Making whole-of-society resilience everyone’s business
This article by Andy Towler, Founder of the Resilience Group, former Chief Superintendent and disaster preparedness advisor to the National Emergencies Trust, explores how whilst the UK Resilience Framework is a significant step forward for national preparedness planning, the task ahead is to convert the theory behind the Framework into meaningful action. Andy points to significant progress within the third sector in taking decisive action following learnings from recent disasters.
Three years ago this week, the UK entered a nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of Covid-19 and, like the rest of the world, woke up to the prospect of the ‘impossible’ happening.
A conceivable threat with (what felt like) inconceivable consequences, Covid-19 reshaped the UK’s view of risk and, more crucially, resilience. Where the latter was viewed as a cost just a decade ago and as an insurance policy by the time of the pandemic; today, resilience-building is widely regarded as an investment. Whether you’re a business safeguarding continuity of operations or a policymaker creating plans to keep people safe; investing in resilience means ensuring colleagues and communities can survive and thrive in extreme uncertainty.
Published in December 2022, the UK Resilience Framework (Framework) is a roadmap for developing a more resilient UK. At its heart are three core principles:
- The need for a shared understanding of risks.
- A focus on prevention and preparedness.
- A whole-of-society approach to national resilience.
Whilst the Framework is a significant step forward for national preparedness planning, the task ahead is to convert the theory behind the Framework into meaningful action.
One way to gauge the UK’s progress to-date is to consider the Framework’s core principles. Take the shared understanding of risk. The most likely of these are climate-related disasters, such as floods, droughts, fires and storms, while major terror attacks remain an ever-present risk. There’s also every possibility of a further pandemic in the near future. This could be a flu pandemic, the impact of which could be much worse than Covid-19.
Alongside these risks, there are hostile state actors. Thanks to the conflict in Ukraine, we’re much more alert to predictable threats, but very few people believed the warnings until the invasion happened, despite the earlier precedent in Crimea. The extent of the impact of the invasion, including large-scale displacement of people was not well-enough anticipated. But we have now lived through that lesson. Then there’s the growing threat from technology, which is always a driver of risk. Cyber-attacks are on the rise in the UK and globally, and the impact they can have on people and businesses, and the suffering they can cause, can be truly immense.
While being cognisant of all these risks is crucial, it doesn’t constitute progress in terms of preparedness. Anyone can read about these risks in open-source data, from the World Economic Forum Risk Report, the UK National Risk Register or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. But the UK only becomes more resilient when it moves from recognising risks to mitigating impacts and adaptation. Or, through the Framework’s second principle of a ‘focus on prevention and preparedness.’ That means we need to be making provision for, e.g., systemic supply chain breakdowns or disruptions to the national grid. But we are not there yet.
New regulation is certainly supporting a focus on preparedness. For businesses, particularly those in the banking sector, there is a growing regulatory impetus on building business continuity, and this is driving greater organisational resilience. But the reality is that you can still break almost any company’s crisis management or business continuity model by denying them the use of power within their working environment or wider operating environment. It comes back to being cognisant of the risks the UK faces but not yet ready for their consequences.
That said, there are pockets of significant progress in the right direction. For example, within the third sector, the Charity Commission took decisive action following the learnings from recent disasters. In the aftermath of both the Manchester Arena attack and Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, it recommended that a new and independent charity be formed, to raise funds more quickly and distribute them more fairly, during future UK emergencies. The National Emergencies Trust launched in November 2019 and just four months’ later its 2020 Coronavirus Appeal raised £100million for people affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Trust wasn’t just conceived to be cognisant of risks; it was intentionally designed to mitigate the consequences of emergencies on the sector in which it operates. As a result, and within just days of the first national lockdown, millions in funding monies started to flow to grassroots charities, which had been prevented from fundraising in the face of disasters in the past because of resource constraints. The Trust’s appeal provided grants to 15,000 local projects to support their communities through the UKCF network, as well as ten national charities whose work addressed equity gaps. This funding supported charities’ immediate response and strengthened their long-term resilience. It also ensures that many charities will be better positioned for future crises.
The Trust’s short journey so far gives us a glimpse of what is possible when a whole-of-society resilience theory becomes a reality. The small cross-section of patrons who funded the fledgling charity did so because they saw an opportunity to strengthen the UK’s resilience. Their decision to put their faith in a new and fairer model quickly made a difference to 13million lives. Credit is due to BT Group, the Christopher Laing Foundation, Co-op, M&G Plc, NatWest Group, Sky and Tesco for extending that early trust.
However, there are disappointingly few stories of whole-of-society resilience solutions. The launch of the National Resilience Forum is a welcome step forward because it creates a space for collaborative conversations about the roll-out of the Framework. Nonetheless, a significant gap between appetite and action persists; largely because the role for business in UK resilience-building, while clearly vital, remains vitally unclear. I see businesses ready and raring to step up to the plate, but lacking in clear direction. Given a seat at the planning table, they could use their expertise to help shape the UK’s resilience roadmap cementing a shared understand of how and where they are well-placed to mitigate the consequences of uncertainty.
For its part, the National Emergencies Trust is partnering with Business in the Community in Scotland to pilot an Appeal Partners programme. The idea is to make friends with businesses and networked organisations now, so that they can harness their help more quickly when disaster strikes. The concept builds on the appetite they saw during the Coronavirus Appeal, when more than 40 per cent of donations and volunteers came from businesses, trusts and foundations stepping up for their communities. It’s a simple construct that gives each corporate participant or networked body a clearly defined role during disasters, and a prime example of converting appetite into action.
Make no mistake, the Covid-19 pandemic has not passed, and at the time of writing, 400 people sadly died of Covid-19 in the UK in the last seven days. However, we can at least step back from it now with a sense of perspective and consider what has changed. Those of us in the business of national resilience must now ask: “What have we learned about the consequences and how we might mitigate these in the future, across our whole society?” In short, “What can the UK now gain from so much tragic loss?”.