The three essential skills of a good public manager in a crisis

By David Donaldson

Monday June 15, 2020


Stakeholder management, political astuteness and collaborative networks are vital skills amid uncertainty and volatility, argues public management expert Zeger van der Wal.

During a crisis, policymakers must respond to fast-moving situations, often with partial information and no clear solutions.

Zeger van der Wal
Zeger van der Wal

Such a context requires public managers possess three competencies in particular, argues Associate Professor Zeger van der Wal of the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

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According to a recent paper by van der Wal aimed at practitioners, public managers in a crisis need to focus on: stakeholder engagement and storytelling, managing political masters with astuteness, and empowering and leveraging collaborative networks.

“Administrative capacity is a major factor in determining whether societies will emerge from this unprecedented situation with resilience and optimism, or despair and disconnectedness, and whether trust in government will increase or decrease,” he writes.

“Clearly, quality of government matters, perhaps more than ever before. Autonomous and competent public managers are primary actors contributing to quality of government.”

Stakeholder engagement and storytelling

A crisis often means implementing policies that would be politically impossible under normal circumstances.

Take lockdowns for example — what would have been unthinkable a few months ago is now considered vital.

This means stakeholders, including different parts of government, external influencers and citizens themselves, need to be brought along, argues van der Wal.

“After mapping stakeholder dynamics and interrelationships, public managers need to come up with strategies to manage their stakeholder allegiances, in order to enlarge their support base while minimizing the number of adversaries as well as the adversaries’ powers to derail strategies and decisions,” he says.

“Strategic stakeholder management ultimately aims to grow allegiances by convincing indifferent stakeholders to become followers or even advocates.”

It may not even necessarily mean converting opponents to active supporters, but rather moving them to the “indifferent category”.

Australian governments have mostly succeeded at convincing stakeholders of the need for intrusive interventions to fight the coronavirus. But one need only look to the United States, where federal, state and local governments are at odds in many places, to see the potentially dangerous effects of an un-coordinated response.

To bring people along, public managers need to be good storytellers, who can skilfully frame their messaging to suit different stakeholders, while also listening to different points of view, says van der Wal.

Managing political masters

At a time when many politicians are sceptical of the value of experts and the public service, political astuteness is an important enabler of frank and fearless advice.

Certainly, the crisis puts a greater responsibility on the public service “to maintain a sense of continuity and neutrality in managing institutions and policies”, says van der Wal, but an ability to navigate situations involving diverse and sometimes competing stakeholders is a critical part of achieving outcomes.

“Clearly, both expertise and managerial skills are important, but the importance of being viewed as politically astute expert should not be underestimated if public managers want to remain relevant, legitimate, and authoritative when managing up, certainly in a crisis context in which evidence and expertise are constantly disputed.”

Outside parties will compete to provide advice to politicians. Public servants can maintain influence by acting as a filter and interpreter of outside data.

“Collaborate with but set conditions and norms for external advisors to your masters, and penalize non-compliance”, he suggests.

Leveraging collaborative networks

Working with external networks does not always come easily for public servants, but governments need to ensure they cooperate effectively with external partners, whether business, not-for-profits or citizens.

These external parties tend to have different agendas, world views and ways of working, which can make cooperation difficult. In many crises, the interventions of outside parties have also created their own challenges — such as the logistical problems surrounding un-coordinated citizen donations of physical goods to bushfire survivors.

Then there’s lack of coordination inside government itself, notes van der Wal.

“Just think of the initial battles between and within governments over the purchase of medical equipment, the support of specific industries, and attempts to acquire vaccines: while individual governments would have benefited from more collaboration, they behave in the exact opposite way in the context of “every country for itself”. Various producers of medical equipment utilized the environment of scarcity to increase prices substantially.

“… Now that the crisis moves into a different phase, we witness increasing collaboration between and within bureaucracies with regard to the major policy challenges that now present themselves – such as the nature of collectively funded stimulus packages, funding of transboundary research into medical and non-medical aspects of the Covid-19 epidemic — and between public and private actors in developing and providing access to vaccines.”

Putting it into action

Taking into consideration the above three skillsets, Van der Wal provides four action points for public managers in a time of crisis:

  1. Invest in communicative capacity and social media skills to complement more traditional administrative crafts, through recruitment as well as development of existing cohorts.
  2. Make an effort to engage stakeholders (supportive and adversarial), as winning them over produces significant long-term gains in terms of legitimacy and support.
  3. Maintain a nodal position in competing streams of advice targeting political masters, as providing credible and usable information in a timely manner allows for a more critical stance when needed.
  4. Strive to balance control and flexibility in collaborating with other actors and sectors, while realising not all risks can be mitigated in seeking added value from (ad hoc) partners.

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