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Being a public manager in times of crisis: the art of managing stakeholders, political masters and collaborative networks

17 November 2020



image representing managing stakeholders using wooden figures

The COVID‐19 pandemic is seen as the biggest global crisis since World War II. What started out as a public health issue has quickly morphed into a political, economic and societal crisis of epic proportions.

A paper in Public Administration Review by Associate Professor Zeger van der Wal looks at the capabilities public managers need during a crisis. Administrative capacity can determine whether societies emerge from a crisis with resilience and optimism – or despair and disconnectedness.

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A VUCA operating environment

The operating environment created by the COVID‐19 pandemic bears all the characteristics of a VUCA world. This is characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. The VUCA concept means that managers have to deal with a range of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns,” not only in terms of projected outcomes but also in relation to required skills and strategies.

Issues surrounded by volatility and uncertainty are more “known” but challenging in their own right. They require a certain degree of flexibility and adaptiveness as well as foresight and strategic planning capabilities. Situations characterised by complexity and ambiguity are least “known,” requiring experimentation and piloting.

A VUCA operating environment creates challenges for public managers but also provides opportunities for innovation. To turn new challenges into opportunities, public managers need to master and display three essential competencies:

  • stakeholder engagement and story telling
  • managing political masters with political astuteness
  • empowering and leveraging collaborative networks

Stakeholder engagement and story telling

Public managers need to assess how stakeholders will respond to plans and programs and how they can move stakeholders in the desired direction to acquire legitimacy. After mapping stakeholder dynamics and interrelationships, public managers then need to devise strategies to manage their stakeholder allegiances. The objective is to widen the support base while minimising the number of adversaries and their power to derail strategies and decisions.

To maximise allegiances, public managers have to become active storytellers. This means skilfully framing their message rather than simply broadcasting their points of view. Public managers increasingly have to “go out there” and persuade other public, private, and civic actors to support their policies, programs, and proposals.

Managing political masters with political astuteness

Public managers in times of crisis have to be politically astute to advise their political masters—that is, speak truth to power without risking getting sidelined. This means:

  • deploying political skills in situations involving diverse and sometimes competing interests and stakeholders. This in order to create sufficient alignment of interests and/or consent so as to achieve outcomes.

An ever‐important responsibility of public managers in times of crisis is to maintain the long view and ensure a degree of institutional continuity and policy consistency. Being politically astute does not mean neglecting to safeguard institutional qualities and values during times of turbulence.

At the same time, crises provide opportunities to maximise bureaucratic power and influence by consistently pushing sound policy proposals. Public managers have always derived much of their legitimacy and authority from domain knowledge and experience.

Empowering and leveraging collaborative networks

A crisis forces public managers to collaborate more closely with different and sometimes ad hoc networks consisting of state and non-state actors: citizens, non-governmental organisations, businesses, charities and social enterprises. Effective collaboration requires managers to bring together widely divergent agendas, norms, working styles, worldviews, and the motives of partners.

At the same time, public managers can struggle with getting collaboration going within their own government, especially when the “we’re in this together” sentiment during the initial crisis phase wanes. Despite years of talking about “whole of government” and “joined‐up government, this is still not the norm.

This is even more so for collaboration in supranational, multilevel, and cross‐national settings such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation or the European Union. As such, many of the challenges and competencies discussed in the paper apply equally to intragovernmental and intergovernmental collaboration.

What this means for public managers

The paper proposes four action points for public managers in times of crisis:

  1. Invest in communication capacity and skills to complement more traditional administrative practice.
  2. Engage stakeholders (supportive and adversarial), because winning them over will produce significant long‐term gains in legitimacy and support.
  3. Maintain a nodal position when there are competing streams of advice targeting political masters.
  4. Strive to balance control and flexibility in collaborating with other actors and sectors.

Want to read more?

Being a public manager in times of crisis: the art of managing stakeholders, political masters, and collaborative networks – Zeger van der Wal, Public Administration Review, May 2020

Want to hear more from Associate Professor van der Wal? He will lead a masterclass in ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series next month. The series is designed to inspire and educate the public sector leaders of the future in short, ‘choose-your-own adventure’ sessions. Associate Professor van der Wal’s masterclass Leading in the age of disruption will address many of the issues discussed above sharing best practice leadership cases to shape your leadership approach, and strategies and tools relevant to turn leadership challenges into opportunities. Find out more here.

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Published Date: 17 November 2020