by David Rubens

Does Our Government Understand ‘Resilience’?

Many people will be aware that the UK Government 2017 National Risk Register listed pandemic influenza as its number one identified threat under ‘Hazards, diseases,, accidents and social threats’, on the basis of both likelihood and impact.

Emergent infectious diseases (for example, coronavirus), was given the same level of likelihood (4 out of a possible 5), but was considered to have a lower level of impact (3 rather than 4). It is a matter of national shame that even though the likelihood of a non-influenza pandemic was so clearly identified, that the UK was so unprepared for an event that could be considered as close to inevitable over a five year projection.

However, that is another matter, and not the point of this blog. What is the point is the apparent incapacity of government ministers to understand what ‘Resilience’ means. Whilst you might be aware of the facts described above, it is unlikely that you will have read the foreword to the 2017 National Risk Register (life is too short, and there are videos of kittens and pandas to watch on youtube!).

It is perhaps one of the most frightening documents I have read. (I appreciate that anyone involved in any other aspect of life where there is government input – health, education, transport, infrastructure, power, communications, emergency services, mental health, child care, immigration, to name just a few examples - will have their own similar most frightening documents. These just come from an area I happen to be familiar with).

It is written by Caroline Nokes, Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency (or at least, it is over her signature - I doubt if she wrote it herself). I appreciate that any government ministry claiming responsibility for resilience and efficiency is setting itself up for a fall – but the level of ignorance in the document is breath-taking.

Firstly, Ms Nokes (or whoever wrote the paper), clearly doesn’t understand the difference between a crisis and an emergency (or even seem to be aware that there is one).

The closing paragraph of her foreword goes: ‘It is an unfortunate fact of life that emergencies do happen. However our awareness, preparedness, readiness and response to those emergencies is very much in our own hand. I encourage you to consider that as you read this document’.

However, it is her description of resilience and the UK’s famed resilience capabilities that seem to move the document from government policy to Monty Python sketch.

‘The United Kingdom has an enviable reputation for resilience. In a rapidly changing world, we are at the forefront of embracing new opportunities and seeking innovative solutions to emerging problems….Resilience does not come easily, but the UK has a long experience of it. Call it what you will, but the fabled ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘Blitz spirit’ or just a stubborn determination, our resilience can be seen at the forefront of our handling of emergencies’.

Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of the rapidly changing world and the fabled Blitz spirit, but it seems that the writer has picked random phrases out of the government box of cliches, and bundled them together.

Resilience is not just a magic word that can be used to create some sort of fabled state that allows the plucky Brits to muddle though. True resilience is a highly evolved state that allows an organism to be able to adapt speedily and effectively to the changes in the surrounding environment, maintaining maximum functionality with minimum disruption. Resilience is always a response to two external forces – change and stress. If there is no change, or of there is no stress, you don’t need resilience.

However, given that understanding, there are some specific characteristics that are required for any organism or organisation to be resilient, and without them the desire for resilience is on the same level of wishful thinking as clicking your heels three times and hoping you can be taken back to Kansas.

Spare Capacity

The first is spare capacity. Without spare capacity, then it is impossible to be resilient. If there is a single characteristic that can be thought to be representative of a resilient organisation, it is elasticity. The ability to change, to adapt, to stretch – they are all parts of the fundamental requirements of a resilient organisation. The opposite of elasticity is brittleness, and it is impossible for a brittle organisation to be resilient. Brittleness is associated with another anti-resilient quality which is fragility, and a fragile organisation can also not be considered as resilient.

Spare capacity, of course, can also be characterised as ‘unutilised resources’, and for whatever reasons, over the last ten years we have seen any spare capacity cut to the bone. It is unlikely that any organisation can justify the storing of unused capacity on the basis of possible ‘what if' scenarios. However, it is exactly the government’s role, as protector of last resource, to ensure that sufficient spare capacity is stored. It was true when Joseph was a crisis management advisor to Pharaoh 2,500 years ago, and it is just as true today.

Sensitivity to the External Environment

The second characteristic of a resilient organisation is sensitivity to changes in the surrounding environment. If, as described above, resilience is the ability to adapt to external change and the resultant stress that causes, then it seems clear that the earlier that you can be aware of a potential problem, the more likely you are to be able to adapt and respond in an appropriate manner and with a lower level of effort, rather than waiting until the potential danger has both escalated and come nearer. That is true whether the potential danger is an angry bull, a change in market conditions or a potential global pandemic. There is no question that if the UK government had paid more attention to the news coming out of Wuhan in November / December 2019, then opportunities to have prepared more effectively would have been available which were no longer applicable by the time the government started to pay attention in March.

Rapidity / Agility

The third quality of resilience is a mixture of rapidity and agility. It is the ability to be aware that something is happening and then to make the necessary changes that will allow a speedy, appropriate and effective response. In this sense, the opposite of rapidity can be considered to be inertia – the reluctance to move or make changes, and it seems clear that most organisations, and not just government agencies, are more likely to have inertia as a central characteristic than rapidity.

Ability To Learn

However, the single underlying characteristic that is absolutely fundamental to a truly resilient body, whether that is an organism or an organisation, is the ability to learn. Resilience is not simply about survival and recovery. It is about preparing better. Resilience is something that is created as part of pre-event planning and preparation, not post-event response.

We have had global pandemic threats on a regular basis since SARS in 2003. MERS, Zica, Ebola, Swine Flu, Avian Flu have all been opportunities for the government to examine their own pandemic management plans, capabilities and readiness. The fact that 80% of the respirators in the national pandemic stockpile were out of date when Coronavirus hit the UK is not an issue of crisis management failure - it is a failure of basic management competency. Given that someone clearly had the responsibility for ensuring that national stockpiles were maintained and fit for purpose, that is not an issue of Blitz spirit or stiff upper lips – it is a dereliction of duty. The fact that the respirators has been originally acquired in 2009/10, with a shelf life till 2012, which was then extended to 2016, and then again to 2019, clearly demonstrates that these were not mistakes or errors, but were deliberate government policy.

The greatest gift that a crisis manager can have is a near miss. A near miss is an opportunity to learn lessons, make changes and ensure that there is a greater level of readiness for the next potential crisis event (which of course may not be a pandemic). However, even in the limited sense of ‘crisis management as pandemic response’ , the question must be asked, whether the lessons learned from Covid-19 in 2020 will mean that there will be a greater level of readiness – and true resilience – when the next wave hits.

We can only hope.