NEW SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 6 -The transformative potential of disasters

Special issue blog series on Transformational Change through Public Policy.

Nya professorer 2021
Daniel Nohrstedt Professor vid Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, Forskare och lärare Foto Mikael Wallerstedt BILDEN ÄR FRIKÖPT AV UPPSALA UNIVERSITET

Daniel Nohrstedt
Disasters – such as major floods, storms, and wildfires – are often seen as windows of opportunity that enable major policy changes to reduce risks and enhance preparedness. Understanding whether and how disasters fulfill this role is important given the need for transformative action to increase community resilience to climate-related extremes. Against this background, my recent article in the new special issue on Transformational Change in Public Policy explores how public policy and administration scholarship view the relationship between disasters and major policy change.

The article outlines four scenarios of policy activity after disaster. First, disasters can result in a society ‘bouncing forward’, which includes initiating immediate policy change. A disaster can also result in ‘interest decline’ where a period of intense policy activity is followed by declining attention and weakened reform support. Under the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ societies face repeated disasters, which necessitate disaster response at the expense of long-term policy change. Finally, ‘lagged effects’ refer to a gradual build-up of disaster experiences, which eventually result in increased policy activity toward transformative change.

Several factors explain why societies end up in these different scenarios. Some disasters trigger blame and accountability, which may provoke defensive approaches among actors in charge of crafting reforms. The behaviour of other stakeholders matters as well, especially when it comes to framing public ‘stories’ (what happened, who is to blame, and what should be done) and ensuring that problems and solutions are elevated on to the political agenda. Such framing-contests may both enable and constrain policy change, depending on what images gain attention. Policy change may also be enabled as new actors become involved in policy-making, which can build pressure for reform, or as decision-makers are trusted with temporary mandates for policy formulation or implementation.

These perspectives provide direction for future research into how disasters may trigger policy renewal. Meanwhile, public policy – including, for instance, laws, regulations, decisions, and programmes – is merely one way to fundamentally change the goals and values of society. Thus, although disasters can enable policy change, there is a bigger question about the role of public policies in supporting more fundamental societal changes toward more resilient and sustainable communities.

Daniel Nohrstedt is Professor of political science in the Department of Government and affiliated with the Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science (CNDS) at Uppsala University, Sweden where he currently leads a project on the transformative potential of extreme weather events (TRAMPOLINE).

Personal webpage:

Personal Twitter: @danielnohrstedt

Project webpage:

Project Twitter: @Trampoline_UU

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics
Daniel Nohrstedt, et al. (2022) When do disasters spark transformative policy change and why? Policy & Politics DOI:

Table of contents for special issue on Transformational Change through Public Policy

Introduction to Transformational Change through Public Policy (Oscar Berglund, Claire Dunlop, Elizabeth Koebele and Chris Weible)

The impact of direct democracy on policy change: insights from European citizens’ initiatives (Jale Tosun, Daniel Béland & Yannis Papadopoulos)

The democratic transformation of Public Policy through community activism in Brazil (Rosana de Freitas Boullosa & Janaína Lopes Pereira Peres)

Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education, and gender policy (Paul Cairney, Emily St Denny, Sean Kippin, Heather Mitchell)

A Future Research Agenda for Transformational Urban Policy Studies (Meghan Joy & Ronald K. Vogel)

Transforming Public Policy with Engaged Scholarship: Better Together (Leah Levac, Alana Cattapan, Tobin LeBlanc Haley, Laura Pin, Ethel Tungohan, & Sarah Marie Wiebe)

When do disasters spark transformative policy change and why? (Daniel Nohrstedt)

New pathways to paradigm change in Public Policy: Combining insights from policy design, mix and feedback (Sebastian Sewerin, Michael Howlett & Benjamin Cashore)

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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