that during a crisis, leaders take charge and directly oversee the crisis management activities. In reality, crises are much more fluid and dynamic events than this would allow, and, in practice, systems or networks of responses from many agencies, NGOs, and other actors deal with the multiple facets of a crisis. As we noted earlier, coordination is definitely required in crisis response, but it is important to have realistic expectations of how tightly that can be managed and directed from above.
  5. A fifth public expectation is that leaders show tangible sympathy for victims of a crisis or emergency. Doing this extends from making public expressions of grief and support to providing financial compensation and assistance. The problem is that, in the heat of the moment, leaders can make promises that they subsequently cannot keep or raise expectations so high that they inevitably disappoint.
  6. The final public expectation that Boin and t’Hart identify is that leaders strive to learn the lessons of the crisis. Again, the political context in the aftermath of a crisis almost actively militates against that. A normal reaction after a crisis has been dealt with is to find its causes, something that rapidly degenerates (especially with the media) into a blame game. Leaders know that they are targets, and so instead of dispassionately “learning lessons,” they focus on spin control and plausible deniability.”
Atlas topic, subject, and course

Managing Emergencies and Crises (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Boin, A., & t’Hart, P. (2003, September–October). Public leadership in times of crisis: “Mission Impossible”? Public Administration Review, 63, 544–552.

Briceno, S. (2004, March). Global challenges in disaster reduction. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 19, 3–5.

Brinkley, D. (2006). The great deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gold Coast. New York, NY: Morrow.

James, M. (2007). The permanent-emergency compensation state: A “postsocialist” tale of political dystopia. In M. Orsini & M. Smith (Eds.), Critical policy studies (pp. 321–346). Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 10 April 2017.

Image: WPA Research, at http://www.wparesearch.com/uncategorized/five-crisis-management-tips-employers-need-to-follow-2/, accessed 10 April 2017.