Officials sometimes seem stiff and slow during crises but they have been trained to display these qualities and this is important to ensure the stability of the laws. Contudo, officials should practice the change of roles necessary in crisis situations because otherwise a crisis would be a needlessly traumatic and paralyzing experience for an official.
The recruitment and assessment process of Estonia’s top officials uses a competence model of officials developed by the Government office. Managing the competence of civil servants playing key roles in the state, especially during crises, has developed into a practical process during the operation of the state top officials competence center. It specifies the expectations regarding the civil servants’ behavior, attitude and skills. Contudo, the six competences listed in the model not include crisis management ability.
If we think about it, there is no special crisis management skill. A successful (crisis) manager must be able to do three things: map the current situation, describe the desired future and find a practical way of reaching it. These are regular management skills and if one cannot handle the situation, it is the case of incapable managers rather than extraordinary situations.
Yet we could consider improving the competence model in a way informing the officials in advance of expectations regarding crisis resilience. This expectation has been repeatedly expressed over recent years, but in retrospect, in a traumatic and personalized manner. Communication theory says that expectations expressed in such manner need not reach the target for purely human reasons
Practice has shown that the heads of our civil service are not very «crisis resilient». The head of the Health Board had to step down in the beginning of the pandemic and her successor was replaced as well. Madis Kallas had to step down from the post of the head of Saaremaa municipality as the corona pandemic began. The general manager appointed at the beginning of the Ukrainian refugee crisis was also replaced by Elmar Vaher, the crisis-tested director general of the Police and Border Guard Board. Estonia’s present organization of crisis management presumes that besides the civil service staff, the officials of local governments should also be able to adapt to crises, adjust their mentality and resist.
I have personally experienced during my long civil service career how difficult it is in crisis situations at the purely emotional, routine level to escape from the somewhat sleepy regimen of processing decisions. Any crisis is a real nightmare for a civil servant at the attitude level: no time for detailed study, consulting and involving others, decisions have to be made independently and the entire activity is overshadowed by fear of making mistakes.
The worst threat of paralysis emerges in a situation where the emergency forces one to act against the letter and spirit of existing legal acts. If an official refuses to act like that during a crisis, he has to keep in mind that someone will get angry and the traditional complaints about heartless or stupid officials cannot be avoided. The officials in such cases are frequently neither heartless nor stupid but simply doing the job they have been expected to do and for which they have been recognized.
Managing crises requires a shift of role from an official and laws provide extraordinary powers to decision-makers so as to make the shift safe. Yet the shift should also work at the level of attitudes. Crisis management requires a large ability to endure uncertainty, constant adjustment to new information, while the adjustment in turn requires a sudden change of habitual working routines. These abilities are underdeveloped in the public service because the civil service has so far been expected to display rigidity in ensuring law and order, thoroughness and knowledge in preparing in preparing decisions and slowness in amending the existing policies so that the target groups of these policies could participate in the decision-making process and contest it.
We know only one method for preparing for this shift of role – training. Trainings are often organizationally exaggerated and the very term has a threatening effect: are they going to test me? The anxiety caused by training is one of the reasons why they are so rarely held among politicians as well as officials.
Crisis management competence could be trained at the Academy of Security Sciences crisis management laboratory, which has all the resources for creating a realistic crisis situation and exert emotional pressure on the participants. But training exercises can also be held in small scale and why not integrate them in the regular policy development process where a public service marked for amendment would be enacted and tested during a discussion-exercise.
If you want to view your colleagues from a new aspect, replace a boring meeting by a miniature exercise-enactment once every quarter.