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Leiden Leadership Lunch: Political leadership and the COVID-19 crisis

Even though the COVID-crisis continuously evolves and is marked by new realities and uncertainties, we can carefully begin to take stock looking back on the first phases of Dutch crisis management. What can we learn reflecting on the crisis strategies of this extraordinary and transboundary crisis that has put political leadership to the test?

On Friday May 28, prof. Arjen Boin, professor of Public Institutions and Governance, held the last Leiden Leadership Lunch in our series on ‘Leadership opportunities in times of crisis’. In this session on ‘Political leadership and the COVID-19 crisis: First observations and lessons’ practitioners and academics joined to reflect on the strategies of Dutch crisis management and the role of political leaders.

The 4 Elements of Strategic Crisis Management:

  1. Detection of problems: Recognition of the threat posed by COVID-19 was slow, while time is precious in an escalating crisis.
  2. Understanding the crisis: Mapping the pandemic was a process with ups-and-downs. Initially, testing and obtaining data (through track and trace) was problematic; in the current phase this has significantly improved.
  3. Organising a high-quality crisis response: The government organized an effective response, but it took some time to do so.  
  4. Crisis communication: In the beginning ambiguous communication regarding measures and their use. Afterwards communication stressed the importance of retaining a sense of solidarity.

First Observations

What is the current state of affairs? There are numerous measures, yet they are no longer very effective. The reason for this is the eroding solidarity among citizens resulting from a lack of authority and increasing ambiguity surrounding crisis strategies.

Due to reduced public support, a resigned cabinet, and ambiguous political roles in the crisis response, the relation between state and citizen has been disrupted. Opposition against the crisis strategy gains the upper hand and state authority is under attack. The frustrations and fears of citizens actively undermine the governmental approach to crisis management and harms public trust in the government.

First Lessons

  1. Overestimation: If strategies turn out to be successful, politicians are quick to take responsibility even if the success to a much greater extent depends on the solidarity and commitment of citizens.
  2. Lack of reflection on own decision-making: In the first phases there was a lack of consistency in the measures taken and ambiguity in underlying rules informing decisions. This led to a suspicion of arbitrariness. The government should reflect on its actions, provide straightforward communication, and should not shy away from admitting its own mistakes. A problem arises due to the fact that politicians are often unwilling to take advice from experts or learn from experiences abroad.
  3. An unprecedented crisis: The COVID-crisis presents unprecedented challenges. This requires a shared realization that crisis management demands attention and that more concrete insights are needed. Therefore, interdisciplinary attention is necessary – from both science and practice.

More information on this Leiden Leadership Lunch and the series ‘Leadership opportunities in times of crisis’ can be found in the Dutch version of this article.

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