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Report Index

Published On: February 29, 2024


It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the first duty of any government is to protect its citizens. Part of that must be to ensure that as a nation we are able to anticipate the types of crises that may arise and are adequately prepared for them – and that society as a whole is resilient in its ability to respond to the unexpected.

Lord Peter Hennessy puts it this way:

“Resilience is one of the primary duties of care. It is not normally defined in that way, but I would add it to all the other key and obvious duties of care – the care of citizens at home from all foreseeable threats.”1

Yet the threats we face are many and varied. Indeed, it is now said that we live in a TUNA world – Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel and Ambiguous2. Global geo-politics is volatile in the context of a changing world order with the post-war certainties rapidly eroding. And our society is facing multiple threats and hazards that are unpredictable, are new to us, and – because of the interconnectedness of modern society – risks to which we are increasingly vulnerable with consequences that may be broader and deeper than we might imagine.

The UK also has an aging infrastructure – much of it constructed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – that is often inadequately repaired and maintained. Moreover, as the Council for Science and Technology pointed out in 20093, this infrastructure is highly fragmented, in terms of both delivery and governance, and is significantly vulnerable to systemic failure. Since then, maintenance backlogs have been allowed to grow4. In any case, this infrastructure was designed to cope within the parameters of a climate far more favourable than the one we are now confidently predicting5.

The latest edition of the Government’s National Risk Register6 highlights 89 major risks facing the country. These include state threats and terrorism, cyber-attacks, accidents and system failures, as well as natural and environmental hazards, and of course human, animal and plant diseases. However, the Register only focusses on ‘acute’ risks – those that might require an emergency response. It explains that there are also ‘chronic’ or slow-burn risks, but only mentions four: climate change, AI developments, antimicrobial resistance, and the growth of serious and organised crime. The Register does not consider them in detail, nor does it cover the many other slow-burn risks that may create crises in the future. It also heroically assumes that business-as-usual risks (such as the state of the health service) are being effectively managed by the relevant Government department.

In its Resilience Framework7, the Government acknowledged its responsibilities by promising “bold and comprehensive plans to build resilience to specific risks” and recognised that it needed “to strengthen the underpinning systems that provide our resilience to all risks.” However, a year on its Implementation Update8, while listing the initiatives taken during 2023 and the progress made, warns that there is “a lot more” to do and that “we must not stand still”.

The Government has said that it is committed to a ‘whole of society’ approach, and at the same time promised to deliver “prevention rather than cure”, along with early analysis and action to mitigate or prevent risks from crystallising in the first place. Such aspirations are noble and proper. However, there has been – according to Bruce Mann, who ran the Civil Contingencies Secretariat from 2004 to 2009 – a period of “strategic neglect”9 and it begs the question as to why this has not been properly attempted in the past – and whether what is now proposed will make a sufficient difference.

For there to be real progress there must be ‘whole of government’ engagement – the sort of collective approach articulated in the Government’s 2018 National Security Capability Review10 as ‘The Fusion Doctrine’. This also means that the government system needs to be able, as Sir Patrick Vallance puts it, “to operationalise its policy decisions”11.

This short paper examines the factors that make it difficult for governments to address preparedness and resilience, looks at the historical context, and makes some suggestions as to how long-term preparedness and resilience might be hard-wired into the government machine and political thinking. These suggestions are part of what is needed to create the environment that will foster a ‘whole of government’ approach and a ‘whole of society’ response. These in turn will enable individual citizens and their communities to become better equipped to withstand and respond to whatever threats may materialise – because, as Sir David Omand puts it, “in the end, all crises are local”12.


When there is any retrospective inquiry into why things have gone wrong or why some disaster was not prevented, it always emerges that those with responsibility did not regard the risks as important or pressing enough, that they did not have the information needed, that they failed to ask, or worse still that they did not want to know.

Paul Martin and Jordan Giddings in their paper for the Commission, “Building Better Resilience”13, point out that:

“We humans are not rational calculating machines in possession of all the facts …. Rather we are emotional and social animals. Our feelings, relationships, personalities and experiences have pervasive influences on our judgement and decision-making, even more so under conditions of stress and uncertainty.”

This is true not only for individuals, but also influences the way in which decisions are taken within Government. Those responsible for such decisions have to integrate both the results of rational analysis and professional advice on the situation being faced (including the respective costs of action and inaction), and at the same time their political instincts, values and wider priorities. The former are needed to ensure decisions are relevant and implementable; the latter to ensure that there is the political narrative to carry conviction. Both are necessary if the public is to support the measures that need to be taken. Either, just on its own, will fail.

When it comes to preparedness and resilience, decisions require those taking them – Ministers and civil servants – to have the courage to try to predict the unpredictable and prepare for the uncertain. At the same time, they must recognise that some of it will be wrong. Events as they turn out are likely to justify at best most, but not all of their decisions.

This is coupled with the prevention paradox: the more successfully risks are prevented (or handled, if they do arise), the less people notice.

What makes this even more difficult is that all our minds – and this applies just as much to government ministers and to civil servants – tend to be programmed in ways that make it hard to respond to novel risks and to protracted and complex challenges. Notably, we find it easier to believe that something might happen if it comes easily to mind. The more we can picture it, the higher our intuitive estimate of its likelihood.

Then there is optimism bias, predisposing us to be over-optimistic about the risk of something bad happening and over-confident about our chosen policy options and thus our ability to cope if it does. At worst, this can result in outright denial. And, of course, it is hard to form sound judgments about how much effort to invest in preventing very high impact risks that have a low likelihood of actually occurring.

However, we know that even unlikely events do happen, as we saw in the 2007 financial crash, and the burden of putting things right is orders of magnitude greater than would have been the cost of earlier preventative action.

Decision-makers, like everyone else, are also subject to confirmation bias – that universal tendency to pay attention to what supports our existing beliefs while downplaying information that contradicts them – and to group think – the inclination to follow the pack and too readily conform to the majority view. This often inhibits those with professional or specialist knowledge from contributing valuable insights that could improve decisions.

Sir Oliver Letwin, who was responsible for resilience and sat in the Cabinet throughout David Cameron’s premiership, writing14 for the Commission, warns that, as the Minister for National Resilience, he saw:

“… at first-hand how short-term political pressures and the dynamics of Whitehall can combine to prevent serious efforts to improve our resilience. … Short-term political necessity to deal with current crises will always tend to displace efforts to improve long-term national resilience against crises that aren’t currently happening.”

It is genuinely difficult for elected politicians to devote taxpayers’ money to projects that do not come to fruition by the time of the next election let alone the one after it – or build resilience that is probably invisible and may never be needed – for an eventuality that may not happen.

This is the NIMTO effect, where NIMTO is ‘Not in My Term of Office’. Being properly prepared and resilient is expensive. Moreover, it is usually impossible to prove that the actions taken have prevented something happening – particularly if that hypothetical event is at some indeterminate time in the future and almost certainly long after the decision- maker’s term of office is forgotten.

Most companies know that failure to allocate some profit to investment for future growth will lead, sometimes very quickly, to decline and extinction. The same is true for governments that fail to provide for investment in resilience in a world that is increasingly dangerous. The way that extreme weather events have recently put pressure on governments and opposition parties around the world to develop or maintain a green agenda is evidence that having a reputation for short-termism is not necessarily an electoral advantage.

The compelling reason for investing in resilience and preparedness – safeguarding the world our children and grandchildren will inherit – needs to be made into a positive narrative. Public confidence in politicians continues to decline, but part of reversing that trend is for the public to see its leaders demonstrating a strategic grasp of the dangers the country will face.

We need to overturn the prevailing mindset of the last fifty or more years when businesses and organisations have focussed on cost-cutting, on efficiency, and on eliminating duplication – often to the exclusion of resilience. Adopting a preparedness philosophy means parking our ‘just in time’ approach in favour of ‘just in case’ and being ready to build in redundancy and avoid unmanaged interdependence.

There are examples of long-term preparedness investments in the UK, but they are few. One of the most prominent was the Thames Barrier. This followed the North Sea storm surge and flood of 1953 which cost over 300 lives in the UK and came close to inundating the financial and government centre of London. The Waverley Committee was established and a year after the flood recommended some form of barrier be built. It then took thirty years before the Thames Barrier was ‘opened’ by the Queen on the 8th May 1984, since when the Barrier has been raised more than 200 times to avoid floods. It has paid for its initial costs many times over in damage avoided. The worsening conditions being brought about by climate change may mean that the Barrier will have to be replaced within the next thirty years, notwithstanding the other protections that have been put in place. The costs of this may be huge, but the cost of leaving the nation’s capital unprotected would be so much greater.

Notwithstanding such isolated examples, as a nation we are poor at long-term planning to mitigate threats. Preparedness and resilience are not prioritised for all the reasons described above. The question is what can be done about this?


Lord Peter Hennessy points out15 that historically the UK has split the response to threats facing the country into two streams in terms of the machinery of government: ‘home’ and ‘away’.

He reminds us that Lloyd George set up the ‘home stream’ just after the Great War with the Supply and Transport Organisation to manage supply chain issues arising from strikes. Clem Attlee, with Chuter Ede, the Home Secretary, revitalised this after the Second World War, creating the Emergencies Committee of the Cabinet which was the linear precursor of the Cabinet Office Briefing Room system (COBR) with Ted Heath establishing the Civil Contingencies Unit to support it.

The ‘away stream’ has its origins in the creation of the intelligence and security agencies in 1909 with the Chiefs of Staff Committee and its dedicated planning staff being set up in 1923. These proved invaluable to Winston Churchill during the Second World War. After that, the Cabinet Office Secretariat provided the support needed for War Cabinets and the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee of the Cabinet.

In Peter Hennessy’s view16, the separation still persists under the surface yet, as he puts it, “the big question posed by today’s risks is that all the major ones are blind to borders. It is simply not divisible any more.”

On paper, the separation between the handling of domestic and overseas crises ended when David Cameron set up the National Security Committee supported by a senior (Permanent Secretary level) National Security Adviser whose remit covered both. (This followed on from the US decision to widen the role of its National Security Council after Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans flooding disaster in 2005, so that it covered both international and domestic matters.)

After 9/11, Tony Blair appointed Sir David Omand as Intelligence and Security Coordinator, as a Permanent Secretary within the Cabinet Office, to provide extra capacity to direct work on civil contingencies and develop counter-terrorism strategy.

In Sir David’s view17, what is now needed at the centre of government is additional effort and focus on resilience, given that the post of National Security Adviser is likely to be even more heavily committed to managing the substantial agenda created by defence and foreign policy issues and global conflicts. This is echoed in Sir Oliver Letwin’s evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry18.

Lord Peter Hennessy19 recalls Willie Whitelaw’s outburst in Cabinet in 1971 when Vehicle and General Insurance collapsed: “Why are we always taken by surprise?” Forty years later and in the aftermath of the chaos caused across Western Europe by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull20, the question was still being asked within government. At the request of the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office Sir John Beddington, then the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, convened a Blackett Review to look at High Impact, Low Probability Risks21. This recommended inter alia that the government should make greater use of external experts to inform its assessment of risk, should enhance its early warning systems, should consider “potentially linked or compounding risks” and review the effectiveness of its risk mitigation strategies.

Since 1936, strategic intelligence assessments on national security issues and associated warnings have been provided by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) supported by a joint assessment staff. A detailed focus on terrorism has also been provided by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre since 2003. However, the ability to look ahead within government beyond the traditional realms of foreign policy, international terrorism and defence is not as well developed as it should be. Although there is the system of ‘Forward Look’ reporting to Ministers and the periodic National Security Risk Assessment mechanism (now to be produced on a rolling basis), there is no domestic parallel process to that of the JIC with its accepted remit of providing impartial strategic assessments and warnings of trouble ahead.


There is no doubt that the acknowledgement of the centrality of ‘Resilience at Home and Abroad’ in the Integrated Review22 published in 2021 was an important step forward (although it appears to perpetuate the ‘home and away’ split). The Review promised “a new approach to preparedness and response to risks,” talked about a priority being to “establish a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to resilience” and promised to develop a comprehensive national resilience strategy.

Such a comprehensive strategy had not previously existed. It was therefore disappointing that it was a Framework23, rather than a full strategy, that emerged at the end of 2022.

What has been done since the Framework was published, was set out in the Implementation Update24. This includes:

  • A new edition of the National Risk Register25 has been published – albeit this focuses on ‘civil contingency’ risks and omits ‘chronic’ or slow-burn risks26.
  • The publication of a list of Lead Government Departments27 has provided greater clarity as to where within the government structure ownership for particular risks resides. However, as the Blackett Review28 warned, there remain many linked and compounding risks that require a cross-government approach and there is an absence of true single-point Without that, as Sir Patrick Vallance points out, “it is very easy for things to get missed or to assume somebody else is doing it”29.
  • The Resilience Directorate has been established, replacing the former Civil Contingencies Secretariat, along with a separate COBR Unit and the National Situation Despite a potential that this separation might lead to a divergence, the two seem to be working well together. However, there remain concerns about whether the Directorate has sufficient authority within the machinery of government. In addition, both continue to be under resource pressures just to deal with the 89 acute risks in the National Risk Register and these seem likely to intensify given further restrictions on government finances.
  • A Resilience Sub-Committee of the National Security Council has been set up that is currently chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister.
  • The National Exercising Programme has “restarted” with two exercises in Sir Richard Mottram30 – amongst many others – emphasises how critical this is, how such exercises must engage senior people (including ministers), and how the learning from such exercises (as well as from real-life emergencies) needs to be properly captured, acted upon and embedded.
  • Planning has started on the UK Resilience Academy that will replace the existing Emergency Planning College. However, the scale of the Academy’s ambition and resourcing are unclear. Will it have the aspiration to be a centre of excellence charged with making sure that that resilience skills are developed at as young an age as possible (for example, right the way through the school system) and embedded in life-long learning? Or will the focus simply be on training those currently charged with emergency planning and response activities in relation to acute risks?
  • There is also work going on “to embed a focus on resilience throughout government policymaking, ensuring that prevention is built into decisions by design”. No details of this are given and it remains obscure as to how significant this will be and how it is to be achieved.

For Bruce Mann this list poses the question:

“How much of what has been done was putting back things that used to be there and should not have been let go in the first place?

And how much was genuinely new ground, catching up with international good practice?”31

In any event, the Implementation Update falls a long way short of being the comprehensive assessment of how prepared and resilient the nation is, that was recommended by the House of Lords’ Select Committee Report32. Nor is it as comprehensive as those that other countries manage to produce (for example, the USA’s National Preparedness Report33 presented to Congress each year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency).

Also less positive in terms of the wider whole-of-society approach was the decision34 announced in October 2023 to withdraw the regulations that would have required companies with more than 750 employees and an annual turnover in excess of £750million to publish a Resilience Statement as part of their annual reporting requirements. This would have required in-scope companies to explain the steps they are taking to build or maintain their business resilience over the short, medium and long term. The aim of the regulations had been to improve the resilience of a significant proportion of the private sector.


Futures thinking, horizon scanning and foresight

If it is to be prepared for shocks and uncertainties, the government machine must give more attention to its capacity in futures thinking, horizon scanning and foresight.

In early 2021, a review35 commissioned by the Government Office for Science looked at effective systemic foresight in governments around the world. In addition, “A Brief Guide to Futures Thinking and Foresight” was published (and revised in October 202236). The Guide is welcome as a sign that this requirement is acknowledged and is being taken seriously. However, the mere fact that it is described as only providing “tips, guidance and advice to help policy-makers and futures leads across government embed long-term thinking and external insight into policy and strategy” both implies that this is no more than optional and suggests that there is still a long way to go.

Moreover, as Professor Brian Collins has pointed out37 the guidance also needs to be devolved to cities and local government where preparedness is at a different scale but “needs to be similarly informed by the past, by plausible futures and the situation that is current.” This thinking also needs to embrace the devolved administrations who have responsibility for many of the relevant public services, including local government, policing and health. Any approach to ‘whole-of-society’ resilience needs futures thinking to be adopted by every level of public administration (and indeed by other sectors).

Most government departments have some form of capacity for forward thinking and identifying future trends, so that these can be fed into policy development. Each is tailored to their specific needs, with timeframes varying from months to decades, depending on the durability of the data on which they are focussed. Economic forecasts, for example, tend to have a shorter horizon, whereas climate and demographic models look further out. However, the scale and sophistication of this varies quite widely.

The largest and most sophisticated of these exercises would appear to be “Global Strategic Trends”38. This is produced every few years by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the Ministry of Defence with the latest edition (the seventh) expected to be published in the next few months. Over two decades, its value has become more widely recognised across government, although it is still not as well used as it might be. It remains the only forecast that looks comprehensively at trends – geo-strategic competition, societies, economics, the environment, technology, conflict, and security – and their interactions across all global regions and shared spaces.

Previous editions of “Global Strategic Trends” (GST), for example, foretold a global economic crisis and a pandemic, and that Russia would likely expand its aggression in Europe after the 2014 invasion of Crimea. The next edition will include material on a wide range of global trends and threats that could have significant implications for all of us: something which future governments would ignore at their peril.

Collaboration between futurists in the various government departments has increased (many have been actively involved in the development of the latest edition of GST). However, there remains a tendency towards siloed behaviour in Whitehall, and sometimes a reluctance to share thinking especially where there are security considerations (historically this has certainly been a problem according to Lord Peter Hennessy39).

There must, of course, be a recognition that not everything can be anticipated. What is needed therefore is a collective capability to read weak signals, recognise events as they happen, assess their nature and the response required, and mobilise quickly. Above all, the output of this futures thinking needs to be used and acted on where necessary and the process needs to be embedded in our governmental systems.

Diversity of thought

One of the inherent advantages of diversity of thought is its capacity to enhance problem- solving. Emergency situations and building resilience often require innovative solutions, and a team with varied backgrounds and perspectives can offer a multitude of creative approaches. When individuals with different experiences collaborate, they bring unique insights, skills, and problem-solving strategies to the table, resulting in a more robust and adaptable plan. This mitigates group think and by encouraging dissenting opinions and diverse viewpoints, a team is more likely to evaluate information critically, identify potential blind spots, and make well-informed decisions that stand up to the complexities of crisis scenarios.

In his famous essay, “Apotheosis of a Dilettante”40, Thomas Balogh suggested that the civil service of the time was selected so as to encourage a “purposefully useless, somewhat dilettante, erudition, which would keep ‘dangerous thoughts’ away.” Today’s civil servants are more diverse, but there is no doubt that their work would be enhanced by engaging with non-traditional experts and listening to more voices from outside.

Some efforts are made to bring in expertise from outside the government machine, but this is patchy and under-developed. For example, academics and others are currently engaged with the Cabinet Office on consideration of how to address chronic risks.

There is also the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) machinery41, which is coordinated by the Government Office for Science and convened on an ad hoc basis with a floating membership depending on the circumstances and usually chaired by the

Government Chief Scientific Adviser. Some have criticised these arrangements for only bringing in a narrow range of advice and suggested that there is a danger of group think42. Yet one of the strengths of the SAGE process is that it does not have a fixed membership and the Government Office for Science can call in a wide range of scientific advice to meet the situation being considered.

It is, of course, the case that scientific advice is only one element of what needs to feed into the policy process. Decision-making must also draw on analysis of the wider strategic, economic and social implications of the options being considered and it is for ministers to make the decisions balancing the respective considerations.

Efforts are also made by government to engage with other groups, such as the ‘business community’ or the ‘voluntary sector’, from time to time. However, such engagements are often seen by those participating as being formulaic and for show, rather than being genuine attempts to gauge a range of opinions. Meetings are often sporadic and not particularly substantive. Perhaps even more importantly, the huge variety of different types or organisations encompassed within the business community – or the voluntary sector – is rarely acknowledged, nor reflected in nuanced considerations or engagement mechanisms.

Systems thinking and coordination

Miguel Pantaleon, writing for the Commission in May 202343, pointed out that in just three years the UK has:

“suffered at least seven major crises, all different in nature. Some of them are political, others economic, violent conflicts, epidemics etc. Crises are disturbances that a complex system cannot absorb and respond appropriately to. … Complex systems are formed by a large number of elements that are independent and interact, producing non-linear behaviour. These constant interactions and interdependence make them unpredictable.”

However, much of government operates in departmental silos. Acute risks on the National Risk Register are ‘owned’ by lead government departments. This makes clear where accountability lies, and it makes best use of the subject-matter expertise within those departments. However, the implications for, and interdependencies with, what is the responsibility of other departments may often not be adequately understood.

John Beckford and Katie Barnes, again writing for the Commission in July 202344, argue that a systemic approach to resilience requires that we should look at “the whole political, economic, social and technical context in which we are living”. The implications of this are that the system should be looked at “in terms of its purpose and stakeholders, such as beneficiaries, customers, owners and users”. This wider vision is not necessarily something that departments in silos are very good at. The questions that should be asked are “When things go wrong, what matters to whom, and why?”

The task therefore for government is how the necessary systems thinking can be built into the civil service machine so that departments think beyond their own responsibilities and the centre of government is sighted on the complexity and interconnectedness of society. The network of Chief Scientific Advisers across the government machine could and should play a key role in helping with this. Unless such a broader view is taken, the response to crises will be the short-term mitigation of the symptoms of what is happening, rather than to try to improve the health of the whole.

New ways of accounting and valuing resilience and preparedness expenditure

The House of Commons Library estimates that around a third of a trillion pounds was spent by the UK Government on measures to address the problems arising from the Covid pandemic45. This was a huge and unplanned cost to the exchequer.

It is a legitimate argument that, had the right mitigations been put in place, these costs could have been substantially reduced. However, would those mitigations have been approved in advance?

Treasury support for preparedness and resilience investment is essential and the Treasury must be engaged in any ‘whole of government’ approach to these issues.

The Treasury’s Green Book46 is the guidance issued to government departments on how to appraise policies, programmes and projects. This appraisal is intended to be based on an assessment of the “costs, benefits and risks of alternative ways to meet government objectives” and involves a calculation of “social or public value” that includes “all significant costs and benefits that affect the welfare and wellbeing of the population”. It is intended that environmental, cultural, health, social care, justice, and security impacts should be taken into account. Such an approach is what you would expect.

However, the actual process involves a number of elements that are likely to militate against long-term investment in preparedness and resilience and run counter to reducing the risk of or consequences of future threats and hazards. This is particularly so if the scale of those risks and hazards is uncertain, and the threat may arise at some indeterminate time in the future.

Costs and benefits are calculated over the lifetime of an intervention and a ten-year guideline is suggested for many policies (longer for buildings and infrastructure).

Future costs and benefits are discounted to reflect “social time preference” on the principle that society as a whole wishes to receive benefits sooner rather than later. Consequently, a benefit in ten years’ time is assigned less value than one that accrues in three years. The discount rate applied for this purpose is 3.5% (in real terms, after allowing for forecast inflation) with a rate of 1.5% for “risk to life” values. Calculations are also made to adjust for risk and optimism bias.

As Andrew Greenway47 has argued:

“Like all orthodoxy, the Green Book is presented as an inevitable fact of life, like the weather, or Blue Peter. But it is not. It is a list of choices. Those choices are tangible articulations of Whitehall’s implicit politics, so almost nobody pays it any attention at all. … Knowing the price of everything does not add up knowing the value of everything.”

If preparedness and resilience are to be given due priority and if, as the Implementation Update48 promises, this is to be embedded into government policymaking and decisions, then these implicit choices have to be addressed. Applying a full social time preference rate may not be justified when what is at stake is the risk of substantial social and therefore economic dislocation, as well as specific threats to life – even if such risks may be hard to quantify. The prize is that investment in resilience ahead of a specific crisis is almost certainly going to mean better preparedness for any crisis and the avoidance of disproportionate and avoidable costs down the line.

Civil service processes and structures

The civil service cannot, of course, do everything and there are many functions where the activities and implementation of policy are the responsibility of other public sector organisations. One example is the National Health Service: policy for England may be determined by the Department of Health and Social Care, but the implementation of that policy and the operational expertise will lie in NHS England and in local health bodies (it is a devolved function, so the arrangements are different in the other parts of the UK). Yet, in times of crisis or when considering how best to mitigate a risk, decisions may be taken – perhaps in a hurry – without sufficient engagement with those who have the operational skills and knowledge as to the best and most effective response and will also be operationally responsible for implementing the measures taken.

Similar considerations apply to other local functions. Much of the heavy lifting in responding to an emergency at local level will fall on the relevant local authorities and many mitigations are best organised locally. That means that input from those organisations who have operational responsibility locally, have the situational awareness at community level, and the practical experience of what works, needs to be fed in and to be an integral part of resilience and preparedness policymaking. Above all, it needs to be determined what accountabilities are local and what are national – and this should be predetermined rather than negotiated in the middle of a crisis.

In the view of Sir Patrick Vallance49, “it is important to go through the National Risk Register, look at the lead departments and ask the question, do they have the operational expertise, and, if not, what would be the plan to bring it in should an emergency arise”. For all of this good data is essential. In a similar way, for each risk the question should be asked “what data would you require in order to be informed and in order to make decisions?” and then ask the question about who holds that data” and whether it can it be brought to the centre when needed. The role of the National Situation Centre is crucial in this. It is an important asset and its capability to undertake data visualisation and analysis needs to be properly maintained, so that informed decision-making can take place and the consequences of decisions can be tracked in real time.

There is a need for foresight work, risk management and long-term planning to be coordinated across the government machine. Similarly, there needs to be a clear process that ensures identification and ownership of cross-cutting risks and coordinated policy advice on systemic issues. Some coordination happens through the network of Chief Scientific Advisors. The rest presumably falls – although this is not made explicit – to the Resilience Directorate in the Cabinet Office. In addition, there is a Head of The Government Risk Profession located in HM Treasury.

Consideration needs to be given to strengthening these functions at the heart of government. The Head of the Resilience Directorate has two reporting lines – one to the Deputy National Security Advisor and the second to the Director General heading the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat. This may be an attempt to bridge the modern iteration of the ‘home and away’ separation (with the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat representing ‘home’ and the Deputy National Security Advisor representing ‘away’). However, this may mean that they are pulled in two directions. Moreover, they will not have the internal clout with other government departments that a more senior official might have, nor will they have the automatic right to escalate resilience matters to the Prime Minister or the Cabinet Secretary.

From 2005-2007, Sir Richard Mottram held the role of Permanent Secretary for Intelligence, Security and Resilience, during his time chairing the JIC. However, the role did not continue in this form when Sir Alex Allan succeeded him at the JIC. Perhaps inevitably, longer term resilience concerns were squeezed out by more immediate intelligence and security matters.

Given the present turbulent international and security situation, however, there is a clear need for there to be an official – at Permanent Secretary level or equivalent – who will in effect be the Chief Resilience Officer for the nation. The postholder (like the National Security Adviser, Chair of the JIC or the heads of the intelligence and security agencies) would have, when necessary, direct access to the Prime Minister. This would complement the role of the National Security Advisor, who is likely to be very heavily loaded for the next few years, and would provide additional clout across government on resilience and preparedness issues. There will be overlaps in their interests (for example, on cyber issues). Similarly, they would work closely with the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor and Head of the Government Office for Science in pulling together the foresight and futures work done within different Departments and the work done on Global Strategic Trends within the Ministry of Defence. The Resilience Directorate would need to be expanded and resourced to support this activity.

Political leadership

Political structures would need to parallel the official mechanisms. In practice, resilience has been given greater emphasis within government thinking when the minister leading on it (in recent times this has been the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and/or the Paymaster General) has had sufficient seniority in the Cabinet and is seen to be speaking with the authority of the Prime Minister to ensure that departmental ministers respond appropriately. At the present time, the role is part of the responsibilities of the Deputy Prime Minister. That is helpful. However, there is a risk that if the ministerial postholder has too broad a range of responsibilities they may not have sufficient bandwidth to focus on resilience sufficiently. This may be less of a concern if their role is supported by the Permanent Secretary role described above.

Parliamentary scrutiny is also important. The presentation of an annual statement to Parliament, as promised in the Resilience Framework50, is part of what is needed. It is therefore helpful that the first such progress report (or Implementation Update51) was accompanied by an oral statement in the House of Commons by the Deputy Prime Minister. Ideally in future, the document itself will be a fuller assessment of the state of the nation’s resilience and preparedness and would be followed automatically by debates in both Houses of Parliament.

Day-to-day scrutiny of resilience matters should be carried out by a Joint Committee of both Houses. There already exists the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy (JCNSS)52 set up in 2010 to “monitor the implementation and development” of the National Security Strategy. Although this Committee has considered some resilience matters in recent years, its focus tends to be on other aspects of national security, and it is not clear that its members (which include the Chairs of the main House of Commons Select Committees) would have the time and bandwidth to cover resilience routinely.

In addition, there is the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)53, set up by statute and appointed by the Prime Minister of the day at the beginning of each Parliament. This is responsible for providing oversight of the security agencies and, although possible, it probably does not make sense to broaden its remit to cover resilience as well.

Unless scrutiny of resilience was made a statutory responsibility with the creation of a body akin to the ISC, it would be a matter for Parliament as to whether the remit of the JCNSS was extended explicitly to cover resilience or whether a new Joint Committee was established to oversee progress on improving national resilience.

A National Resilience Act

Sir Oliver Letwin in his article for the Commission54 suggested for the UK to be better prepared for future crises and risks:

“We need to do two things:

  1.  Identify long-term measures that will provide something close to continuity of normal life, even when the first lines of defence are breached.
  2.  Find some means of maximising the chances that successive governments (of whatever political complexion) will implement those long-term resilience measures, even when they have unpopular short-term consequences.”

He draws a comparison with taking steps to mitigate the implications of climate change, saying:

“We know that climate change is happening. We also know that the short-term demands of democratic politics can often make it difficult for the UK government to implement the long-term policies that are needed to reduce carbon emissions. This is why we established an independent Climate Change Committee … with a remit to set out what government needs to do and to hold government to account for whether it is doing it.

“This system, backed by legislation has stood the test of time. It has acted as a shield, providing governments of differing political complexions with a high degree of political protection against opportunistic attacks from opponents when they take the often unpopular decisions necessary to bring UK net carbon emissions under control.”

He points out that the Climate Change Act 2008 was passed by the then Labour Government with the support of the then Conservative Opposition (he was at that time the relevant Shadow Minister). This political unity meant that Treasury objections were overcome and the Treasury “heroically” adapted itself to the “new reality” as underpinned by statute. Indeed, the Green Book was rewritten to justify long term expenditures and “present value calculations … were recast following the Stern Review.”

He concludes:

“If we didn’t already have the Climate Change Act and the Climate Change Committee, it might be necessary to do some deep thinking about what new structures might … increase our national resilience. But … why spend time trying to reinvent the wheel? Why not just enact a National Resilience Act modelled on the Climate Change Act and thereby establish a National Resilience Committee modelled on the Climate Change Committee?

“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.”

There is already a partial model: the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This, as the Future Generations Commissioner explains, places a duty on “public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with … each other, and to prevent persistent problems”55. Some of this thinking could be incorporated in a National Resilience Act.

It is difficult to improve the preparedness and resilience of the nation unless the gaps and weaknesses have been identified. This requires systematic, evidence-based analysis (and validation) at local and national levels. A National Resilience Act could mandate clearly defined responsibilities and accountabilities within an effective governance structure – subject to effective audit and scrutiny.

Therefore, there should also be a strengthened role for the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office (NAO). Already, the NAO says that it “focuses on the issues that matter and … where we can influence long-term value for money”. It references the importance of “preventative measures, where early investment can protect value for money in the longer term”; “the extent to which outcomes are sustainable and cost effective in the longer term”; and the need for a “cross-cutting view … whether the work of government is joined-up in supporting the intended outcomes.” These elements of the NAO’s role should be given greater emphasis in the Office’s next five-year strategy – currently in preparation – and supplemented with regular reports to Parliament on the resilience of public bodies.


When he was Prime Minister of France in the 1950s, Pierre Mendes-France used to remind the Chamber of Deputies that “To govern is to choose”56. However, there are some duties of government that are of over-riding priority, in particular the responsibility to safeguard the nation and protect its people from harm. Such considerations should override, when necessary, shorter-term political choices and stand above the more immediate pressures of the electoral cycle.

These safeguarding responsibilities become even more of an overriding priority given the global challenges that we face – not least the huge stresses stemming from climate change, internationally as well as at home, with the associated huge population movements and disruptions to supply chains. We are in an increasingly volatile world with conflicts erupting on every continent spilling over national borders and affecting diaspora in every country.

In addition, there are new threats and uncertainties: artificial intelligence making our systems even more interconnected and potentially liable to cascade collapse; misinformation and disinformation undermining trust in democratic systems; as well as public health challenges, new zoonotic diseases, demographic changes and so on. This is in a context in which we have to rely on an aging infrastructure not designed or equipped to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The National Risk Register57 outlines some, but not all, risks that the country faces and the UK Government Resilience Framework58 acknowledges that there is still much to be done. This is in a context in which the threats to society from external agencies and nations seem to be increasing in scale and pace.

Yet, as set out in this paper, there are practical and institutional biases that have made it difficult for preparedness and resilience to be prioritised – particularly when alternative actions are more visible, provide more immediate gratification and are superficially more crowd-pleasing. The failure to invest adequately in preparedness and resilience or to ensure that we have adapted appropriately for the challenges of the future will be a grotesque abnegation of our obligations to our children and grandchildren.

This paper and the brief recommendations that follow are intended to provoke a discussion as to how best we can create the framework and conditions for a prepared and resilient future.


Recommendation one

The Government should introduce, and Parliament should pass – ideally with all-Party support – a National Resilience Act. This should follow the model of the Climate Change Act 2008. It should place a legal obligation on government departments and public bodies, including the devolved administrations in their areas or responsibility, to take account of and prioritise the need for preparedness and resilience in all their actions. This Act should require that the Government report on the country’s baseline preparedness and resilience, set targets for the improvements needed, and report annually on the progress made. In addition, the Act should establish an independent National Resilience Committee to advise the UK Government and the devolved administrations on the Committee’s assessment of the progress being made and what additional measures should be taken.

Recommendation two

Parliament should consider establishing a Joint Committee on National Preparedness and Resilience to meet regularly and report on the implementation of the National Resilience Act, as well as consider reports from the National Resilience Committee. Alternatively, the remit of the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy should be broadened explicitly to encompass national preparedness and resilience.

Recommendation three

Both Houses of Parliament should each year have a full debate on the annual reports produced under the terms of the National Resilience Act.

Recommendation four

A senior cabinet minister should, with the authority of the Prime Minister, have responsibility for resilience and preparedness and for coordinating the activities and responses of all government departments and agencies. This person should have a legal obligation to engage with the devolved administrations to ensure that there is a UK-wide approach. They would also chair a Cabinet Committee for resilience and preparedness.

Recommendation five

Within the Cabinet Office there should be a Permanent Secretary for Preparedness and Resilience who will act as the nation’s Chief Resilience Officer and be the principal advisor to the Prime Minister and the National Security Council on these matters. They would have responsibility for the Resilience Directorate within the Cabinet Office and for coordinating government-wide activity. They would work with the National Security Adviser and the Government Chief Scientific Advisor so that these issues are approached systemically and to ensure that government work on futures thinking, foresight and horizon scanning is coordinated across departments. They would also ensure that policy is developed in conjunction with advice from academia, the business community, and the voluntary and community sectors. Finally, they would be expected to engage actively in making sure that public understanding of resilience and the need for it is enhanced, so that the public is fully engaged and informed.

Recommendation six

The Treasury’s guidance on the appraisal of policies and spending should be revised to ensure that long-term requirements for preparedness and resilience are given due weight.

Recommendation seven

There should be a central role for the National Audit Office in auditing the preparedness and resilience of public bodies and the proposal to require larger companies in the private sector to produce annual statements of their resilience and preparedness should be revived.

These proposals (or something like them) are necessary to ensure that we build preparedness and resilience. However, they are not sufficient.

Ultimately, society as a whole must be behind the change of approach that is needed, and the country will require mature political leadership to deliver a future where as a nation we, our children and grandchildren can feel secure that we are properly prepared and resilient against the risks and threats that we face.


The views expressed in this paper are those of the author. However, he is grateful for comments and views received during the drafting process from Sir Ian Andrews, Katie Barnes, Professor Brian Collins, Lord Peter Hennessy, the Right Honourable Ruth Kelly, Bruce Mann, Sir Richard Mottram, Professor Sir David Omand, Beth Sizeland, Cat Tully, and Sir Patrick Vallance.

None of those listed are responsible for any errors or omissions in the paper, nor should it be assumed that they necessarily agree with all of its conclusions.


1 Private conversation with Professor Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, 3rd January 2024

2 “Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach”, Rafael Ramirez and Angela Wilkinson, Oxford University Press, March 2016

3 “A National Infrastructure for the 21st Century”, Council for Science and Technology, June 2009

4 See the address to Parliament by the Comptroller and Auditor General on 16th January 2024, as well as successive reports from the National Audit Office

5 See for example London Climate Resilience Review – Interim Report, Greater London Authority, January 2024

6 National Risk Register, August 2023

7 The UK Government Resilience Framework, December 2022

8 The UK Resilience Framework: 2023 Implementation Update, December 2023

9 Private conversation with Bruce Mann, 9th February 2024

10 National Security Capability Review, March 2018

11 Private conversation with Sir Patrick Vallance, 8th February 2024

12 “How to Survive a Crisis”, Viking, 2023

13 Building Better Resilience, December 2020

14 The Case for a New National Resilience Committee, National Preparedness Commission, September 2022

15 Private conversation with Professor Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, 3rd January 2024

16 Ibid

17 Private correspondence with Sir David Omand, 28th January 2024

18 INQ000177810.pdf (

19 Private conversation with Professor Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, 3rd January 2024

20 Eyjafjallajoull 2010: How Icelandic volcano eruption closed European skies, National Centre for Atmospheric Science

21 Blackett Review of High Impact Low Probability Risks, 2011

22 Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021

23 Op cit

24 Op cit

25 Op cit

26 See comments on what is left out in The National Risk Register a Step Along the Yellow Brick Road, National Preparedness Commission, August 2023

27 The Roles of Lead Government Departments, Devolved Administrations and Other Public Bodies, August 2023

28 Op cit

29 Op cit

30 Private conversation with Sir Richard Mottram, 24th January 2024

31 Private conversation with Bruce Mann, 9th February 2024

32 Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, Select Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning, House of Lords, December 2021

33 National Preparedness Report, FEMA, December 2023

34 Burdensome legislation withdrawn in latest move to cut red tape for businesses, October 2023

35 Features of effective systemic foresight in governments around the world, April 2021

36 A Brief Guide to Futures Thinking and Foresight, October 2022

37 Futures thinking and foresight – tools for better preparedness, National Preparedness Commission, March 2021

38 Global Strategic Trends – The Future Starts Today, October 2018

39 Private conversation with Professor Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, 3rd January 2024

40 “The Apotheosis of the Dilettante”, Thomas Balogh in “The Establishment” (ed H. Thomas), New English Library, 1959

41 Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, accessed January 2024

42 Coronavirus can only be beaten if groups such as Sage are transparent and accountable, Professor Richard Coker, The Guardian, April 2020

43 Crises, resilience and complex systems, National Preparedness Commission, May 2023

44 Where and why systems fail – the value of knowing what others value in a crisis, National Preparedness Commission, July 2023

45 Public spending during the Covid-19 pandemic, House of Commons Library, September 2023

46 The Green Book, October 2023

47 By the (Green) Book? The inconvenient truth of the Whitehall business case, Civil Service World, November 2019

48 Op cit

49 Op cit

50 Op cit

51 Op cit

52 National Security Strategy (Joint Committee)

53 Intelligence and Security Committee

54 Op cit

55 Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

56 Quoted in “Francis Mitterand: A Very French President”, Ronald Tiersky, 2003

57 Op cit

58 Op cit