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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. UNDERSTANDING POLICY DISPUTES IN CRISIS RESOLUTION
  5. POLICY CONFLICT IN THE 2010 VOLCANIC ASH CLOUD CRISIS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
  8. REFERENCES

Disruptive crises are generally conducive to policy conflict between multiple stakeholders. Following the potentially adversarial nature of crisis resolution, there is a need for theoretical approaches to advance the understanding of the political context in which such disputes evolve. This article explains how the advocacy coalition framework (ACF) can be applied as a theoretical basis for understanding the development and effects of policy conflicts in crisis resolution. Illustrating the ACF as a tool for descriptive policy analysis in this context, the article conducts a case study of the European response to the 2010 volcanic ash cloud crisis, focusing on the nature of the policy subsystem, the role of scientific information, competing crisis narratives, exploitation of resources and venues, and policy change. The concluding section identifies a set of theoretical implications and specifies how the framework can be used by practitioners to mitigate the effects of policy conflicts on crisis resolution.


INTRODUCTION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. UNDERSTANDING POLICY DISPUTES IN CRISIS RESOLUTION
  5. POLICY CONFLICT IN THE 2010 VOLCANIC ASH CLOUD CRISIS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
  8. REFERENCES

Inter-organizational cooperation is often posited as a decisive factor for effective societal responses to extreme events. This ideal, however, rarely corresponds with the reality of crisis management. On the contrary, ‘there is little evidence of the validity of the continuing normative assumption of overriding consensus, unanimity, and solidarity amongst actors and agencies involved in managing crisis events’ (Rosenthal et al. 1991, pp. 212–13). Policy disputes may have negative effects on crisis response effectiveness by thwarting communication and consideration of multiple perspectives on problem characteristics and solutions. If not properly contained, policy conflict can also jeopardize the legitimacy of political institutions through public questioning of organizations' ability to cope. To mitigate these implications, there is a need for theoretical approaches to understand the political context in which crisis-induced policy conflicts evolve. This task involves mapping the activities of multiple actors; what solutions they pursue, what strategies and venues they seek to obtain influence, and how they strategically exploit scientific information.

The objective of this study is twofold. First, the article seeks to explain how the advocacy coalition framework (ACF) can be used by researchers and practitioners as a policy analysis tool to understand the escalation and effects of policy conflict in crisis situations. Second, to demonstrate empirically how the ACF can be used to describe key dimensions of crisis resolution episodes, the article conducts a case study of the volcanic ash cloud crisis that paralyzed the European air transport system in April 2010.

UNDERSTANDING POLICY DISPUTES IN CRISIS RESOLUTION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. UNDERSTANDING POLICY DISPUTES IN CRISIS RESOLUTION
  5. POLICY CONFLICT IN THE 2010 VOLCANIC ASH CLOUD CRISIS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
  8. REFERENCES

Crisis resolution refers to policymakers' choice of problem-solving approach in response to disruptive events (Fink 2010). Researchers increasingly depict crisis resolution as an activity that relies heavily on the help of intermediary organizations, such as private corporations and interest groups (Boin 2004). What complicates collaboration in this context is that crises often present wicked or ill-structured problems that spur conflicting interpretations regarding underlying causes, problem severity, and response actions (Mitroff et al. 2008). Crisis resolution thus requires public managers and leaders to digest and respond to complex information about social and natural phenomena. In some cases, crises reinforce pre-existing controversies among stakeholders and actors involved in or affected by crisis response operations (Comfort 2010). Such cases include high-stake events in which stakeholders have strong incentives to use scientific information in an advocacy fashion as a basis for legitimizing actions supporting organizational agendas and normative policy beliefs (Sabatier 2010). Gauging theoretical approaches to grasp the evolution of policy disputes in the context of high-stake crises is thus a legitimate concern for researchers as well as practitioners.

This study argues that the potentially adversarial nature of crisis resolution calls for better integration between crisis management research and public policy theory. Some prior research on crisis-induced disputes builds from the bureaucratic politics model, which seeks to explain conflict in governmental decision-making processes. Scholars have also adopted this model to explain policymaking in the European Union more generally, focusing on bureaucratic competition between the Commission, the Council, and the European Parliament (Radaelli 2011). Yet, the bureaucratic politics approach is limited in two important respects: (i) it generally focuses on a limited number of organizations – usually in the executive branch – with sparse attention to political context; and (ii) it does not clearly state its policy application. To remedy these limitations, bureaucratic politics scholars have pressed for integration with the policy subsystem literature (Rosenthal et al. Stern and Verbeek 1991; 2008).

Cultural theory (CT) is another candidate approach to understanding the dynamics of crisis-induced policy conflict. With an emphasis on the role of different worldviews in shaping problem definition and the relationship between surprises and policy change, CT has some overlap with the questions asked in this research. For example, several studies confirm the usefulness of CT as an approach to coalition formation, policy response, and change in response to security threats and crises (Lodge and Wegrich 2004; Ripberger et al. 1987; Swedlow 2011). Despite some overlap between CT and ACF (for example, both emphasize the role of coalitions in policymaking), CT directs attention to slightly different research questions related to formation of risk perception, opinion formation, and ‘broad mechanisms of change’ (Lodge et al. 2004, p. 249). Furthermore, CT is not as detailed as the ACF in identifying the tools and strategies that subsystem participants use in their attempts to influence the policy process.

Turning to the ACF, it is said to provide ‘an analytical tool that can be used to generate better descriptions and explanations in public policy and administration’ (Weible et al. 2007, p. 6). To date, the ACF has been applied in more than 80 cases in different political contexts and substantive areas (albeit most studies address environmental and energy policy). Some studies demonstrate how the ACF can be used to guide policy analysts in understanding policy disputes in different settings (Weible 2003). Other studies address coalition behaviour in crisis management with an emphasis on the relationship between crises and policy change (Albright 2011; O'Neal 1999). The theoretical aim of this study is a different one as it seeks to demonstrate how the ACF can be used as a policy analysis tool to map the political context in which crisis-induced policy disputes unfold. The study hereby responds to the call for additional empirical studies assessing prospects and problems when applying the ACF in different situations and contexts (Weible et al. 2011).

The ACF assumes that policymaking is conducted within policy subsystems with territorial and substantive scopes and composed by a set of policy participants actively involved in formulating public policies (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010). In this particular case, Europe demarcates the territorial scope and policies related to aviation safety comprise the substantive scope. Subsystem participants often pursue diverging beliefs regarding the nature, severity, and solution to policy problems, which in turn may breed distrust and non-collaboration. Actors espousing similar beliefs coalesce into competing advocacy coalitions within which they coordinate their attempts to influence public policy. Meanwhile, the level of conflict in policy subsystems may vary over time, shifting from unitary (single coalition) to collaborative (cooperative coalitions) or adversarial (competitive coalitions) (Weible 2009). In summary, the ACF posits a set of descriptive assumptions that guide the analysis of policy conflict in processes of crisis resolution:

  • Policy subsystems as unit of analysis. Crises are increasingly dealt with in policy subsystems involving multiple actors such as public agencies, elected politicians, interest groups, and corporate companies (Moynihan 2011). These heterogeneous policy environments are generally conducive to policy conflict (Rosenthal and Kouzmin 1999).
  • The role of scientific information. The ACF acknowledges that any actor that seeks influence in policymaking needs to develop an understanding of the magnitude and facets of problems, their causes, and the probable impacts of various solutions. Information is therefore regarded as an important resource that subsystem participants exploit strategically to win political battles against opponents. In return, researchers and other policy experts are important allies in the policy process since they provide the competence required for interpreting and framing technically complex problems (Sabatier and Weible 1998).
  • Competing crisis narratives. Coalitions form around a set of normative beliefs including perceptions related to the underlying causes and overall seriousness of problems and basic strategies for achieving core values (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010, p. 133). ‘Thus, actors from different coalitions are likely to perceive the same information in very different ways’ (Sabatier and Weible 1998, p. 194). Consequently, one can expect coalitions to pursue public narratives – either to defend or challenge existing orders – in order to present technical substantiation for their position as a means to appeal to a wider audience outside the subsystem.
  • Mobilization of political resources and policy venues. Coalitions in any given subsystem will act instrumentally to gain influence in public policymaking and constantly seek influence by exploiting venues and by mobilizing political resources, including, for example, public opinion, formal legal authority, information, mobilizable supporters, and leadership.
  • Opportunism and policy change. Advocacy coalitions are likely to exploit any opportunity to realize their policy beliefs. Consequently, coalitions will frame a crisis event as being consistent with their own beliefs but inconsistent with the beliefs pursued by the dominating coalition controlling the subsystem. Crises are potential triggering events that may pave the way for subsystem change by redistributing resources and opening new venues for minority coalitions to gain influence. However, policy change ultimately depends on the ability of minority coalitions to exploit these openings, which they will try to do at any time (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010).

Given the US origins of the ACF, its applicability in European governance is not self-evident. Alternative frameworks employed to depict policymaking in this setting include the epistemic community perspective (assuming close and stable relationships between policy actors) and policy network analysis (assuming looser configurations of participants in the policy process). It is beyond the scope of this article to contrast these theoretical approaches, yet it can be noted that the alleged inability of the epistemic community perspective to depict the trend towards more disorganized and less predictable European policy processes and the reluctance to accept the disorderly policy network concept has led scholars to explore alternative frameworks. Following Richardson (2006, p. 13), this effort involves answering fundamental questions about the policy process: ‘Who has an interest in any given problem? How are they organized and mobilized? What is the timing and nature of their involvement in the policy process? How are their preferences determined and are they really fixed? Do they develop stable relationships with each other?’

Prior ACF applications to cases of EU governance suggest that the ACF is a viable approach to answer these questions (Radaelli 2011; Pesendorfer 2009; Nedergaard 2011). Furthermore, civil protection is described as a fairly new area of cooperative policymaking in the European Union, which calls for reconsideration of existing theories and exploration of alternative approaches to understand governance, organization, and public management (Boin et al. 2007).

POLICY CONFLICT IN THE 2010 VOLCANIC ASH CLOUD CRISIS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. UNDERSTANDING POLICY DISPUTES IN CRISIS RESOLUTION
  5. POLICY CONFLICT IN THE 2010 VOLCANIC ASH CLOUD CRISIS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
  8. REFERENCES

To illustrate how the ACF can be used as a basis for understanding policy conflict in crisis resolution, a case analysis was conducted of the European response to the 2010 Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption and the subsequent shutdown of European airspace. The volcanic ash cloud crisis is a particularly useful case since it displayed characteristics that generally feed policy conflict (Rosenthal et al. Rosenthal and Kouzmin 1991; 1999); it was a trans-boundary crisis imposing substantial economic and political costs on multiple stakeholders.

The case study serves two additional objectives. First, despite the magnitude and costs of the eruption for the aviation industry, this case has thus far only received sparse attention in public policy research (Alemanno 2010), which calls for additional empirical studies into this particular episode. Second, the European 2010 volcanic ash cloud experience is a useful case to meet the need for more empirical research on transnational crises addressing the conditions for cooperative solutions to large-scale international disruptions in the context of European governance (Rhinard 1997).

The case analysis was conducted in three steps: (i) initial documentation of the policy subsystem; (ii) identification of key decisions and stakeholders involved in the crisis response; and (iii) exploration of assumptions posited by the ACF. Empirical sources used for each step include official policy documents, media reports, and secondary sources. Thus, in the absence of more detailed data, the conclusions remain tentative. Another limitation stems from ACF's recommendation that a period of ten years or more is needed to analyze policy subsystems. However, this recommendation is applicable to some research questions (e.g. the long-term stability of coalitions) but not to others. Thus, in practice, prior ACF studies take different time-spans into consideration, confirming the methodological pluralism characterizing ACF scholarship (Sabatier and Weible 1998).

Policy subsystems as unit of analysis

Policies related to European civil aviation safety are dealt with within the framework of what has been described as an international air traffic ‘subsystem’ (Aspinwall 2004), which is characteristically ‘a good case of technocratic, functionally oriented low politics expanding beyond the EU's borders’ (Lavenex 2010, p. 948). Aviation safety policy within the European Union is based on collaboration between the European Commission (Directorate General for Mobility and Transport), the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), EU member state civil aviation authorities, aircraft manufacturers, and the airlines. In addition, these actors engage in continuous dialogue with international aviation safety organizations, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an international trade body and lobby organization representing some 230 airline companies, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is the agency of the United Nations responsible for standards and practices related to civil aviation.

Organizations representing various branches of the airline industry form a network of specialized interest groups representing cargo carriers, airports, traffic control systems, aircraft manufacturers, pilots, and low-cost carriers. Most of these organizations work actively together with different EU institutions but they also collaborate to lobby for aviation industry interests. For example, IATA and the Association of European Airlines (AEA) lobbied against regulatory reform in the 1970s and since then in support of the Single European Sky initiative, which aims to increase European coordination of airspace regulation and create a unified European system for air traffic management (Dobson 2010, p. 14).

In theory, advocacy coalitions are composed of actors that share common beliefs and engage in coordinated activity (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010). Applied in the area of European aviation policy, two coalitions can be identified. The first coalition – the ‘airline industry coalition’ – is populated by interest organizations collaborating to promote the various interests of the airline transport industry. In the volcanic ash cloud crisis, these groups were also supported by some individual members of the European Parliament. The most influential organizations in this coalition include IATA, AEA, ACI (the Airports Council International), and CANSI (Civil Air Navigation Service Organization).

These organizations have different functions; whereas CANSI is primarily a forum for discussion on matters related to air traffic management issues, IATA, AEA, and ACI are traditional lobbying organizations serving the interests of their members. Coordination ranges from informal cooperation through continuous exchange of knowledge, expertise and best practice, to more formalized forms of coordination, such as IATA's and AEA's joint resistance against regulatory reform in the 1970s, and to influence in passing the Single European Sky Initiative in the early 2000s (Dobson 2010, p. 14). Similarly, some of these organizations (AEA and ACI) questioned the efficiency of the EASA following its creation in 2003.

The second coalition – that may be labelled the ‘aviation regulation coalition’ – is formed by organizations controlling supranational legislative venues within the EU system. These include the European Commission, some members of Parliament, EASA, and Eurocontrol. These organizations are bound together by their respective roles in the implementation of aviation transport and safety policy. Eurocontrol is a special body in this respect; it is not a formal EU organization but an intergovernmental organization composed of 38 member states across Europe (with the European Commission being a provisional member), which, however, has developed close ties to the EU Commission and EASA through the Single European Sky Initiative (European Commission 2003; Lavenex 2010, p. 947).

As noted above, policy subsystems may be unitary (single coalition), collaborative (cooperative coalitions), or adversarial (competitive coalitions) (Weible 2009). In recent years, the European aviation policy subsystem has been predominantly collaborative in nature. Tensions between the airline industry and European Community organizations in the 1970s and 1980s related to airline liberalization were gradually relaxed in the 1990s. Since then the relationship has been characterized by ‘participatory, inclusive and horizontal co-operation structures’, notably in the area of aviation security policy (Lavenex 2010, p. 948). While some confrontation has occurred, the subsystem has predominantly been characterized by collaboration. Interaction between members of the two coalitions, it seems, has taken place through a ‘productive analytical debate’ marked by continuous exchange of ideas, experience, and knowledge (Sabatier 2010, p. 155).

Collaboration, as the ACF suggests, is facilitated by the existence of several professional forums (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010). One such forum is the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC). Acting to harmonize and promote the understanding of European aviation policies and practices, the ECAC maintains close cooperation with European Union institutions as well as with airline industry organizations. Other forums enabling exchange of information between the airline industry and European Union institutions are the Industry Consultation Board, which provides technical advice to the European Commission on the implementation of the Single European Sky Initiative, and the Provisional Council of Eurocontrol, which includes several organizations representing the airline industry, among them ACI, AEA, IATA, and CANSO.

One important effect of a crisis on subsystems is the disruption of pre-existing relationships between participants (Nohrstedt and Weible 1988). One scenario is that interaction among subsystem participants shifts from collaborative to adversarial (Weible 2009). Sources indicate that the 2010 volcanic ash cloud crisis temporarily changed interaction in the European aviation policy subsystem towards confrontation. During the first days following the volcano eruption on 14 April 2010, the main problem facing European airports was basically to decide when it was safe to fly again. Decision-makers faced a trade-off between escalating financial losses of the airlines (approximately 30 million dollars per day during the standstill; see Mazzocchi et al. 2008) and aviation safety concerns. A few days into the crisis, the continued closure of European airspace became the main bone of contention between the airlines, the IATA, and other interest organizations on one side and the European Commission, Eurocontrol, and other organizations on the other side. This dispute illustrates how disagreements triggered by diverging interpretations of technical information can evolve in a crisis.

The role of scientific information

The European aviation safety system is founded on a set of rules laying down common standards for a large range of issues related to aviation safety, such as aircraft certification and manufacturing, flight operation, maintenance, and crew licensing. When it comes to airspace regulation, operational decisions to open or close national airspace are based upon risk assessment models agreed by Member States under ICAO guidelines. The actual decision to open or close national airspace is thus entirely national; it is made by national authorities and implemented by Eurocontrol which approves flight plans according to available airspace (European Commission 2010a). ICAO guidelines are set out from a strict precautionary principle, stating that ‘the recommended procedure in the case of volcanic ash is exactly the same as with low-level wind shear, regardless of ash concentration: AVOID AVOID AVOID’ (ICAO 2007, ch. 3, p. 19). In practice, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) in London monitors eruptions and provides assessments of the concentration and movement of volcanic ash clouds in the area covering the United Kingdom, Iceland, and the north-eastern parts of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Highly specialized policy subsystems such as European aviation safety are often prone to biased assimilation where stakeholders with different beliefs and interests will interpret evidence differently. Belief systems serve as perceptual filters that screen out dissonant information and reaffirm confirming information (Sabatier and Weible 1998, p. 194). In the 2010 volcanic ash crisis, the conflict partly originated in disagreement about data gathering practices and substantive interpretation of the available information. On 18 April, at a point when over 300 European airports were paralyzed and some 6.8 million passengers were stranded throughout the world, several organizations publicly criticized the European Commission for its response to the situation.

IATA's Director-General and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, criticized the analytic methods employed by VAAC to confirm the presence of ash in European airspace: ‘Europeans are still using a system that's based on a theoretical model instead of taking a decision based on facts and risk assessment’ (Hough et al. ). IATA suggested an alternative approach, to ‘use data from test flights and pilot/maintenance reports and improve the quality of predictive products’ (IATA 2010a). AEA, ACI, and the International Air Carrier Association (IACA) made similar claims and declared that they had lost confidence in the VAAC and its measurement methods (IACA 2010). European airspace authorities were also criticized for ignoring post-flight aircraft and engine inspections conducted by the airlines, which allegedly would provide ‘hard facts’ on the amount of ash.

The European Commission, Eurocontrol, and other actors initially interpreted the situation differently. EU Commission representatives emphasized that any actions related to the airspace shut-down should be based on ‘scientific evidence and expert analysis’ and with no compromise on safety (European Commission 2010b). However, as the flying bans continued and under the threat of another week of costly disruption, the EU Commission, together with Eurocontrol and the Spanish presidency, started to question the current risk assessment approach.

The dilemma facing the EU Commission was that no Member State could act independently to depart from the strict precautionary approach prescribed by ICAO guidelines (Alemanno 2010, p. 3). In response, the Commission, Eurocontrol, Member States, national authorities, national air traffic controllers and representatives of the airline industry collectively reassessed the risk assessment model and concluded ‘that a more differentiated approach was needed’ (European Commission 2010a, p. 2). EU transport ministers thereby agreed on a revised approach that created three fly zones defined according to different levels of risk (one ‘no-fly zone’, one zone where decisions to fly were to be made jointly by Member State authorities, and one zone with no flight restrictions).

While the new approach relaxed existing flying restrictions, it relied upon the pre-existing risk assessment model implemented by Eurocontrol. One additional feature, however, was that the VAAC/Eurocontrol risk assessment model should be complemented with inspection results from aircraft and engine manufacturers regarding aircraft and engines operated in airspace contaminated by volcanic ash (European Commission 2010c, p. 3). Thus, while relying upon pre-existing routines for risk assessment, the Commission also implemented a differentiated approach in accordance with the suggestions of the airline industry.

Competing crisis narratives

In the midst of a crisis, advocacy coalitions can be expected to pursue conflicting narratives about the underlying causes and allocation of responsibility for escalation and de-escalation of crises (Boin et al. 2007; Shanahan et al. 2011). In this case, however, the public debate indicates that the two advocacy coalitions initially agreed on the severity of the situation. The European Commission described the shutdown of European airspace as ‘an unprecedented crisis facing Europe’ and an ‘extraordinary event’ that called for new ways of thinking about the coordination of European crisis management capacities to open up airspace and to find solutions for stranded passengers and the airline industry (Press Statement, Siim Kallas, 19 April 2010). IATA confirmed this description, arguing that the scale of the crisis for Europe exceeded the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 which closed US airspace for three days (IATA 2010b). AEA and ACI, however, took a different stance, arguing that the eruption was not an unprecedented event and that the European response was disproportionate in comparison with similar events in other parts of the world (AEA/ACI 2010).

While the coalitions overall agreed on the seriousness of the crisis, their views differed substantially concerning the effectiveness of the EU's crisis response. IATA, AEA, and ACI criticized the way the European community had handled the shutdown of European airspace. ‘This is a European embarrassment and it's a European mess’, said Bisignani when accusing the EU of lacking an effective decision-making process for the handling of ash clouds and other disruptions in civil aviation. Furthermore, Bisignani argued that it was ‘absolutely inexcusable’ that EU transport ministers did not convene more often to mitigate the effects of the shutdown on European business and travel (IATA 2010c).

When the air traffic disruption was debated in the European Parliament on 20 April, several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) backed the view of IATA, AEA, and ACI by questioning the European Union's preparedness for natural disasters. Philip Bradbourn (European Conservatives and Reformists Group) argued, for example, that the EU's response to the crisis had been like ‘licking a finger and sticking it in the air to see what way the wind is blowing’ (European Parliament 2010). Other MEPs defended the European crisis response. Representing the Socialists, Martin Schulz argued that the decision to close airspace and ground aircraft was absolutely necessary with reference to safety considerations. Similarly, Greens/EFA party group leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit rejected claims of an EU over-reaction to the crisis as absurd, saying that ‘the risk was too great so, yes, the response to the crisis was about right’ (Banks 2010).

European Commission representatives publicly defended the actions taken during the crisis. According to EU Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, the way the EU responded to the crisis showed that ‘Europe can deliver results’ (European Commission 2010b). In his view, ‘to say that the European model completely failed is totally wrong’ (European Parliament 2010). Also in response to the criticism, the EU Commission publicly emphasized that the revised risk assessment approach in fact helped in de-escalating the crisis: ‘if it was NOT for the European Commission intervention since the end of last week, large parts of Europe's skies would still be unnecessarily closed’ (European Commission 2010a, p. 3).

Mobilization of political resources and policy venues

Prior ACF research shows that advocacy coalition members will exploit a variety of political resources to influence public policymaking (Ingold 2011; Nohrstedt 2006). Key resources include actors in positions of legal authority, public opinion, information, mobilizable supporters, financial resources, and skillful leadership. Also, coalition members constantly seek access to key venues. External shocks and particularly crises have great potential to change the distribution of political resources and the conditions for venue exploitation (Sabatier and Weible 1998; Nohrstedt and Weible 1988).

Within the framework of the ACF, Weible (2008) outlines three different uses of information in the policy process: learning, political, and instrumental. Whereas learning according to the ACF definition refers to the gradual accumulation of knowledge over time, political and instrumental uses of scientific information are highly relevant for the understanding of policy conflict during destabilizing crisis episodes. As discussed above, a major issue of disagreement during the volcanic ash crisis related to the production and interpretation of scientific data about the level and diffusion of ash contamination in European airspace. In the public debate that followed IATA, AEA, ACI, and other organizations' criticism of the European risk assessment approach, members of both coalitions utilized technical information to argue against each other's views. From this perspective, scientific information was used for both instrumental and political purposes. Instrumental use of information refers to the use of expert-based information to solve policy problems and thus has a direct impact on policymaking. This was obviously the case in the response to the volcanic ash crisis, where the VAAC risk assessment was the primary source of information for decisions to close and open European airspace.

The volcanic ash crisis provides additional insight into how stakeholders mobilize scientific information to counter arguments by their opponents (political use of information). One example is the data generated by the test flights conducted by the airlines that was used by representatives of the airline industry coalition as the baseline to argue against continued closure of European airspace. Several airlines, including Air France, British Airways, KLM, and Lufthansa, conducted their own test flights in areas identified by the VAAC as having potential presence of ash, but reported no mechanical irregularities related to the ash (Times Newline, 19 April 2010). Airline representatives argued that the tests, about 40 in total, should be used to validate the model utilized by VAAC and Eurocontrol. Opponents of this view argued that safety concerns surpassed considerations to reopen airspace based on test flight results (European Parliament 2010, remark by Christine De Veyrac, PPE).

Meanwhile, representatives of Eurocontrol and the EU Commission argued that test flight information had reached Eurocontrol but that their experts needed time to validate the results against other sources of information (BBC News 2010a; European Parliament 2010, remark by Siim Kallas). Furthermore, the director of operations of Eurocontrol, Brian Flynn, questioned the airline industry's interpretation of the results, saying that the flights ‘have shown results where there is no evidence whatsoever of volcanic ash and they have also shown clear evidence that there is presence of volcanic ash’ (BBC News 2010b).

Sources indicate that the decision to relax airspace restrictions was the result of revised perceptions among safety regulation experts regarding the level of aircraft engine tolerance to ash. The decision by European transport ministers on 19 April to introduce the ‘three-zone solution’ was based solely on joint conclusions of European aircraft specialists. In a series of preparatory meetings coordinated by Eurocontrol (the Central Flow Management Unit), European aircraft safety specialists convened to agree on a common safety envelope defining the actual impact of ash on aircraft engines (Eurocontrol 2010; Spanish Presidency of the European Union 2010).

The volcanic ash crisis revealed a gap in existing European contingency planning as it showed that predefined certification standards for volcanic ash were lacking. In response, specialists agreed on setting a tolerable limit for ash concentration to 4000 µg/m3 – a level which established a large margin of safety in relation to previous ash-related incidents (European Commission 2010c). This estimate, in which aircraft and engine manufacturers played a key role, provided scientific support for the decision to relax airspace restrictions (BBC News 2010a). This example illustrates the dynamics of intra-crisis learning (Moynihan 2010). Specifically, it shows that scientific information can accumulate rapidly and serve as the basis for policy change under conditions of threat, urgency, and uncertainty.

Minority advocacy coalitions not in a position to change policy can be expected to engage in ‘venue shopping’; that is, to try to move decision-making authority to a different institutional setting (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010, p. 142). External shocks are likely to change the conditions for policy influence by opening or closing venues (Sabatier and Weible 1998). Although other types of data would be required to investigate more carefully different actors' access to various decision settings in this case, the tentative conclusion based on publicly available sources is that the volcanic ash crisis did not change the conditions for venue access. Actors representing the aviation industry coalition did not access settings where key decisions about crisis resolution were made. Actions taken to mitigate the effects of the crisis were decided by the EU Council of Transport Ministers and by different constellations of actors within the European community of aviation safety specialists.

A coordinating body was formed on an ad hoc basis, consisting of representatives from the EU, the Commission, Eurocontrol, the Spanish Presidency, and EASA. Sources suggest that the core members of the aviation industry coalition – including IATA, ACI, and AEA – were not granted access to these decision settings. Neither did they participate in the preparatory meetings hosted by Eurocontrol preceding decisions by the transport ministers. Instead, minority coalition organizations resorted to well-tried venues. IATA, for example, turned to ICAO a few days into the crisis in an attempt to speed up the process of defining government responsibility for airspace regulation and to certify clearer guidelines concerning levels of ash concentration (IATA press release, 19 April). IATA and ICAO have a history of close collaboration in areas of safety and environmental performance (Jönsson 2010, p. 47), and this platform offered an important venue for IATA to push for its claims about a revised risk assessment approach in the wake of the volcanic ash crisis.

Opportunism and policy change

It is argued that crises open proverbial windows of opportunity for stakeholders to pursue changes that under normal conditions are not possible to realize. Crises have the potential to change problem representations, which in turn can change the perceived necessity of policy change and reforms. Crisis-induced policy changes, however, are unlikely to be the result of the emergence of new beliefs or new ways of thinking about problems and solutions. Rather, crises are more likely to ‘reinvigorate attention to preexisting ideas’ (Birkland 2006, p. 165). This is consistent with the premise of the ACF that policy core beliefs are resistant to change. Several developments in this case confirm these expectations.

First, the crisis changed the conditions for the Single European Sky initiative (SES), which illustrates the role crisis plays in re-actualizing pre-existing ideas. The underlying objective of the SES initiative is to foster integration of European airspace design, management, and regulation by increased EU coordination. Steps in this direction have been taken by the SES I (in force 2004) and SES II (in force 2008) legislative packages. However, prior to the crisis the process had been stalled by EU Member States' reluctance to give up control of national airspace. SES II relaxed some of the resistance but its implementation progressed slowly. To many stakeholders, the volcanic ash cloud crisis underlined the necessity to accelerate implementation of SES II. This was an issue that IATA, AEA, ACI, and other airline industry organizations had lobbied for intensively in the past, and these organizations renewed their calls during the crisis, urging EU Member States to enable swift implementation of SES II (ELFAA 2010; IATA 2010d). Similarly, the EU Commission gave acceleration of SES the ‘highest priority’ and outlined several specific actions to be decided by EU Transport Ministers (European Commission 2010d).

Implementation of SES II was relatively uncontroversial and a common objective for both coalitions. The history of the SES initiative suggests that both the airline industry coalition and the aviation regulation coalition turned against the unwillingness of (some) EU Member States to facilitate its implementation. On this basis, the fact that EU Transport Ministers on 4 May jointly agreed to fast-track SES provided the necessary political support to facilitate its implementation. Some disagreements related to SES details persisted between the coalitions even after the crisis, with the IATA calling for additional actions beyond those sanctioned by the Transport Ministers (IATA 2010d), but overall representatives of both coalitions collectively supported its progress. Increased political support for the SES initiative paved the way for swift implementation of several minor reforms. The Commission declared that it would also speed up establishment of Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB) and implementation of a performance scheme to monitor the progress of air navigation services in the single European Sky. The Commission took immediate action to realize these objectives by supporting the nomination of a FAB coordinator (European Commission 2010c).

Second, both coalitions shared the view that the volcanic ash crisis had exposed gaps in the European capacity to respond to a major trans-boundary crisis, which in turn paved the way for several minor reforms related to crisis preparedness. One such reform was to formalize a European crisis coordination cell. In response to the crisis, several European organizations – the Commission, Eurocontrol, the Presidency, and EASA – convened on an ad hoc basis. EU Transport Ministers concluded on 4 May that there was a need to make this structure permanent to coordinate the response to future crises. This led to the creation of the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) on 11 May. Members of both coalitions furthermore emphasized the need to reform current European and international systems for risk assessment. As a consequence, the Commission launched an inventory of ongoing research and technology projects to identify knowledge resources that could be of use to develop pre-existing risk assessment methodologies. The EU Commission furthermore realized the importance of reforming ICAO guidelines and prepared the submission of a proposal for a new ICAO regulatory framework (European Commission 2010c, 2010e).

CONCLUSION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. UNDERSTANDING POLICY DISPUTES IN CRISIS RESOLUTION
  5. POLICY CONFLICT IN THE 2010 VOLCANIC ASH CLOUD CRISIS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
  8. REFERENCES

Complex emergencies have several properties that complicate policy responses in terms of framing, choice, implementation, and learning. Such events are typically characterized by ill-defined problems, uncertainty along multiple dimensions, and lack of prior experience (Handmer and Dovers 2010a). Researchers also note that crisis management increasingly takes place in multi-organizational and polycentric networks, which complicate coordination and collaboration (Boin and ‘t Hart 2010). These sources of complexity highlight the need for theoretical frameworks to simplify the processes of crisis resolution. Specifically, this study takes a first step to demonstrate how the ACF can be used for this purpose by employing a case study of the European response to the 2010 volcanic ash cloud crisis as an empirical illustration.

First, the study illustrates how key ACF concepts – policy subsystems and advocacy coalitions – enable simplification and reconstruction of crisis resolution processes beyond traditional approaches to crisis management. While crises are described as disruptive political episodes threatening the values of multiple stakeholders, traditional approaches to crisis resolution take a more narrow focus, emphasizing either political and administrative leadership or relationships among limited groups of actors. This study demonstrates how the ACF can be used to depict policy disputes in broader policy subsystems by mapping the policy positions, mobilization strategies, and narratives of multiple stakeholders.

Second, the case study shows that crises sometimes spur temporary shifts towards increased confrontation and that advocacy coalitions retreat to pre-existing patterns of collaboration when the crisis de-escalates. In this case, coalition interaction shifted from adversity related to risk assessment methods and crisis response performance, to collaboration concerning the SES initiative and the need for revised risk assessment procedures. One counterfactual question for future research is whether such temporary shifts towards increased adversity impose costs that could have been averted by more collaborative responses.

Third, this study questions the assumption that learning is complicated in heterogeneous policy subsystems (Moynihan 2010). Despite public disagreements between the two coalitions, they continued exchanging expertise and knowledge, which in turn facilitated learning and a shared commitment to improve preparedness in the European aviation subsystem. A candidate explanation in this case was pre-existing forums for collaboration and information-sharing, particularly within the community of European aviation safety specialists. These observations indicate that the presence of one or several professional forums – relatively closed venues admitting participation on the basis of technical competence (Weible 2009) – can contain the effects of policy conflict, even in the midst of a disruptive crisis. The nature and function of such forums in different contexts is one area that calls for further comparative research.

This analysis also highlights ACF's limitations in the context of crisis resolution. The ACF is limited when it comes to understanding policy choice under pressing circumstances in response to extreme events. By placing the emphasis on collective action within and between competing advocacy coalitions, the ACF does not offer any straightforward explanation of decisive policy decisions by single organizations.

Another limitation stems from the insight that crisis conditions are likely to further complicate coordination within and across advocacy coalitions. In the ACF, a minimal level of coordination includes agreement between coalition members on policy goals, lobbying strategies, and monitoring capacities (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 2010). Under normal circumstances, such coordination usually takes place through informal communication between familiar actors, yet during a crisis formal contacts must be established with previously unknown actors in nascent or ad hoc networks (Quarantelli 2006). Furthermore, crises are likely to feed uncertainty about policy goals and strategies, which may constrain even the weakest forms of coordination. In summary, crisis resolution in response to extreme events may require actions that temporarily sidetrack the type of stable subsystem relationships and interactions posited by the ACF.

One additional limitation of this study is that it does not employ conventional ACF methodology, which typically emphasizes systematic documentation of policy subsystems over a decade or more through surveys and interviews. By contrast, this analysis conducts a qualitative case study of a fairly short historical episode using official documents and secondary sources. This approach demonstrates how the ACF can be applied as a descriptive framework without resorting to costly methods of data acquisition and analysis, which may guide practitioners and researchers conducting initial assessments of policy subsystems pending more extensive future tests. Meanwhile, the lack of longitudinal evidence impedes examination of certain research questions. For example, it constrains assessment of the role of learning and redistribution of political resources in shaping crisis resolution in a policy subsystem.

Two implications can be drawn from this case study for managers, leaders, and stakeholders in policy subsystems. First, this case adds to the catalogue of historical experiences illustrating the complex networks that are involved in response to major crises. When policy subsystems are exposed to external shocks, responses are likely to be complicated by diffuse decision mandates and tensions between conflicting beliefs and interests (Moynihan 2011). Using the ACF as an analytical tool to simplify policy subsystems can serve to heighten managers' understanding of the dynamics and inherent tensions of crisis development. More detailed understanding of participation, influence, and distribution of resources may enable policy analysts to judge the risk of crisis-induced controversies that may undermine the legitimacy of political and administrative systems. For example, the ACF can be used as a basis for improving conventional crisis exercises, which too often overlook the dynamics of post-crisis policy disputes and accountability processes (Boin and ‘t Hart 2010).

Second, this case study confirms the importance of institutional mechanisms to solve policy controversies and to address scientific uncertainty. While the volcanic ash cloud crisis exposed gaps in European crisis preparedness capacities, it also confirmed the importance of flexibility and improvisation as means to cope with uncertainty (Mendonça and Wallace 2009). Drawing lessons from the volcanic ash cloud crisis, former Director-General of the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, Roland Schenkel (2010, p. 1750), concluded that ‘in crisis situations, it is difficult to pull together the expertise of different scientific disciplines … with the aim of getting better-informed answers’. The swift mobilization of experts to define certification standards for volcanic ash illustrates how this problem may be curbed. This example underscores the importance of pre-existing cooperative networks and institutional forums where solutions to scientific controversies and uncertainties can be negotiated. However, the mere existence of such forums is insufficient to ensure swift mobilization and constructive analytical debate among policy experts. What is important as well are internal norms fostering negotiated agreements on controversial issues.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. UNDERSTANDING POLICY DISPUTES IN CRISIS RESOLUTION
  5. POLICY CONFLICT IN THE 2010 VOLCANIC ASH CLOUD CRISIS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
  8. REFERENCES

This research was supported by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. Several individuals have provided insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article. The author would especially like to thank the editors of Public Administration Arjen Boin and Martin Lodge, five anonymous reviewers of Public Administration, and the participants at the 2010 international workshop on the ACF at the University of California–Davis, including Paul Sabatier, Chris Weible, Adam Henry, Mark Lubell, Karin Ingold, Jon Pierce, John Scholz, William Leach and Bryan Jones.

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. UNDERSTANDING POLICY DISPUTES IN CRISIS RESOLUTION
  5. POLICY CONFLICT IN THE 2010 VOLCANIC ASH CLOUD CRISIS
  6. CONCLUSION
  7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
  8. REFERENCES