Canadian Public Sector’s Response to COVID‑19 Pandemic: Conflicting Logics, Emotions and Rhetoric

Voronov, Maxim | $54,090

Ontario York University 2021 SSHRC

The purpose of the proposed research is to advance organization theory by studying how public sector organizations across Canada—i.e., hospitals, public schools, and universities—responded to provincial authorities’ directives to manage the COVID‑19 pandemic. This is important research because it will advance the understanding of how organizations manage competing logics of action when their activities are unsettled. While research has examined how individual organizations manage such tensions, we lack understanding of how organizations, taken collectively, manage the logics that govern their entire field. We will pay attention to how emotions influence the field governance and responses of organizations.

Despite the common threat of COVID-19, each province portrayed the need to meet both population health and economic objectives in different ways and engaged in different types of emotional appeals. In response, public sector organizations responded in a variety of ways to provincial directives, sometimes deviating significantly. Furthermore, both provincial authorities’ directives and public sector organizations’ responses evolved over time, as evidence about the virus and its effects became better known.

In this research, we examine the similarities and differences across provinces, between sectors, and over time. Specifically, we seek to understand: (1) how provincial authorities framed their official statements to elicit particular responses; (2) how provincial public sector organizations responded; and (3) how the statements and actions of both parties shifted over time.

We ground our research within the institutional logics perspective, which provides a useful lens for investigating how organizations respond to conflicting demands. A longstanding insight is that organizations are governed by different logics of action, which often provide competing prescriptions (e.g., the « state » logic that governs the creation of public good and its redistribution vs. the « market » logic that governs transactions and the efficient use of resources). These competing prescriptions are difficult to manage and a frequent source of conflict, and emotions can be important in resolving or intensifying such conflict.

We aim to understand how emotions enable organizations to manage the competing logics that govern their field. We will examine how emotions are used to persuade other organizations to adopt a certain logic, and how these efforts are interpreted and felt on the receiving end. To do so, we will use a topic modeling approach to analyze the directives that provincial authorities issued, and conduct 500 interviews to understand the lived experiences and on-the-ground practices of public sector organizations. We will focus on 3 sectors across 5 provinces.

As the pandemic continues, the need to balance between logics has become especially salient for public sector organizations. How they strike this balance has important social consequences, and the tension between logics has been contentious and emotionally laden. As such, our research setting is ideally suited for exploring how conflicting logics are managed in practice. Our study will contribute to organization theory, and offer meaningful practical insights for public sector organizations as they recover from significant strains induced by the pandemic.

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