Project description

Collective Action and Collaborative Governance in Crisis Situations: The Case of the Australian 'Black Summer' Bushfires 2019-2020 is generously funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) under the Discovery Scheme (ARC DP210103780) and will run 2021-2026. It brings together an experienced group of leading Australian and international scholars of organization, management, and governance to investigate the various challenges that collective action and collaborative governance face during complex crises.

Point of Departure. The project aims at tackling the multiple challenges that collective action and collaborative governance face in situations of immediate and complex crisis – a topic that existing literature has insufficiently considered. Crises such as drought and wildfires, the global refugee crisis, or the COVID-19 pandemic constitute ‘grand challenges’ or ‘wicked problems’ that have become a permanent feature of increasingly globalized societies. Importantly, complex crises cannot be addressed by any single actor (or even by one single societal sector) and, in addition, elude routinized procedures of engagement. Accordingly, it is often a cross-sector collective of heterogenous actors that needs to mobilize and sustain collective action. These actors regularly do not share a common history, tradition, experience, or identity; rather, they are guided by a range of potentially contradictory values and logics of action, creating a veritable governance challenge.

Research Focus. Current theories of collective action and collaborative governance do not fully address complex crises, arising from natural hazards, environmental catastrophes, pandemics, military conflict, or forced displacement and migration. Accordingly, this project, by employing and systematizing the concept of ‘collective action in crisis’, addresses the following research question: How can a heterogeneous collective of actors that transcends organizational and institutional boundaries establish, sustain, restore, and organize the capacity to act and make meaningful decisions in crisis situations? Key issues here include how a collective of actors develops a sense of purpose and identity, a shared strategic vision and direction, and a certain level of coherence in decision-making and action by overcoming multiple governance gaps. Put metaphorically: How can a ‘cacophony’ of fragmented ‘voices’ develop into a harmonious ‘melody’, without the opportunity of proper ‘rehearsal’? Our project seeks to explore the institutional, organizational, and strategic forces that enable collective action between these multiple actors – and its effective governance.

Empirical Setting and Design. The project explores such questions by empirically investigating the case of the Australian 'Black Summer' Bushfires 2019-2020. With dozens of lives and hundreds of homes lost during unprecedented firestorms that swept through large areas of the continent and severely damaged Australia’s unique wildlife population and biodiversity, media were quick in referring to the events as a ‘crisis’, also diagnosing a deficit in political leadership and governance as well as criticizing government’s inability to deliver collective action in response to the disaster. Our project is interested in exactly this aspect of the Australian ‘Black Summer’ crisis: Building on core expertise within the team of investigators, we will examine how a broad collective of actors – including different levels of government, fire and emergency services, public agencies, NGOs as well as private sector organizations, communities, and civil society in general – is able to plan for and respond to complex crises more efficiently and effectively in the future. In order to deliver against our objectives and aims, the proposed project is based on a comprehensive methodological design across several distinct phases. We will analyse multiple data sources and employ a variety of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods of analysis.

Applicability of Findings. The domain of applicability of potential findings will include but also go way beyond the context of the Australian bushfires. The problem of effectively organizing and governing collective action is particularly salient in a variety of other crisis situations, such as in environmental catastrophes, global health crises, and the management of large-scale humanitarian emergencies. These empirical settings often evade clear-cut classification and present challenges in terms of polycentric governance demands, distributed decision-making, and collective sensemaking of the actors involved. The considerable instability inherent in these contexts and the need for collaboration amongst diverse actors make the governance of collective action particularly challenging. 

Expected Outcomes. The expected insights and outcomes of our investigation are both academic and practice-oriented. They include, among others: 

•    An improved theoretical understanding of collective action and multi-actor collaborative governance in crisis situations 
•    An improved understanding of the typology of network structures that support collaborative governance in crisis 
•    An improved understanding of collective decision-making during crisis situations 
•    Identification of obstacles and governance gaps that practitioners need to overcome to improve collaborative crisis management 

These outcomes should provide significant benefits in terms of national and international response strategies to bushfires specifically, as well as complex crises of various kinds.