Crisis, Accountability and Blame Management – Strategies and Survival of Political Office-Holders

25 April 2016

In her doctoral thesis, Annika Brändström examines how accountability demands on political office-holders can be triggered by crisis events and how political office-holders navigate blame and accountability issues in order to protect their political careers.

In her research, Annika Brändström explores crisis-induced accountability processes that occur during and after a crisis. She also examines how various blame management strategies are used and the types of outcomes they generate.

The thesis builds upon several case studies. Among others, a comparison of crises in Sweden and the Netherlands where incumbent political office-holders were confronted with accountability issues during a crisis and how their political careers were affected by the crisis aftermath. In several examples, the demand for accountability resulted in ministerial resignations and significantly damaged political careers.

Bild på Annika Brändström.

Annika Brändström also looked at how the Scandinavian governments handled the issue of accountability after the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia as well as the effects that the prisoner abuse allegations had on the U.S and the British governments during the Iraqi war.

Crisis-induced accountability processes

Crisis-induced accountability processes focus on three key aspects. First, the origins of the crisis: how could this have happened in the first place? Was this a result of a malfunctioning system or of bad decisions or policies, or was it an unforeseen 'act of god'. Second, the responses to the crisis: did "we"/"they" do enough and were the actions appropriate and swift enough once the crisis had hit full force? Did the responsible authorities take proper action and did the involved agencies perform satisfactorily under pressure? Third, lessons identified and learned: what political and policy implications did the crisis generate and if/how should they be dealt with?

By whom and where are blame management strategies most effective?

The thesis ends with some practical recommendations and significant insight for political office-holders. For example, political opponents, the public, and the media often give positive feedback to those who are perceived as sincere in their efforts in managing a crisis and who are willing to participate in the crisis response as well as discuss the possible causes and culprits. Key actors potentially have a great deal of influence over how events are perceived and which narratives gain attention and legitimacy. The findings in Annika's research highlight that attempts to influence are more successful when political office-holders are perceived as open and responsive to the needs and expectations of their audiences.

From crisis management researcher to crisis manager

Annika Brändström contributed to establishing and developing CRISMART (Center for Crisis Management Research and Training) at the Swedish Defence University, and was one of the first Training Directors. In 2003, she took her first assignment at the Swedish Government Offices. Today she is currently the Head of the Crisis Management Secretariat within the Swedish Government Offices.

Annika Brändström successfully defended her doctoral thesis at Utrecht University in the Netherlands on 29 January 2016.

Caption top picture: Sten Tolgfors, Laila Freivalds and Anna Lindh. Three Swedish ministers who have experience of crisis-induced accountability processes. Tolgfors and Freivalds resigned but Lindh could remain as a minister.

Photo credit top picture: Magnus Fröderberg/ (Freivalds) och Vesa Lindqvist/Matti Hurme/ (Lindh).