EGPA 2021 Conference
Resilience and Agility of Public Institutions in Times of Crises
Université libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, 7-10 September 2021
Crises call attention to the importance of resilient institutions. Organizational and institutional agility contributes to crisis response and resilience. If “Resilience comprises capacity to deliver and enhance results over time; as well as the ability to manage shocks and change” (OECD, 2020) then by definition it becomes an important feature of government institutions and administrations in times of crisis. It should already be noted that governments are not the only players in crisis response; though this conference will focus on public institutions, their resilience is meshed in a wider social resilience (Jan et al., 2021; Telford & Cosgrave, 2006).
Resilience has not always been a salient preoccupation of public administration and management; for example, it isn’t prominent as such in the conventional new public management / new public governance debate, although references can be traced back to Hood or Wildavsky (Duit, 2016). Crisis response started to gain scientific prominence notably after the sept. 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US (Comfort, 2002), but such analyses remained fairly disconnected from mainstream PM/PA literature. Connections do exist, however: resilience is linked to government legitimacy, which can be analysed from legal, managerial, governance or ecosystems perspectives (Kinder et al., 2020).
Agility (or lack thereof) has been intuitively and anecdotally perceived in the current pandemic but is even less studied from a PA perspective. As a narrower notion than resilience, related to organizational capabilities, it is discussed in the management literature about operations management or about strategic capabilities. Another connection between agility and resilience runs through crisis management. From this perspective, it has been argued that crisis management requires skills that are completely different from, and perhaps even opposed to, organizational learning and administrative reform (Boin et al., 2016). Teece et al. (Teece et al., 2016) emphasize that agility comes at a cost and should be built strategically: where is it required? How can it be built? Leadership, in the form of political or institutional entrepreneurship, plays an important role in the resilience of public institutions after a crisis. Strategic use of “opportunities” and competition between incumbent and ad-hoc structures arising in crises may have lasting effects, even though they aren’t part of an orderly learning and reform process (Rochet et al., 2008).
In spite of their intuitive closeness in crisis contexts, agility and resilience do not overlap in general and may even oppose each other in trade-offs that deserve closer scrutiny. Firstly, agile response in the sense of short-term responsiveness is a double-edged sword when it comes to public legitimacy and citizen confidence: if responses seem to fail, confidence and legitimacy may erode and undermine resilience. Furthermore, responses that are perceived as over-reaction or that run against other values like individual freedom or economy might also backfire against political and social resilience in the longer run.
During the EGPA 2021 Conference we would like to develop a reflection on what we know about building institutional resilience and agility in difficult contexts. While the COVID-19 pandemic provides an obvious backdrop, we need to consider wider challenges: climate change, the migration crisis, socio-economic crises, terrorism and its impacts on our society are all prime examples. Four sub-themes are offered as possible panel topics:
1. Political legitimacy and legality
The current COVID-19 crisis raised (and still raises) numerous legal challenges. Among them, the tension between the extraordinary measures implemented by most governments, and the institutional safeguards present in extant law. How did states address the situation in legal terms? How did they balance restrictions with individual freedoms? How did they balance the necessity to trace cases and guarantee privacy? And how will they deal with complaints from citizens and civil society organisations? More generally, how did governments deal with legal challenges that emerged from other crises, such as terrorist attacks?
2. Building effective responses to crises
In order to overcome tense situations, states have typically built up temporary infrastructures and crisis units. The form of these units vary from one country to another, can be more strategic or operational, and more political than scientific in certain cases. Questions arise about the constitution and legitimacy of these structures? How are they formed in the first place? How are the decision-making processes designed? How do they differ from one place to another, and for what reasons? Based on previous experiences, does one structure type function better than another? There is a need to confront various experiences here and to draw lessons from these structures’ composition and functioning in different crises.
3. Seeking guidance from experts
The role of “experts” becomes increasingly visible in recent crisis situations, as can be seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also in the context of the longer-run climate change and environmental issues, or during terrorism-related episodes and their political repercussions. Is this really so new, knowing that the roots of technocracy date back nearly a century at least? What has changed? One aspect is probably related to the publicity and diversity of expert opinions, which leads back to the heterogeneity of the expert category and their increasing (social) media exposure. The public and governments are left with the challenges of synthesis and acceptability. How does the aggregation work? How do various institutional arrangements perform in the uptake of evidence-based, wise views in policy-making? Public bodies that are instituted in advisory expert roles, like public health agencies, sometimes seem to be sidelined in crisis response. Should expertise and administrative competence be integrated, or held apart and play different roles, or is there hybridization?
4. Innovation and crisis response
The relationship between administrative and institutional innovation and crisis situations is far from simple. While at first sight, urgency might seem conducive to innovation, organizations can also fall back on core routines that might be more or less adequate. To what extent can public services be prepared, for example through contingency planning, or is improvisation and opportunistic entrepreneurship more important? What has been the human cost of agile responsiveness, notably in the healthcare sector? Is agility just operational, or are there strategic dimensions to it, beyond institutions that are specialized in emergency response? Since organizational innovations require investments or time-consuming learning processes, are “innovative” urgency solutions also viable in the longer run, or are they contingent and doomed once the crisis is over? Can public organizations maintain “dynamic capabilities”?
Boin, A., Hart, P. ‘t, Stern, E., & Sundelius, B. (2016). The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure. Cambridge University Press.
Comfort, L. K. (2002). Rethinking Security: Organizational fragility in extreme events. Public Administration Review, 62(Special issue), 98–107.
Duit, A. (2016). Resilience Thinking: Lessons for Public Administration. Public Administration, 94(2), 364–380. https://doi.org/10.1111/padm.12182
Jan, C., Li, T.-S., Wang, C., & Chang, Y. (2021). Disaster Prevention and Recovery System: Lessons and Experiences in Taiwan and Japan. In D. C. G. Brown & J. Czaputowicz (Eds.), Dealing with Disaster: Public Capacities for Crisis and Contingency Management (pp. 373–391). IIAS-IISA.
Kinder, T., Six, F., Stenvall, J., & Memon, A. (2020). Governance-as-legitimacy: Are ecosystems replacing networks? Public Management Review, 0(0), 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/14719037.2020.1786149
OECD. (2020). Development Co-operation Report 2020: Learning from Crises, Building Resilience. OECD Publishing. https://www-oecd-ilibrary-org.ezproxy.ulb.ac.be/development/development-co-operation-report-2020_f6d42aa5-en
Rochet, C., Keramidas, O., & Bout, L. (2008). Crisis as change strategy in public organizations. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 74(1), 65–77. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020852307085734
Teece, D., Peteraf, M., & Leih, S. (2016). Dynamic Capabilities and Organizational Agility: Risk, Uncertainty,
and Strategy in the Innovation Economy. California Management Review, 58(4), 13–35. https://doi.org/10.1525/cmr.2016.58.4.13
Telford, J., & Cosgrave, J. (2006). Joint Evaluation of the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami: Synthesis Report. Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (London).