Is this the Yellow Brick Road?
Just before Parliament rose for the Christmas Recess, the long-awaited UK Government Resilience Framework was quietly published via a Written Ministerial Statement on 19th December. The UKGRF is the resilience strategy promised by the Integrated Review back in March 2021, although it is not clear if being designated as a “Framework” is a step up or down.
Nonetheless, its appearance is very welcome – particularly, as its Foreword points out, we ‘live in an increasingly volatile world’ where the UK will face far reaching crises ‘greater in frequency and scale … than we have been used to.’ Quite properly the Government believes that there is a responsibility to plan for this.
The UKGRF reaffirms as a core principle that resilience is a ‘whole of society’ endeavour. This is what the National Preparedness Commission has been saying since it was established just over two years ago. If you make every level of government, every organisation and every community more resilient you should be able to create a sort of herd immunity to severe shock – a society better able to address future global crises – whether it is a new pandemic or a massive cyber attack or climate change – as well as more localised emergencies. This is also true for each household and every individual. We all have to play our part. So, one of the first tests for the new Framework is how well it will help deliver this. Does it offer a reliable path towards a better-prepared UK, or an elegant wrapper around a work in progress?
Local Resilience Forums are to be strengthened and better resourced. This is important: the Commission’s Independent Review into the Civil Contingencies Act and its supporting arrangements made a series of recommendations as to how this might be done and it is pleasing that the spirit of at least some of them has been taken on board.
There are also many references to partnership within the document. Indeed, one of the Framework’s core principles is that there should be a developed and shared understanding of the risks we face. It talks about the UK Government improving its communication of these risks so that organisations have access to relevant, actionable information. This, of course, is helpful as far as it goes, but the Commission’s paper, Partnering with Purpose, suggested a more comprehensive and sophisticated approach to partnership between the private sector and Government, reflecting a partnership of equals and recognising the strengths and assets of each.
Similarly, the section on communities in the Framework is somewhat weak. As with the sections on the private sector, it is not clear that there is a proper recognition that partnership should work both ways. The Government needs to do more to embrace and learn from the expertise within both the private sector and the voluntary and community sectors.
The Commission’s work on societal resilience which has looked at different community initiatives during Covid, a literature review on effective communication in crises, and with more to follow, is starting to address how bottom-up community resilience might be fostered and encouraged.
The Framework commits the Government to reviewing the existing regulatory regimes on regulation. This is timely: the various critical infrastructure sectors often have very different systems of regulation. This is an area that the Commission will be looking at during 2023 and we will eagerly await the Government’s review findings.
Similarly, the role of insurance needs more attention. The Framework focuses on indemnity and risk transfer. Instead, a wider approach that encourages and enables the insurance sector to promote resilient behaviours in those they insure should be supported. The Commission has taken an initial look at this in its paper on Financial Foundations for Resilience and will continue to work on this theme in 2023.
Another of the core principles underpinning the UKGRF is that there should be a greater emphasis on prevention and preparation. This makes sense. Dealing with the consequences of disaster will be much more expensive than sensible measures to mitigate the likelihood of the disaster happening in the first place. However, there needs to be a recognition that prevention will not always be successful – indeed it is necessary to plan for failure and irresponsible to encourage false beliefs in the myth of 100% mitigation. And then there will be risks, threats and crises that have not been foreseen or previously encountered. As Sir David Omand says in his book, Securing the State, ‘what we prepare for, we deter. So what we actually experience by way of events is, alas, what we have not prepared for’.
The Framework promises that the Government will build on the existing National Security Risk Assessment to consider ‘chronic vulnerabilities and challenges arising from geopolitical and geoeconomics shifts, systemic competition, rapid technological change and transnational changes such as climate change, health risks and state threats’. However, the focus appears to be on a new concept: “civil contingencies risks”. This excludes domestic financial, organisational or social risks. It is not clear that this is a helpful distinction. For example, the overall resilience of the NHS is out of scope. If the objective is to raise the UK’s resilience against systemic and interconnected risks, such omissions potentially nullify the approach.
The Framework also lengthens the timescale over which risks are measured – so some will be measured over a five-year time horizon rather than two. This is sensible, but some of the most intractable issues we face – like climate change – develop over decades, and it may already be too late to reverse some of the slow-onset effects. The Framework does make provision for preparing to live with those effects.
The UKGRF promises that it will be clearer where the responsibility for mitigating the various risks will be located within Government. This ownership will usually be assigned to a ‘Lead Government Department’, but there remains considerable danger that thinking will continue to be carried out on a silo basis. It is not apparent that systemic risks and cross-cutting issues and consequences will have the same clarity of ownership.
There will, however, be a new Head of Resilience. But this person will only have the role of guiding best practice and encouraging adherence to standards. There will continue to be a separate Head of the Government Risk Profession. It is not clear that this adds up to a strong central risk and resilience function at the heart of Government.
The Framework promises an Annual Statement to Parliament on national resilience. Again, this is sensible. However, there is a risk that over time this will become a formulaic and not hugely informative exercise. As a minimum, there should be a requirement for an annual debate on this statement in both Houses and consideration needs to be given to charging the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (or perhaps a new Joint Committee on National Resilience) with monitoring and scrutinising progress.
The UKGRF is an important step forward. However, there needs to be a realisation that resilience and preparedness need to be part of society’s fabric, designed into government at every level, into our cities and communities, and into all our businesses and organisations.
This is a generational mission and requires us to shift from a ‘just-in-time’ society to one which embraces a ‘just-in-case’ approach. In September, Sir Oliver Letwin, who was Minister for Nation al Resilience from 2011 to 2016, in an article for the Commission called for ‘a National Resilience Act modelled on the Climate Change Act’. He warned that ‘without a mechanism of this sort to focus the mind of government on national resilience, we can be sure that Britain will remain singularly ill-prepared to meet a range of crises’. As he put it, he had seen ‘at first-hand how short-term political pressures and the dynamics of Whitehall can combine to prevent serious efforts to improve our resilience’.
Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come.