Skip to main content

Disaster Governance in an Era of Climate Change: Is Public Management Up to the Challenge?

Disaster Governance in an Era of Climate Change: Is Public Management Up to the Challenge?

Fire Chasers team members have convened a panel and will be presenting new research at the Public Management Research Conference in Chapel Hill, NC from June 11 to 14. Abstracts for papers are below and presentation slides will be uploaded after the conference.

The Role of Boundary Objects in Network Cognition

Branda Nowell, PhD North Carolina State University; Elliot Nauert, MA North Carolina State University

Leadership and governance of complex disasters is a growing area of interest to the field of public management. The governance challenges on large disasters are immense. Governance structures for coordinating a complex, multi-jurisdictional disaster response must evolve in response to both current conditions as well as anticipated events (Comfort,2007) . Projections of response needs are often further complicated by considerable uncertainty about what will happen, where, and in what timeframe. Last, disasters generally require network forms of governance as authority and responsibility for various response functions across different geographic areas are distributed among levels of government.

Governance forums are the spaces in which information is exchanged, common operating norms are established, and decisions are made among those with formal and informal responsibilities to respond to a disaster. This begs the question, how do public leaders come to understand the nature of the “incident” they are engaged in? How does this understanding influence the governance forums that are created to manage a complex incident? Who is given access to these decision making and information exchange forums? Who is excluded? What are the factors that influence this process?

Network cognition in complex problem domains has been described as the understandings that network managers develop about the nature and structure of the pertinent network they are seeking to influence (Nowell and Steelman, 2016). In this paper, we argue that the creation of governance forums is the negotiated enactment of the network cognition among a group of managers (Schein, 1993). We empirically explore this phenomenon in the context of complex, multi-jurisdictional wildfire events. Based on analysis of field observations during the active response phase of three complex fire events in the American West during 2018, we specifically examine the role and use of boundary objects among leaders in shaping and influencing the network cognition of public leaders. Implications of research findings for advancing a theory of network cognition are discussed.

Network Governance of Multi-Jurisdictional Disasters: Is ICS Enough?

Toddi Steelman, PhD Duke University; Ryan Scott, MA North Carolina State University

In the United States, the national framework that governs disaster response is referred to as the Incident Command System. This system is built on classic bureaucratic principals of design, aimed at creating a coherent and coordinated response to a complex disaster through the use of tools such as centralized leadership, scalar chain of command, and limited span of control. As the complexity of disasters increase, disaster response organizations must also expand in complexity to accommodate the myriad of actors with authority and responsibility to take action. This complexity has pushed the tools of the incident command system to their limits as incidents adopt a complex array of governance tools such as joint delegations of authority, unified command structures, area command, and geographic zoning. However, while more networked forms of governance have been advocated for in the literature, we lack a clear picture of the structural forms of network disaster governance and the characteristics that are associated with more favorable outcomes. The essential tension in complex disaster governance is that the formal organizational system for management has a hierarchical command structure, while disasters are networked events requiring significant lateral coordination. This mismatch creates an opportunity to explore more appropriate governance for more effective disaster management. In this paper, we empirically address this gap by investigating the structural forms network governance that are linked to better outcomes.

The specific outcome of interest in this project is the perception of voice in the disaster governance efforts by leaders with formal responsibility to represents a jurisdiction threatened by the disaster. Sorenson and Torfing (2009) argue that voice in meta-governance structures is an essential component to establishing more effective network governance. However, while we know that incidents are managing to govern in networked contexts in which there is no superordinate authority, we know little about the tools of meta governance that are more or less effective in supporting network governance processes. In this paper, we address this gap based on data from interviews with public and private leaders engaged in disaster response on complex disasters. Specifically, we investigate the structural features that were associated with leaders’ perception of having voice in the collective management of the incident for 13 complex, multi-stakeholder disasters. Implications for advancing both theory and practice of network governance of disasters will be discussed.

Federalism meets Social Cognition: Temporal and Substantive Variation in Risk Perception across Levels of Government

Anne-lise Velez, PhD Virginia Tech; Honey Minkowitz, MPA North Carolina State University; Shannon McGovern North Carolina State University

As wildfires complexity increases, there are more government and private actors involved in and impacted by fire response, representing local, state, private and federal levels of government. The wildland fire response community has broadly adopted risk management principals and practices to guide decision making on complex wildfire events. As a result, risk perception is a key factor in shaping decision making and subsequent disaster response. Further, to the extent the risk perception guides decision making, it stands to reason that actors who share a common risk narrative will be more likely to also find greater common ground in decision making. Therefore, the understanding how risk perception may vary across stakeholder groups may offer valuable insight into points of tension and conflict on multi —jurisdictional disasters.

That said, while there is a well-developed literature on risk perception of disasters within the general public, less is known to date about the risk perception of elite decision making makers. In particular, we know little about whether, and if so, how risk perceptions on the same incident may different based on positionality within different levels of government. This paper aims to address this gap by conducting a within and cross case analysis of risk narratives from responders on the same incidents representing different levels of government. To better understand how responders view risk in complex multijurisdictional wildfires, we identified ten of the most complex U.S. events in 2017 and conducted interviews with 89 representatives of tribal, federal, state, local, and private stakeholders. Analysis of risk narratives revealed variation among levels of government in both the salient substantive dimensions of risk as well as the temporal bounding of risk perception within substantive areas. Substantive dimensions of risk perception included categories around human safety; built infrastructure; ecosystems and the environment; and social, political, and economic risks. Temporal dimensions varied based on their attention to the immediate and tactical elements of risk, the incident-level potential, and long term consequences that would endure after the fire was extinguished. We found actors from different levels of government view risk differently, with private landowners focused more on long-term economic impacts, federal landowners concerned about immediate tactical risk to firefighters, state landowners considering immediate public safety, and local landowners expressing a variety of risk concerns. Findings provide perspective on differing risk perceptions, which may ease communication and strategic decision-making processes around risk prioritization and fire management among jurisdictions.