Here is a summary of a roundtable held on Tuesday 26th March 2024 and kindly hosted by WTW at their offices in London.  The meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule and chaired by Lord Toby Harris (Chair, National Preparedness Commission)

The roundtable was convened to take forward discussion on government’s role in embedding a whole of society approach to preparedness and resilience, and specifically the way in which responsibility and accountability should be reflected in the government ‘machinery’. Seven recommendations on structural and governance change are made in the NPC report Making it Happen: Encouraging Government Action on Preparedness and Resilience by Lord Toby Harris, published in February 2024.

The report outlines the context of a ‘TUNA’ world – turbulent, uncertain, novel and ambiguous – and points to several barriers to preventing preparedness in the face of major shocks and disasters. Many of these barriers are behavioural or cognitive, and are frequently revealed in post-disaster inquiries: the right information was not received by the right people in the right timescale; the warnings were not deemed urgent enough; the insight or warnings were unwelcome and so discounted. As well as the individual unwillingness to accept and act on difficult evidence, the machinery of government makes it surprisingly easy to avoid difficult decisions. ‘NIMTO’ thinking (Not in My Term of Office), optimism bias and group think all play their part. This is compounded by the fact that preparedness measures and investment offers scant visible outcomes and rewards for decision-makers at the time – and sometimes for a considerable time afterwards (if ever – disasters prevented rarely linger in the headlines or political memory).

Part of what is required is a re-wiring of government machinery to ensure proper focus and accountability on national resilience and preparedness for shocks, supported by a positive narrative that will sway public and political support for prioritising resilience. The report’s seven recommendations can be read here.

Invited Comments

Discussion began with some invited comments, which highlighted several key challenges facing those with responsibility for managing risk and preparedness within Government:

  • The National Risk Register leaves out chronic or ‘slow burn’ risks, which can be difficult to address and often go to the heart of policy failure. Once such example is Climate Change, which is now well-recognised, but other risks with wide-reaching and complex consequences exist, including social inequalities.
  • Some risks may have been experienced before, but we are more vulnerable to their impacts now and a system-of-systems approach is necessary to understand the effect of primary, secondary, cascade and co-incidental risks.
  • Whilst there is a strong focus on national security (copies of key communications going direct to both the King and the Prime Minister), an equivalent focus for resilience and preparedness is lacking. Given that the National Security Advisor will be focussed on international matters and the effects of geo-political turbulence, it is likely that resilience and preparedness will be ‘crowded out’ unless the machinery of government deliberately provides the necessary attention.
  • The recommendations in the paper were seen as both sound and necessary – in either the form they are suggested, or something similar. However, they will only work if there is reform at the centre of Government and genuine political buy-in at the most senior levels.
  • Financial constraints are often cited as barriers to better resilience but time constraints, particularly for Ministers, exert an equal pressure. The ‘system’ therefore needs to override other priorities where necessary and be led by a senior Minister (for example the Deputy Prime Minister) with accountability properly assigned and effectively distributed.
  • Direct Treasury involvement of the Treasury at senior level (eg, the Chancellor) is a fundamental requirement for aligning cross-departmental decision-making, policy-making, policy implementation and the allocation of funds. Collaboration too often becomes the victim of competition over stretched budgets.

Discussion

These challenges were recognised by many of the participants, and together with the report’s recommendations, were broadly accepted. Further discussion focussed on seven main themes:

  1. The pandemic has provided a window of opportunity in which to grasp and galvanise political commitment to resilience. An analogy is the focus given to Climate Change through the Stern Review. High level focus and articulation of the issues of this kind means that politicians and civil servants can take the arguments as given, and do not need to constantly re-write the business case. This window is closing, so action needs to be taken now, and momentum maintained on progress already made.
  2. The focus on a risk register tends towards a natural limitation of managing with only those risks in mind. A more pragmatic approach, that leads more reliably to threat-agnostic preparedness, would be the identification of national critical functions, potentially through the proposed National Resilience Act. Capabilities in, and assessments of, these can be tested by scenarios which, in their turn, would help with the identification of roles and responsibilities, and unification across functions.
  3. A critical capability is foresight and systems thinking. This skill needs to be properly embedded throughout government and developed in educational settings at all levels. Foresight, systems thinking and problem solving are not solely the responsibility of government – a mechanism needs to be found through which to distribute these functions, and to recognise, reward and incentivise the value of them. Developing those skills in young people would inform the choices they make as voters. It is important to remember that futures thinking is a continuous process, adapting to changing contexts, and not a one-off exercise.
  4. There is also a cultural challenge with regard to perceptions of ‘ownership’ of risks. There are simultaneous but conflicting views that the ‘state/council/police/community should protect us’, for example. Those attitudes differ in people’s minds with relation to the country as a whole and the place with which they identify (which may not be translated directly onto administrative boundaries). A key challenge was to overcome the difficult of getting coordination around non-terrorism risks or those that pose existential threats.
  5. Funding is tight, so it is important to identify and understand the barriers to implementation, so as to direct spending most effectively. Investment in resilience is not always an additional expense, though it is usually viewed as such. Re-building and retro-fit are also part of the answer and resilience needs to become an integral part of Ministerial responsibilities. Not to do so would equal failure to secure human wellbeing and that of society and the economy. This would be helped by a mature conversation on risk tolerance and desired outcomes.
  6. The recommendation in the report for a separate and dedicated focus on resilience might have the unintended consequence of perpetuating the ‘home and away’ split described by one interviewee. However, it was agreed that there were ways of implementing the recommendation that would avoid that trap. Careful thought needed to be given to how to make it work. This point reinforced the need for a committed Prime Minister to set up and embed the necessary change.
  7. Finally, there is a need to better understand and synthesise priorities, not just of government but of citizens, businesses and civil society. There needs to be a ‘whole of society’ debate to inform a ‘whole of government’ approach to ‘whole of society’ preparedness.

Share this story