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Crisis management cycle

A useful way of understanding the demands of crisis management on public managers is to think of crisis management in terms of different phases of a cycle, as displayed in Figure 1:

Figure 1: The crisis management cycle

Generally speaking, a crisis management cycle is the ideal evolution that a crisis event should follow in order to minimize its impact. By trying to describe this ideal evolution, one can find a useful tool to slice up crisis dynamics and understand the way to limit, respond to, as well as recover from the consequences and potential cascading effects of a specific crisis.

Phases of the crisis management cycle#

The phases of the crisis management cycle are:

  • Preparation – dealing with issues such as planning, simulations and training
  • Management – dealing with issues such as allocation and deployment of resources, command systems and communications
  • Evaluation – dealing with issues such as post-crisis lesson learning, debriefing and accountability

However, there are different approaches to distinguishing the different phases of the cycle, including the following:

  • Prevention (sometimes referred to as mitigation): Thinking the unthinkable, risk analysis, threat assessment, mitigation strategies;
  • Preparedness (some authors include this in Prevention): Contingency planning, simulations, training, education;
  • Response (sometimes referred to as Emergency Management): Emergency working, operational deployment of resources, communications;
  • Recovery (sometimes referred to as Evaluation): Debriefing, counseling, rebuilding, inquiry, accountability, learning;

Preparing for crises#

  • It is increasingly common practice for a crisis management structure to be created to oversee and coordinate crisis management, featuring political control groups and operational staff groups. Such structures are often supported by a crisis management centre.
  • In preparing to manage networks of agencies in a crisis, the use of ‘hub’ agencies and associated ‘spoke’ agencies is a model which, when effectively resourced, has been shown to work well.
  • Many crises arise from predictable events and planning can help ensure effective action is taken in these circumstances. It is the process of planning and the preparation for eventualities more so than the plans themselves that is vital to effective crisis management.
  • An important element of planning is preparing for different crisis scenarios. Even with known crises, such as pandemic outbreaks, the nature, type, speed, size and scope of the outbreak may vary considerably. The development of different scenarios can help determine the most effective crisis response.
  • Simulation exercises provide important training and testing for people who will be involved in managing an actual crisis. Different types of exercise, in increasing levels of complexity and cost, are shown in Figure 2:

Figure 2: Different types of crisis exercises

Managing crises#

  • There is a tension between planning for a crisis and actually dealing with a crisis. The more elaborate a plan is, the more likely it is to be ignored in an actual crisis. Often, responses to crises need to be thought out on the spot, though guided by previous thinking and practice.
  • There is a need to identify lines of authority, roles and responsibilities as well as means of coordination, leaving key identified individuals with a significant amount of autonomy to act as appropriate to the circumstances.
  • An effective integrated command system (ICS) has been proven to be particularly helpful where crises require a response from a network of organisations and where there is potential for confusion as to lines of command given the number of different players involved. The structure of an ICS is illustrated in Figure 3:

Figure 3: Structure of an integrated command system (ICT)

  • Standard practices with regard to reporting and the use of standard operating protocols can be of valuable assistance in managing a crisis.
  • There is a danger that standardisation can limit flexible responses. Standardisation can encourage sticking with ‘tried and tested’ ways of doing things rather than encouraging un-learning of failed activities in a situation that requires new thinking.
  • In the early stages of a crisis, leaders need to assess what information is crucial and what information they need to gather. There may be a paradoxical danger of information overload in some areas and complete lack of information in others.
  • Leaders do not have the capacity to respond to all situations themselves, and this requires the authorization and delegation of speedier decision-making than that normally associated with traditional hierarchies.
  • A significant part of crisis management is about managing the message going out to the public in situations that do not lend themselves easily to routine communications.
  • External communications are vital for both operational and symbolic purposes during a crisis. Symbolically, communications can foster a positive image of crisis response, provide an opportunity to empathize with those affected by the crisis, and demonstrate the will to resolve the crisis.
  • For both communications and other aspects of crisis management, the application of newer technologies such as Web 2.0 can provide important supports, as well as significant new challenges.
  • Newer technologies can also be used to enable organisations to track, disseminate and communicate information during a crisis.

Post-crisis evaluation and learning#

  • The culture of organisations can often influence the degree to which they actually learn from crises.
  • Organizations need to pay particular attention to their capacity to learn. This is a particular challenge when the crisis and its impacts cut across agencies, and cross-organisational learning is needed.
  • Learning can range from operational improvements that enhance crisis response in the future to more fundamental reviews of organisational and system-wide capacity.


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