Policing the pandemic: deciding and acting in the face of uncertainty and the unexpected

Fenton-O'Creevy, Mark; Miller, Nicola; Selby-Fell, Helen and Bowles, Benjamin (2024). Policing the pandemic: deciding and acting in the face of uncertainty and the unexpected. In: Dickinson, Helen; Yates, Sophie; O'Flynn, Janine and Smith, Catherine eds. Research Handbook on Public Management and COVID-19. Elgar Handbooks in Public Administration and Management. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, pp. 192–205.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/9781802205954


Insufficient attention has been paid to how organisational leaders decide and act when faced with radical uncertainty. We report on a case study of responses to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic in two English police forces. Drawing on high reliability organisation theory, we examine factors that supported a successful response to the crisis and what can be learned to improve future crisis resilience. We identify well-practised capabilities in strategic command, the role of values in navigating uncertainty, and mindful approaches to updating strategies as central to a largely successful and resilient response. We also identify the need for adapting strategic command models to cope with the demands of unbounded crises of extended duration, the dangers of defensive decision-making in the face of intense media and political scrutiny, the necessity of rethinking the role of contingency planning, and the need for better government communication and coordination practices during national crises.

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