The importance of failure theories in assessing crisis management: The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster revisited

Boin, A. and Fischbacher-Smith, D. (2011) The importance of failure theories in assessing crisis management: The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster revisited. Policy and Society, 30(2), pp. 77-87. (doi:10.1016/j.polsoc.2011.03.003)

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Abstract

An adequate assessment of crisis management failure (and success) requires a validated causal theory. Without such a theory, any assessment of crisis management performance amounts to little more than a “just so” story. This is the key argument of this paper, which describes how hindsight biases and selective use of social science theory gave rise to a suggestive and convincing – but not necessarily correct – assessment of NASA's role in the Columbia space shuttle disaster (1 February 2003). The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) identified NASA's organizational culture and safety system as a primary source of failure. The CAIB report reads as a stunning indictment of organizational incompetence: the organization that thrilled the world with the Apollo project had “lost” its safety culture and failed to prevent a preventable disaster. This paper examines the CAIB findings in light of the two dominant theoretical schools that address organizational disasters (normal accident and high reliability theory). It revisits the Columbia shuttle disaster and concludes that the CAIB findings do not sit well with the insights of these schools.

Item Type:Articles
Status:Published
Refereed:Yes
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Fischbacher-Smith, Professor Denis
Authors: Boin, A., and Fischbacher-Smith, D.
College/School:College of Social Sciences > Adam Smith Business School > Management
Journal Name:Policy and Society
Publisher:Elsevier BV
ISSN:1449-4035
Published Online:13 March 2011

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