Jeroen Wolbers on Capacity and Network Management Dilemmas during the Corona Crisis in The Netherlands
Decision makers are faced with dilemmas as result of the corona crisis. Dr. Jeroen Wolbers, Assistant Professor Crisis Governance at the Crisis Research Center explains the existing dilemmas and what makes the corona crisis unique when compared to other crises.
Sense making in times of corona
Wolbers has noticed that it is often very difficult for crisis managers to deviate from a certain perspective or understanding of a situation - this is what is happening right now - during the corona crisis. 'During a crisis people are often limited by a number of biases; the information you've received at the beginning is often leading and people are subsequently inclined to look for information later on that confirms that first perspective. We've also noticed this during the corona crisis: the virus was something that was happening in China and wasn't likely to emerge in the Netherlands any time soon. But reasoning backwards, the first contaminations took place long before the virus was first detected. Despite the fact that epidemiologists and crisis managers were aware of the potential dangers of a worldwide virus outbreak they still found it very difficult to come to grips with it, now that it was actually happening to us. This clearly shows how long it takes for people to realise what's actually happening. You can't really blame them, but it is a well-known phenomenon in crisis management.'
Wolbers' research expertise focusses on organising under pressure. He specialises in coordination, sense making, and decision making, with a special focus on crisis management. 'The dilemma of sense making is that in hindsight the questions arise: we've should have known better and why did it take us so long to figure it out? But that is very difficult in the moment itself. In order to be able to read those signals, people should be properly trained. Because of the limited amount of information at the beginning of a crisis it can be very difficult to make sense of a situation and act accordingly.'
Capacity is a foundation for many decisions
'During this crisis many decisions are guided by all kinds of capacity problems. This is clearly demonstrated in the guidelines for equipment for personal protection in care homes. Very few people displaying symptoms were tested during the first phase of the crisis due to scarcity. The testing capacity simply wasn't available yet. In the current phase during the fall, you see the same problems recurring due to a large rise in demand for testing capacity and priority regulations for certain target groups.'
Wolbers has noticed interesting differences compared to countries: 'You see that different decisions are being made there, because there are less capacity problems or in different areas. In a comparing perspective, it is especially important that we learn more about the influence capacity has on the chosen crisis management strategies.'
New coordination structures cause confusion in management
In many ways, the corona crisis is a crisis like many others, with components that experts see recurring more often. Wolbers: 'What's new, is that this crisis impacts society as a whole. That it's taking so long, and that there are different phases in which dilemmas emerge. Different interests are continuously emerging because it, and, as a result, decision making is becoming very complex.' The government has to make trade-offs, for instance between health and keeping society going. 'In the begin phase the choice for health was very dominant. But now, we notice that there is more focus on social continuity. The measures are no longer primarily geared towards health, but more towards keeping society going. Meaning that the approach changes on a regular basis. In order to create a balance.'
To weigh all these interests, new structures have been established. Resulting in new dilemmas. 'In order to come to a common policy, new structures were established within an existing network. Several central coordination structures were implemented, for instance the coordination of ICU beds, testing capacity, safety equipment, and medicine. The first National Operational Team Corona (LOT-C) was also called into being. Now you're seeing that the safety regions are taking part in shaping the decentralised policy. They have become much more visible all of a sudden. As a result of this crisis we are now noticing new administrative entities taking the lead in a network. Which is complicated because, while many of these mandates haven't been clearly defined yet, it is necessary to create a common policy. As a result of this struggle, you'll notice that these processes are sometimes not very effective.'
Reflection is important, especially during this crisis
Leiden University, in collaboration with the National Police and the Police Academy, is organising a seminar 'Policing in times of Covid-19 - insights and challenges across the security spectrum' on 29 October. During the seminar, Jeroen Wolbers will host a workshop on sense making in times of corona.
Wolbers: 'The interesting thing about the timing of this seminar is that we're still in the middle of the crisis. At the moment, we find ourselves in a kind of in-between phase and that is the perfect moment to reflect with each other, because the biggest pressure has been lifted. Especially because this crisis continues to last, a pause to reflect is important.'
During the workshop the topics mentioned above will be addressed. Tools will be provided to help crisis managers to become aware of the pitfalls. 'We'll discuss the most recent events and resulting reflections', says Wolbers. 'But we'll also be looking back. During this crisis it's easy to forget what happened and which lessons have been learned, for example the discussion regarding the phase of the containing or mitigating the protests on Dam Square in Amsterdam. By looking at the dilemmas that were in play at the time, it enables us to take a closer look at the relation between sense making and coordination structures.'