The post-crisis accountability process is a purification ritual that serves to channel public emotions and enables re-equilibration after a severe disturbance of the sociopolitical order. Crisis accountability literature can be reviewed in terms of forums, actors, and consequences. This setup allows a systematic discussion of how crises impact: the accountability process in influencing its setting (the forum); the strategies of accountees and their opponents (actors); and the resulting outcomes in terms of reputation damage, sanctions, and restoration (consequences). There is a clear distinction between formal and informal accountability forums, with the media being almost exclusively informal, and judicial forums, accident investigators, and political inquiries having formal authority over accountability assessments. Yet, through the presence of formal authorities in media reporting, and because media frames influence the work of formal authorities, the different forums intensively interact in accountability processes. Looking at accountability strategies reveals that the number of actors involved in blame games is likely rising because of increasingly networked crisis responses, and the role of actors has become more important and personal in the crisis aftermath and accountability process. The consequences and success of individual actors in influencing the accountability outcomes is shaped by both institutional settings and individual skills and strategies. A current political power position that exceeds prior mistakes is an effective shield, and denial is the least effective though most commonly used strategy. Accountability processes remain a balancing act between rebuttal and repair. Yet after major crisis, renewal is possible, and post-crisis accountability can play a crucial role therein.
Sanneke Kuipers and Annika Brändström
Public inquiries are ad hoc institutions, formally external to the executive branch, established by governments or a minister for the task of investigating crises, policy failures, or disasters. Inquiries play an important role in the aftermath of crisis by serving as instruments of accountability and policy learning. Yet the very existence and function of public inquiries are shaped by post crisis politics, in which public and politically independent inquiries create risks to potentially implicated players, who seek to avoid and mitigate potential blame. The blame-avoidance literature indeed provides a useful theoretical framework for the study of public inquiries. Empirical studies suggest that blame-attribution patterns are predictive of the political decision of whether to appoint an inquiry into a crisis. Studies of the effects of inquiries on public opinion show that, at the investigation stage, the institutional attributes of inquiries foster their legitimacy as a procedure for policy learning and accountability. However, after an inquiry reports its findings, members of the public can evaluate the report, rendering institutional attributes negligible in evaluating the inquiry. As for the effects of inquiries on the public agenda, existing evidence provides no support for a quantitative effect of inquiry appointment on the level of media coverage of a crisis. An integrated analysis of these findings offers an up-to-date theory of the political role of post crisis inquiries and points to some current gaps in our understanding of them.
Crises and disasters come in many shapes and sizes. They range from global pandemics and global financial crises to tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic ash clouds, bushfires, terrorist attacks, critical infrastructure failures and food contamination episodes. Threats may be locally isolated such as an explosion at a local fireworks factory, or they may cascade across multiple countries and sectors, such as pandemics. No country is immune from the challenge of managing extraordinary threats, and doing so out of their comfort zone of routine policy making. The crisis management challenge involves managing threats ‘on the ground’, as well as the political fallout and societal fears. Populist and journalistic commentary frequently labels crisis management initiatives as having either succeeded or failed. The realities are much more complex. Evaluators confront numerous methodological challenges. These include the careful consideration of multiple and often competing outcomes, differing perceptions, issues of success for whom, and gray areas stemming from shortfalls and lack of evidence, as well as variations over time. Despite such complexity, some key themes appear continually across evaluations, from internal reviews to royal commissions and accident inquiries. These pertain to the ways in which evaluations can be shaped heavily or lightly by political agendas, the degree to which evaluating organizations are able to open up, the degree to which gray areas and shortfalls are stumbling blocks in producing findings, and the challenge of producing coherent investigative narratives when many storylines are possible. Ultimately, evaluating crisis initiatives is “political” in nature because it seeks to provide authoritative evaluations that reconcile multiple views, from experts and lawyers to victims and their families.