How can official response organizations govern community self-organization during crisis and disasters?

In collaboration with:
Arjen Schmidt VU Amsterdam

A well-known phenomenon in crisis and disaster management is that spontaneous (untrained) volunteers convergence on incident sites, in addition to professional response organizations. More recently, convergence has been amplified by the adoption of new tools and technologies, such as social media. Self-organizing groups of citizens can assist overburdened official agencies with evacuation, organizing shelters, and logistics. However, response organizations often find it difficult to cooperate with citizen groups, because they have unstable task definitions, fluid membership, and pursue multiple possible conflicting goals.

These developments necessitate a new understanding of how to govern community self-organization in times of crisis. Our current understanding in social science about governing self-organization is predominantly derived from forms of self-organization situated in specific policy contexts, such as urban planning, infrastructure management and environmental planning. Lessons learned here may not apply in crisis situations that require immediate action with limited time for deliberation, and are increasingly transboundary and complex. New insights into governing community self-organization under pressure are therefore warranted.

In this project we develop an analytical framework for understanding the governance of self-organization in crisis situations. The framework is grounded in recent literature on self-organization in crisis and disaster management and consists of four types of governance approaches: co-operating, monitoring, facilitating and empowering. Co-operating is active two-way communication and/or collaboration between government and self-organized groups to mutually shape ongoing response activities. Monitoring refers to checking and identifying messages on media channels in order to gather actionable information about a specific event. Facilitating concerns providing active support to self-organizing groups in order to reach their goals. Finally, empowering means organizing the capacity and potential of citizens to self-organize.

Overall our aim in this project is to explain how governments can facilitate self-organization during crises in different ways, in order to improve governmental responsiveness and adaptive capacity. To do so, we connect debates on self-organization and crisis management, providing insight into governing collective action in situations under pressure, and ground discussions about the characteristics of self-organized convergence from disaster management in public management debates.

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