Published On: November 3, 2021

In this article, Robert Hall, Research and Programme Co-ordinator for the NPC and Director of Strategy for Resilience First, examines what the ‘whole of society’ means in terms of civic and individual responsibilities.


The UK Government’s report Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy of March 2021 makes much of adopting what is called a ‘whole-of-society’ approach. The report states (Section 4.1) that the aim is: ‘To establish a whole-of-society approach to resilience, so that individuals, businesses and organisations all play a part in building resilience across the UK. We will seek to develop an integrated approach, bringing together all levels of government, CNI operators, the wider private sector, civil society and the public.’

This is an admirable goal: it is holistic and ambitious, and very welcomed. However, one should ask if it is attainable to the degree to which a collective ethos – ‘we’re all in this together’ – becomes the mark of national resilience. This article considers how the individual and civic aspects of national resilience can be achieved. The issue will become crucial as the climate emergency challenges the whole of society and elicits change that is likely to be far more demanding than Covid-19. Other threats such as those arising from the digital world, demographic shifts, and resources constraints can all be expected to generate their own shocks and stresses on the population at large.

Successes and failures

The Second World War provided a good illustration of what could be achieved in the face of a threat to national survival, one which was visible, sustained and universal. Over five years, people at home willingly carried gas masks all the time, lived in shelters and endured blackouts, accepted rationing, etc, largely because the threat was then considered by all to be real and present, pervasive and pernicious. A unifying Blitz or Dunkirk spirit developed in the population which helped the country get back on its feet long after the war ended. National Service continued even until 1960.

A more recent attempt to build a national cohesiveness – one without the impetus of an existential threat – came when former Prime Minister David Cameron launched the idea of a ‘Big Society’ after the election of 2010. The stated priorities were to: give communities more powers; encourage people to take an active role in their communities; transfer power from central to local government; support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises; and publish government data. Clearly, localism was the focus and it was made without reference to the wider public-private engagement mentioned in the Integrated Review.

Cameron’s plan included setting up a Big Society Bank and a Big Society Network to fund projects, as well as introducing a National Citizen Service. During the course of 2010-15, the initiative declined as an instrument of government policy for a variety of reasons. The Big Society Network collapsed in 2014 and the whole concept was quietly forgotten.

The Covid-19 pandemic – a war on the whole population but without the physical destruction – has invigorated the search for a more unified effort across many sectors within and beyond government. In general, and particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, the population has pulled together. The crisis has encouraged some people to look after others in a way they may not have thought about in the past. At the same time, Covid-19 has also highlighted certain societal inequalities and exacerbated some social tensions.

Worrying trends

Fear and uncertainty in turbulent times are powerful drivers: history is replete with examples and lessons. The complexity of the modern world means that there are competing demands for attention from both governed and governing. Stresses and strains are exacerbated by a widening wealth gap, weakening familial ties, growing mental ill-health, and fewer face-to-face contacts – social media can only compensate to a degree. There is a danger in all this turbulence that we see personal freedom and individual rights as the rationale for (dis)engaging with others. Sometimes, these sentiments are placed above social responsibility.

A small illustration from the pandemic is the case of childhood vaccinations. The Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation came to the conclusion that vaccines for the under 15-teens were of little benefit on a personal level. On the other hand, the Chief Medical Officers decided that they provided wider community benefit in terms of reduced disruption to education and the medium-term impact on those affected, as well as wider mental-health considerations. In effect, the societal gain outweighed the individual one. The medical arguments no doubt confused parents and slowed the vaccination programme.

Ultimately, freedom in a democracy doesn’t work without a good measure of social responsibility. A social compass or compact is important to provide direction in volatile, ambiguous situations, and leaders in both business and public life have an obligation to help set the so-called Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) agenda, hopefully pointing in a cohesive direction. The agenda can be expected to require behavioural and attitudinal changes in major areas of civic society which will require deft handling. They may also arise from a groundswell of popular opinion. Overall, it may be better to willingly sacrifice some personal liberties for the collective good than be compelled to surrender them.

Without a good degree of cohesiveness then it is too easy for social dissatisfactions to escalate into social factionalism and political polarisation, as some countries beyond UK shores are finding. The conspiracy theorists, disruptive activists and social-media trolls, who all have influence beyond their numbers, can negatively affect civic order. This must be avoided.

Community centric

If we are to bring society closer together to meet systemic, existential threats – especially ones of the scale and immediacy of the climate emergency – then it would be helpful to adopt a more integrated, community-centric approach, one that identifies individual and local benefits as well as larger ones. If people don’t recognise the benefits to them directly and the place they have in sustaining that localism then they are unlikely to march to a drum beat from the top.

A Foreword to a recent report from the British Red Cross says that: ‘we should begin by asking the question of how we can build the connections that are fundamental to individual and community resilience’. Those connections – rooted inside communities – can only be built from the bottom up, albeit with top-down guidance and support. They require not only a strengthening of existing community structures and partnerships but also the establishment of ‘new ones, and creating an inclusive, supportive, and enabling environment for the co-production of whole-of-society local resilience capabilities’, according to an article by the Alliance Manchester Business School.

Creating a better stakeholder environment, with adequate resources, strong leadership and effective social justice, can collectively provide the glue that binds more people together in their communities: that glue is frequently more about adaptation through behavioural change than any physical change. ‘Greater collaboration between the private and public sectors is important here and while resilience often conflicts with commercial requirements, more can and should be done to reconcile any conflict of interest, especially by larger organisations, based on shared goals’, says a report by Marsh McLennan. Increasingly, CEOs recognise the value of both resilient business ecosystems and societal commitments (as per ESG). In the end, business success depends on vibrant communities, and hence could provide the incentives for change.

As the CEO of the Timpson Group writes: ‘The words “civil society” will become increasingly common as governments across the world recognise that they alone cannot solve the complex problems we face. When voluntary groups, faith organisations, online networks and business work in the interests of citizens and society at large, they can have a powerful impact – often far more powerful than the state.’

Civic action

Other countries can offer markers. The Nordic countries, for instance, have had some success with their ‘total defence’ concepts. While they have a common enemy on their borders, which must help drive popular attention, they are able to bring public and private sectors and civil society together in a way that ensures resilience and a cherished way of life. National defence courses involve large sections of the civil and business communities, which allows rapid mobilisation for a range of challenges including war. With 50,000 volunteers attending emergency-planning courses on an annual basis in Finland (where the population is 8% the size of the UK), this shows a significant appetite for greater preparedness.  Posters sent to the population advising of safety measures are well received. (In the UK, such poster trials have largely been met with derision or questions as to what authorities are hiding.)

Volunteering is a powerful way of engaging large numbers of people in civic action. In the UK, around 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS during the early stages of Covid-19: a sizeable number were not called up. There are many organisations in the voluntary and community sector ready and willing. As the chair of the Royal Voluntary Service writes: ‘There can be little doubt that the VCS, alongside the public and private sectors, is an essential partner in a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to preparedness, resilience and response.’

Once again, other countries such as Italy, which has a long and proud record of volunteering in civil protection, can provide models for better working. The Italian civil protection volunteers represent all the professions and knowledge of society. Their experience has been that civic action following a disaster should consider the relationship between a community and the identity of the location affected, and how civic pride for and loyalty to that location can be maintained – a ‘spirit of place’ (genius loci). Collective memory and identity can be part of building resilience of place. [i]

A way ahead

If national resilience is to be achieved through large-scale, popular commitment then a number of prior requirements are necessary. First, a clear, unifying message needs to be conveyed by government (both local and central) that goes beyond generalities and populism. A mission-centric or community-centric vision needs to emerge as to how the country can meet the major societal challenges – and there can be no more profound threat than that of climate change – through local resolve and actions. The key question is how to achieve that when the nature of that threat is so difficult to express in terms of immediate relevance to individual citizens as in a war for national survival.

The resilience message requires progressive education (knowledge) and training (experience) – as part of a national curriculum – that is active from schools and social clubs, and independent of any particular government or crisis. Such a message can help build trust, another key component of resilience if delivered by authoritative figures. It also requires swift and accurate communication tools like mobile apps. In return, there should be a clear social compact, based on effective social justice, so that the mutual benefits are tangible and attainable – generating that stake in society. This cannot be achieved by a coalition of the few if that coalition doesn’t have mass support to get the job done.

Second, to develop localism requires more than the 42 Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) in England and Wales (as defined by police boundaries). A LRF in every local authority (398) or constituency (650) across the UK would be closer to the mark so that local concerns could be addressed and local resources organised as appropriate to the local or national emergency. Each LRF should have not only a strong business presence but also an equivalent of an Emergency Planning Officer who has the skill and knowledge to manage the local response. Such positions were sadly scrapped by many local authorities as a response to budgetary cuts.

Third, a civil reservist cadre – something the Integrated Review mentions and the National Citizen Service envisaged by David Cameron advocated – should be created not just in pockets but across the country. Such a cadre could consist of volunteers who would be available during emergencies. They should be trained (regularly) and incentivised, with the necessary resources to be mobilised when the situation demands. With other countries offering successful models then over time such a cadre could require young people to engage in a form of national service for a few weeks each year, learning skills that could also be useful in employment and life generally. Such training could help to restore the balance between social responsibility and individual freedom. The cost of establishing and running a civilian cadre would be much less that dealing with a national emergency from a standing start, as the pandemic has shown.


The Integrated Review makes mention of many of these ideas to a lesser or greater extent. The review presents a unique opportunity to make a difference to national resilience. But the impact will only be achieved if it is implemented and this requires the government to act and deliver at the same time as local communities step up to the plate: in a major catastrophe, government organisations may not be operating effectively for quite some time. National preparedness cannot be allowed to languish until the next emergency strikes.

Another national calamity will surely appear over the horizon at some point, and it would be a dereliction of duty by the government not to be better prepared and organised than it was for Covid-19. Learning lessons means first identifying them and then applying the right measures to ensure that the circumstances are not repeated. If these are directed at the community level then the return could be significant.

[i] Alexander, D, Professor. Presentation to Resilience First, 20 May 2021.

Share this story

Related posts