Decision-making during an emergency

It is a tradition in Swedish society to always have a plan ready to use in different situations. In this way, well-considered decisions that enjoy general support can be taken. When an emergency arises with such a speed as we have seen in the current case, there is a risk that the Swedish approach to decision-making can be undermined. For better or for worse. 

Johan Wänström, lecturer and researcher at CKS. Anna Valentinsson/Linköpings un

Margot Wallström, previously Sweden’s minister for foreign affairs and European commissioner, has described how Sweden declares in EU contexts that a plan has been drawn up that determines how everything is to be managed. A lot of time and energy is laid down to evaluate, analyse and discuss various situations, such that carefully thought-through actions can be taken in any context. Johan Wänström, political scientist and researcher in the Centre for Local Government Studies (CKS), believes that the Swedish approach can be successful – in normal circumstances.

“One effect of this approach is that the probability that politicians and decision-makers make the right decisions increases. Another effect is that it helps to create predictability and a middle way in the planning and decision-making processes, which increases confidence in our public institutions.”

The actions of the government and municipalities during the ongoing coronacrisis confirm this idea. When other European governments have taken far-reaching political decisions to put society under lockdown and introduce quarantine for the population, Swedish politicians have listened to expert agencies and generally followed only the advice and recommendations they give.

Previous research

During the financial crisis of 2008, CKS started a national research programme into Sweden’s municipalities. The starting point was the idea that operations and the work of leadership in a municipality change when an emergency arises. The programme was intended to study such effects more closely during the emergency that was ongoing then.

“One important lesson we learned from the research program was that emergencies tend to progress extremely rapidly”, says Johan Wänström.“This has a major effect on decision-making bodies – not only at national level, but also in municipalities and regions.” 

In the spring of 2020, society was drawn into an emergency extremely rapidly: general debate and social planning changed totally under a period of not much more than a week in the middle of March.

Johan Wänström continues: “An emergency forces politicians and decision-makers to deviate from planned procedures and regulations. Normal knowledge and experience do not apply in situations that arise so suddenly. Previous emergencies can, of course, act as guidance for how to act, but since emergencies tend to be unpredictable, it is not possible to transfer experience from one emergency to another without modification.”

Emergencies lead to unexpected decisions

Before the coronacrisis arose, a suggestion that all upper secondary teaching should be conducted remotely, for example, would probably not have been taken seriously. Much of the formal regulatory framework and the organisation of the local schools are based on the pupils being gathered at one place.

“None of the experiences from previous emergencies, such as the financial crisis of 2008 or the refugee crisis of 2015, suggest that this type of decision is necessary, simply because society is facing an emergency”, says Johan Wänström. “Even so, our political decision-makers decided to set upper secondary education into a distance mode for the spring term, and many people seem to think that this was undoubtedly the right thing to do.”

The coronacrisis has shed a light onto other aspects of decision-making when emergencies hit. One of these is the timing of decisions, some of which must be taken extremely rapidly. Another concerns democracy – the democratic nature of decision-making bodies can be decimated if the members themselves fall ill. The Swedish parliament has already decided to reduce the number of MPs necessary for a quorum, while the same question is being discussed in several municipalities in Östergötland.

Emergencies, innovation and development

“In the long term, there is a risk that the legitimacy of the democratic process is compromised if municipal committees and councils are compelled to take decisions with a  smaller number of representatives present”, says Wänström. “And we have another current case in which Region Östergötland decided to cancel the council meeting in April, since it would require more than 50 people in the same room for a quorum. Holding the meeting would have breached the recommendations of the authorities.”
“In the short term, in contrast, I don’t see any risk for democracy. On the contrary, it’s important during an emergency that politicians can take decisions in unconventional ways, such that society can continue to function.”

“In summary, there are many reasons to support the ambition to have well thought-through and tested procedures and regulations for many of society’s phenomena. It’s also a positive to reflect over and learn from experiences of previous emergencies. At the same time, in many cases an emergency can be an occasion when we have to think along new pathways, and this is one reason that emergencies can also be regarded as a source of innovation and development”, Johan Wänström concludes.

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