Universiteit Leiden

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As an organisation, how do you manage a crisis?

How do you manage a crisis? This is what Professor of Crisis Governance Sanneke Kuipers will address in her inaugural lecture. And the lecture will deliberately be in Dutch and jargon-free, and comprehensible to family and friends yet challenging for colleagues. Pandemics, floods, cybercrime or mismanagement − society appears to be incredibly resilient. ‘But it’s easy to underestimate climate problems.’

Kuipers has been fascinated by crises since she was a student. As a public administration expert, she takes the perspective of the organisation as her starting point. Crisis management is the complete body of responsibilities and efforts aimed at mitigating the negative impact of a critical threat or incident.

Kuipers distinguishes three types of crisis: in, for and about an organisation. When organisations are assigned tasks that are beyond their remit, it can lead to the third type of crisis. For example, she says, things went wrong when the Tax and Customs Administration had to crack down on childcare benefit fraud among families, a result of previously detected fraud by foreign nationals. The Tax and Customs Administration had to provide tailor-made solutions but penalised minor offences disproportionately. It became a crisis of the highest order.

Gas extraction in Groningen

Given what is known today, adjustments to the gas extraction in Groningen might have been made at an earlier stage. But, in terms of changing course, the government is something of a supertanker. And, gas extraction falls under Economic Affairs, a ministry where the focus is not on public safety. ‘The importance of safety for the people of Groningen was seriously underestimated. That delayed the government’s response, and the result was the gas extraction crisis.’

Can Kuipers and her fellow experts use their insights to prevent crises? Warnings are possible, as with the outbreak of infectious diseases, but often the reaction is that it will not be such a big deal. When that turned out differently with Covid-19, Kuipers saw that the response to the crisis and the style of leadership varied considerably from country to country. In some cases, centrally run states often shut down society completely. In the Netherlands, with its decentral government, some rules were imposed by local authorities and others by the national government. That also leaves some room for the human dimension in crisis management. In Amsterdam, for example, in spite of a ban on groups of people assembling, the parks and playgrounds stayed open.


After the pandemic, Kuipers turned her attention to other threats. Cybercrime could cause an unprecedented crisis, as anything you can control at the touch of a button has risks attached to it. In 2017, when a cyberattack on UK hospitals caused all screens to go black, patient safety was immediately at risk.

Kuipers recommends practising incident response at all levels within an organisation. That way, simple mistakes can be avoided. ‘Did you know that in an emergency people looking for the exit automatically run to the entrance? Even though there are green signs everywhere pointing to the emergency exit, which is the other way. Self-sufficiency and help from others within the organisation or immediate surroundings is vital. In a disaster, most people are rescued by bystanders.’

Text: Tim Brouwer de Koning

Sanneke Kuipers combines her academic work for Leiden University with practical experience as a consultant.

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