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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

Crisis management has become one of the core challenges of governments and public leadership is often crucial in handling crises. This book focuses on strategic crisis management - that is, the tasks of setting the general parameters of a crisis response and making the critical decisions that shape that society’s future commitments. We focus on two particular executive tasks that political crisis managers must discharge during a crisis -decision making and meaning making. Decision making requires public leaders to make judgments and take action in contexts characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty. Meaning making is the leadership task of explaining these decisions publicly and offering a convincing interpretation of the crisis. The crisis management literature has typically focused on failed or misguided decision making and meaning making. Some crises, however, are successfully managed and some crisis managers do a good job at decision making and meaning making. We argue that the philosophy of Pragmatism, with its model of practical rationality, provides useful insights into how political crisis leaders make decisions and make meaning in the face of the uncertainty and ambiguity that characterize crises.

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

The philosophy of Pragmatism offers a powerful and distinctive model of practical rationality. Classical Pragmatists sought to break down dualisms associated with inherited philosophical traditions by adopting a strong orientation towards action. They took the perspective of people acting in situ, living their lives, making sense of the world, and confronting challenges. This led them to emphasize the practical nature of rationality, with a focus on experience and problem-solving, an emphasis on process and social interaction, and a view of beliefs as subject to ongoing experimentation. A concern with uncertainty is baked into classical Pragmatism because it starts with the view that all knowledge is fallible and subject to continuous revision. Deliberation is also a central aspect of Pragmatism’s model of practical rationality because it takes the place of the optimization in rational choice theory. The Pragmatist model of practical rationality is also distinctive in seeing human action as both habitual and creative.

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

This chapter examines a wider body of literature on decision making and meaning making under conditions of uncertainty. It begins by examining the concept of uncertainty. A Pragmatist reading of uncertainty is a problematic situation that triggers doubt or blocks actions. However, uncertainty is typically not a monolithic experience. Uncertainty has many different sources and decision makers are not typically uncertain about everything all at once. The chapter investigates how the decision makers draw on experience to make decisions under uncertainty, notably by using heuristics and case-based reasoning and how they use sensemaking and “probe and learn” approaches to deal with uncertainty. With respect to meaning making, the risk communication literature suggests that leaders should convey uncertainties to the public but emphasizes that context matters when communicating with different audiences.

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

Building on four main building blocks of a Pragmatist theory of crisis management - anti-dualism, fallibilism, experimentalism and deliberation - this chapter develops a model of Pragmatist political crisis management, further elaborating it by contrasting it with principle-guided political crisis management. A principle is defined as a fixed belief (or set of beliefs) that is closed to new experiences or arguments and that leaves little space for doubt. Principle-guided political crisis management relies on these fixed beliefs when making decisions or making meaning in the face of uncertainty, while Pragmatist political crisis management regards belief as fallible and subject to on-going revision through experimentation and deliberation. The chapter draws out the empirical expectations that Pragmatist and principle-guided approaches have for crisis decision making and meaning making in order to guide research in subsequent chapters.

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

This chapter provides a brief overview of the US financial crisis of 2008 in order to set the stage for subsequent analysis. The chapter first demonstrates that the US financial crisis of 2008 actually meets the definition of crisis as set out in Chapter 1. It then introduces the key strategic-level decision makers involved during the crisis and presents an overview of the timeline of the key episodes of decision making and meaning making that we fill focus on in later chapters - namely, the rescue of the investment bank Bear Stearns, the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, and the rescue of the insurance company AIG. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the sources we use in our analysis of political crisis management in these episodes.

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

This chapter provides a systematic analysis of the Bear Stearns case in terms of decision making and meaning making. Our analysis begins with a brief explanation of the main ideological principle from which Bush and Paulson departed: the doctrine of moral hazard. However, we find the main strategic crisis leaders in this case - including President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who were the most predisposed to uphold this doctrine - modeled Pragmatist political crisis management behavior in this phase of the crisis. With respect to decision making, their crisis leadership exhibited anti-dualism, fallibilism, experimentation and deliberation; with respect to meaning making, they exhibited anti-dualism and fallibilism, but not experimentation or deliberation.

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

This chapter analyses the government decision making and meaning related to the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008. We investigate the Lehman Brothers case for evidence of Pragmatist and principle-guided political crisis management. We find that strategic crisis leaders adopted a more principle-guided form of political crisis management in this case than they did in the Bear Stearns case. This is especially true when it comes to the two Pragmatist dimensions of anti-dualism and fallibilism that are largely absent in the Lehman example. While focusing on the Lehman case, we also contrast it with two other important decisions made only days later: the rescue of the insurance company AIG and the rescue of the money market mutual funds. These two decisions again illustrate a more Pragmatist form of political crisis management.

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

The two previous chapters contrasted the Pragmatist and principle-guided crisis management models during several key decision-making and meaning-making episodes. The analysis found evidence for both models and identified shifts between them as well as hybrid forms that combined them both. This chapter paves the way for future empirical research by introducing and discussing two questions. First, what were the causes of the shift from a Pragmatist approach in the Bear Stearns case to a more principle-guided approach in the Lehman case, followed by the shift back to Pragmatism in the AIG decision? Second, how were elements of both Pragmatist and principle-guided political crisis management combined in the Lehman case? Without providing definitive answers to these questions, this chapter probes these cases for plausible responses.

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Christopher Ansell and Martin Bartenberger

In this concluding chapter we briefly assess the outcomes of the study, reflect on its limitations and discuss elements of a possible future research agenda. The study identifies two different forms of political crisis management and sets out a broad set of building blocks and specifications that might serve as starting points for further research. While our systematic elaboration of the Pragmatist approach may provide a useful counterweight to the prevalent rationalism of crisis management advice, we also concede that a Pragmatist approach is particularly challenging for political crisis managers in the area of meaning making. Publicly admitting possible failures, emphasizing the uncertainty of decisions and inviting public debate and critique can be an extremely challenging task for political leaders. We conclude by reviewing a list of the empirical indicators for Pragmatist and principle-guided political crisis management identified in the course of the study. This list can be further refined, expanded and corrected in future research.