In light of COVID-19 and our country’s efforts to prepare for a second wave of the virus, our Managing Partner Stijn Pieters was interviewed by Belgian radio station Radio 1. In the interview, Stijn discusses the meaning and challenges thrown at politicians by so-called ‘wicked problems’, paradoxical decision-making and the importance of networks and network governance.
Listen to the interview in Dutch or read the English transcript below.
Ruth Joos (RJ):
The report by the expert group (‘GEES’) was published yesterday. One of the important conclusions is that “the government is not sufficiently prepared for a possible second wave of the Coronavirus”. At least, that is the opinion of the group of experts in charge of our country’s exit strategy, and their message was later reinforced in Terzake. According to GEES, “things really need to happen because we are worried”. The experts talk about the need for a so-called control tower, across different domains, freeing up more resources, better contact tracing and so on. More efforts are needed. Those concerns have also been heard, of course, among the population. However, several Ministers did not want to respond to these concerns just yet. Their reasoning is understandable: “We’ll only communicate when the decisions have been made.” On the other hand, communication has once again shown to be very important and of there have been a couple of mistakes along the way. As the COVID-19 pandemic seems to weaken, at least for the moment, now is the time to look ahead and consider where we could improve. That is a complicated question; we are in the middle of a crisis yet we have to look forward. Let us talk to Stijn Pieters about this topic. Good evening.
Stijn Pieters (SP):
RJ: You are co-founder of PM • Risk Crisis Change and are an expert on the domains of crisis management and crisis communication. Is this a smart move by politicians? To refrain from communicating about our country’s preparation for a possible next wave of the virus, even though the public is demanding information about this concern?
SP: At the moment, I mainly hear politicians talking about the economic impact. That is where their focus is on. On the other hand, I think it’s normal that experts and politicians with a medical background keep emphasising the medical aspect of the crisis though.
RJ: Experts and politicians are the people we have heard the most during the pandemic. Often times it was difficult to separate politicians and experts. Did you notice that, too?
SP: I’m an advisor on crisis management and crisis communication myself, and unfortunately, people do not always follow my advice. That’s also the case for GEES, as they are the advisory board for politicians. Their advice is not always followed either. Their role is to put forward their points of view from different backgrounds and perspectives, whether it be medical or, for example, economical. Everybody plays their role and it is up to politicians to take that advice and use it to make tough decisions.
RJ: Let us take a closer look at the definition of this crisis. We are still in the middle of the crisis but we already have to anticipate a next wave of the virus. That is not easy.
SP: It is a very interesting period for people like me and my colleagues who are involved in crisis management. What kind of crisis is this? We have already been through a lot in Belgium: train collisions, terrorist attacks, storms and so on. This pandemic is another type of crisis we have not seen yet, at least not to this extent. In this case we’re talking about a thorny, mean problem. In literature this is called a ‘wicked problem’. One of the characteristics of a wicked problem is that you can only see the solution when the situation is solved. That is the struggle for our leaders. We do not know how to solve it, and all measures are only a tiny part of the puzzle.
RJ: So there is no solution yet. That’s the hard part.
SP: The difficulty is that the medical crisis is now becoming more and more contained but other problems arise. Of course COVID-19 could still escalate, the experts are absolutely right about that, but we are now being confronted with the economical consequences about which we have less insight. We’re shifting from problem to problem.
RJ: I know we are busy solving the current crisis yet we have to be prepared for another one. How to do this?
SP: Well there are two different visions of that. You can either boil everything down to measures and procedures in great detail, or you can work in a principle-based way and leave room for common sense. These are two schools of thought and you have to do a bit of both. You have to have guidelines anyway, you have to have clear laws, but on the other hand you need to leave enough freedom to make decisions, to review to those decisions and to adjust them very quickly.
RJ: We have seen some inconsistent decisions during the last few months. Have you advised anyone throughout this crisis?
SP: We have advised a lot of people and organisations in this crisis.
RJ: And politicians?
SP: There are a few of them.
RJ: But you won’t mention them by name?
SP: No, I do not think that is appropriate. But talking about politicians, they have to make those tough decisions and it is very paradoxical. We see that with a lot of our corporate clients too. Paradoxical decisions have to be made and that makes it difficult.
RJ: What do you mean by paradoxical decisions?
SP: For example, decisions have to be made on a medical level, but then you know that things will get worse on an economic level. You have to decide on the economic level but then you know that the risks for the medical aspect of the crisis will increase.
RJ: So their decisions will never be the right ones?
SP: Indeed, it will never be good. So actually, leaders have been given a bit of leeway by many of their stakeholders not to make 100% accurate choices. Because it’s just that mean problem. It’s not a terrorist attack where we know the best course of action within 48 hours. Now we are months deep in the crisis and we still do not know what the best steps are for the economy.
RJ: Could it be a matter of having the widest possible information, guidance or support? Does that happen enough? Is there enough of diversity behind the scenes?
SP: Many of our people are indeed considering this. It comes down to having the widest possible network. Transdisciplinarity, as it is often called. We have to embrace transdiciplinarity and therefore not only include the medical field, not only communicative, not only economic, but really much broader. You find that in your network. Wicked problems are dealt with and solved by a network. How to manage this network is part of research, and we are actually researching the importance of network governance. In the end, there is not one person who can solve it, not is there one organisation who can solve it. The network is going to have to solve this together.
RJ: Someday. Thank you, Stijn Pieters, founder of PM • Risk Crisis Change.