By Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the National Preparedness Commission
It has nothing to do with fish, but increasingly we are being told that we are living in a TUNA world – Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel and Ambiguous. There are of course many hazards and threats facing the globe and the nation – and this is true for every business and every household.
Five months ago, the UK Government published its latest National Risk Register. This 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 focuses on “acute” risks – those that might require an emergency response. It excludes “chronic” or slow-burn risks (such as climate change, AI developments, antimicrobial resistance, or the growth of serious and organised crime). It also assumes that business-as-usual risks (such as the state of the health service) are being effectively managed by the relevant Government department – perhaps a heroic assumption.
That is why I rather like the taxonomy which says that we have to be ready for the “Black Swans” (previously unobserved high impact, hard-to-predict rare events), but also the “Black Jellyfishes” (things we think we know about and understand, but which turn out to be more complex and uncertain, sometimes with a long tail and a nasty sting at the end), as well as the “Black Elephants” (challenges visible to everyone, but which no one wants to deal with).
The reality is that resilience and preparedness to respond effectively to all of these, including those that are still unknown, need to be designed in and part of society’s fabric. That is why the National Preparedness Commission was established in 2020 with its first meeting taking place just over three years ago. It is an independent and non-political body whose fundamental objective is to promote policies and actions to help the nation become significantly better prepared to avoid, mitigate, respond to, and recover from major shocks, threats, and challenges.
The Commission’s philosophy is that preparedness requires a whole-of-society approach that goes beyond national and local government agencies. It must involve individuals, businesses and organisations as well. By making every level of government, every organisation, every community and every household more resilient, we create a sort of herd immunity for a society better equipped to address future crises – whether that crisis is a new disease epidemic or a massive cyber attack or climate change. This principle is reflected on a smaller scale by the membership of the Commission that is made up of around 50 leading figures from public life, academia, business and civil servant. It is therefore gratifying to see that the same theme underpins the 2022 UK Government Resilience Framework.
Often preparedness and resilience need to be threat-agnostic, recognising that what is needed to better prepare for many shocks is the same, regardless of the initiating crisis or incident. For example, you need to have mechanisms to support vulnerable people living on their own, whether it be during a flood, a pandemic or a power failure.
The same pragmatic and flexible approach is needed within businesses and organisations. One of the Commission’s early papers, “Resilience Reimagined”, brought this into focus. Its findings were derived from twenty-five in depth interviews and a series of focus groups with sector leaders. Inevitably, in the shadow of COVID, their reflections on resilience were coloured by the experience of the pandemic.
What emerged was that those organisations that survived best were those that were organisationally agile, as well as more capable of identifying and focusing on their core purpose. Of course, these are the same characteristics that are most likely to make such organisations more competitive and better equipped to respond to opportunities. This implies that preparedness and resilience should not necessarily be regarded as a burden on a business; instead, resilient behaviour has the potential to make an organisation more competitive.
Nevertheless, we need to accept that collectively we have not invested enough in our overall preparedness and resilience. We need to temper our “just in time” philosophy with a “just in case” approach, recognising that a focus only on cost-cutting and driving out duplication is likely to undermine the organisation’s ability to withstand crises.
This means, of course, that you need to be able to measure and account for preparedness and resilience – otherwise the necessary investment will not be prioritised by shareholders (or in the case of the public sector by the Treasury). This is inherently difficult: what value should you place on capacity that may not be needed until some indeterminate time in the future or may not be needed at all? Investments may not be visible or it may be hard to demonstrate that it has had the desired effect if the disaster they were intended to mitigate never visibly materialises, perhaps because the mitigation has been effective.
As a starting point you need to be able to demonstrate what resilience looks like, and how resilient you already are. The Commission’s recent paper, “Building Confidence in the Future” explores this concept, arguing that you can only start to answer these questions by looking through several lenses at once.
Preparedness and resilience should be everyone’s responsibility, and this requires the participation of all elements of society. It needs to be approached on a whole-system basis. For every business, national preparedness and resilience – at a government level – is a necessity. We all need the nation to function, to be prepared and to be resilient. In turn, the nation needs business to function, to be prepared and to be resilient. And every business is mutually dependent on the preparedness and resilience of its suppliers, its customers, and its neighbours. This becomes even more important in these TUNA times of turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity.
In essence, we have to try and predict the unpredictable; prepare for the uncertain; and acknowledge that some predictions will prove incorrect. We need to scan the horizon: what is out there but not yet looming (Elijah’s cloud no bigger than a man’s hand), and we have got to look out for Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns. We cannot simply admire problems but we must be prepared to confront them and take responsibility for mitigating them.
Of course, none of this is cost free, but failing to be resilient and neglecting to prepare for risks is even more costly. As John F Kennedy aptly said: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range costs of comfortable inaction.”
Resilience First is delighted to be hosting a joint briefing with Lord Toby Harris on the state of the nation’s resilience, which will take place on Thursday 22nd February, from 6pm to 7.30pm in London. During the evening, we will discuss the progress of the commission since its establishment three years ago and gain invaluable insights from Lord Toby Harris on how to prepare for future challenges. For more information and to register, please contact Beena Chester on firstname.lastname@example.org