Sanneke Kuipers appointed professor of Crisis Governance: 'Crises arise from very mundane causes'
The Executive Board appointed Sanneke Kuipers as full professor effective January 1, 2022. Her chair is Crisis Governance. She combines this chair with her position as education director of ISGA, the Institute of Security and Global Affairs. A conversation about working 24/7 in crisis management, her ambitions and people's limited self-reflection during a pandemic. 'I became milder rather than harsher during the corona crisis.'
‘Extreme threats are not a feature of our times. Rather, crises are a constant factor and, to some extent, inevitable where people live together in large numbers and where technological advances and associated risks are the norm.’
Looking at Sanneke Kuipers' portfolio, you can imagine her regret that there are not more days in a week. She was already education director, associate professor, researcher, mother of two and spouse. Now the professorship with the chair in Crisis Governance is added. 'Hugely exciting and good that there is a focus on crises. Extreme threats are not a feature of our times. Rather, crises are a constant factor and, to some extent, inevitable where people live together in large numbers and where technological advances and associated risks are the norm.'
Specialization in crisis management
Kuipers and Leiden University have been linked for some time. She studied public administration, did her PhD there and became a postdoc. She specialized in organizations and crisis and switched to consultancy in 2007. For nine years she worked as a crisis management researcher-advisor at Crisisplan, with which she is still affiliated. From 2011 she combined that part-time with work at Utrecht University and then Leiden University. 'In 2016 I joined ISGA as an associate professor. There they had a mastr programme in Crisis and Security Management but no one who specialized in crisis. I then also started leading the Crisis Governance research group.’
Great absorption capacity
She experienced the growth of ISGA up close and after two years was appointed education director. 'My duties only increased. I am in charge of overall quality assurance, to ensure that always the best people in each subject teach a particular course and tasks are fairly distributed. And I always joke: if things really go wrong, it also ends on my plate.’ Being a crisis manager day and night in addition to researching it certainly applies to Kuipers since things have indeed gone really wrong and we find ourselves in the midst of the corona crisis. 'The challenges suddenly became very different. We asked a lot of our people. I have always tried to keep an eye on that. Our absorption capacity has proven to be great. I'm proud of that, because we all got so much on our plates. Both for our people at home and within the organization.’
‘Everyone now has an image of crises due to the coronapandemic, but it is more and different than that. I want to make it broader with my chair. Crises are all those events and developments that expose vulnerabilities in society or government organizations.’
Fatal miss due to ordinary causes
Urgency, great uncertainty, threat. The suddenness of failure. These are the characteristics of a crisis. 'Everyone now has an image of crises due to the corona pandemic, but crises are more varied than that. I want to expand the focus with my chair. Crises are all those events and developments that expose vulnerabilities in society or government organizations. These could be dike breaches or the failure of cybersecurity systems. A problem unfolds and it comes as a negative surprise.'
Kuipers wants to look at this from an organizational perspective and in this way establish good crisis education. 'There is still a world to be won here. Many people think of crisis research only in terms of extreme cases. But in those extreme cases things often go fatally wrong for very ordinary reasons. Bottlenecks and latent errors in the daily functioning of organizations combine to create vulnerabilities. Is there sufficient attention for the underlying causes, structural problems or inadequate supervision? Most crises arise from problems that were already known beforehand, but the connection was not clear. If organizations or departments within them do not communicate with each other, blind spots also emerge. Not only is research into hidden vulnerabilities or latent causes crucial, we must also look for robust solutions: resources and people that increase the resilience of systems and that can be deployed in different scenarios.'
Not limiting to corona crisis
Kuipers wants good research to continue to provide good education. Her focus is on crisis causes, responses and accountability. 'Of course the corona crisis - however dramatic the social consequences - also offers opportunities. Such a pandemic is an ideal test bed as we call it in science, because so many countries face the same threat. As if you could do 100 social experiments at once in a laboratory. But there are other issues as well. For example, I would like to explore the effect of working with algorithms on organizational crises, and the impact of cybersecurity issues and the challenges of natural disasters arising from climate change. These are, of course, all topics whose urgency will only increase in the coming years.’
Everyone has become a crisis expert
Speaking of the accountability part; the dividing line between success and failure is paper-thin in times of crisis. If it were up to Kuipers, we would look a little more to ourselves. ‘Everyone is a crisis expert these days, but what if one would really stand in the shoes of the responsible policymakers. With all the uncertainties and interests at stake. I have become milder rather than harsher recently. Look at what you can do yourself, I would say. We all in this together and we all have to get out of this crisis. Then there is no point in pointing an accusing finger. You can say that the GGDs [regional public health services] don't have things in order, but they have also experienced huge budget cuts over the past ten years. This is based on political decisions. Learning from crises and truth-finding is what you need to do better next time.’
Text: Margriet van der Zee