In the Integrated Review published by the UK Government in March under the section titled ‘Building resilience at home and overseas’, it states that ‘the Government will start developing a comprehensive national resilience strategy in 2021, in partnership with the devolved administrations and English regions, local government, the private sector and the public’. This intention is welcomed and is long overdue, particularly in the face of two systemic challenges, namely the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate emergency. (See previous News item here.)
However, to turn intent into action requires a clear process of transition and accomplishment. This applies to many other good intentions in the Review, frequently introduced by the words ‘we will’. As Trevor Taylor writes in a RUSI commentary: ‘confidence (or over-confidence) permeates the Review’. Regrettably, the implementation of intentions is confined to two-and-a-half pages at the end of the Review.
If the strategy that emerges does not extol a sound set of objectives and road map to deliver those objectives then it will be no more than yet another statement of intent and will not generate meaningful change. Importantly, it should focus on people as it is they who will ultimately determine the state of national resilience, and they are unlikely to pay heed to a strategic statement alone.
This notwithstanding, a strategy is a good place to start. It is an essential stepping stone to success. So, what should it contain? Rather, what questions should it address? They are the age-old ones of WHY, WHAT, HOW and WHO.
The WHY can be answered through a purpose and mission. The purpose is to prepare the country (people, services and infrastructure) to meet the future challenges by being more adaptive and agile. Adaptation is often missing from any discussion of resilience as it is more difficult to achieve than straightforward recovery and mitigation.
The task is greater than the government slogan to ‘build back better’. Resilience is more than rebuilding the old structure with different cement. It is about bouncing forward to create a new state, not bouncing back. The Choluteca Bridge is a warning of the dangers of rebuilding without a holistic, long-term view of the ecosystem. The Integrated Review refers to a 'whole-of-society' approach – one of five stated priorities – to reflect the breadth of the vision.
Resilience is about a process of regeneration and transformation that allows the ecosystem not only to address the old faults but also, and more importantly, to prepare for new challenges in a more robust and cohesive fashion. So, the mission should be to help ensure the safety, resilience and sustainability of the services and infrastructure that provide, connect and protect people, businesses and communities no matter what the future challenges might be.
The WHAT is about the key components of all strategies – the goal, the objectives, the values, the core competencies, the performance indicators, the key resources, and the major milestones. Without all of these, any strategy is incomplete and is, therefore, unlikely to achieve its purpose.
The goal is a qualitative expression of that purpose so in the case of national resilience it is to make the nation more prepared for, and ready if necessary to adapt to, a range of known and unexpected dangers. You can’t afford to be resilient to one danger (say, terrorism) and ignore resilience to other risks (say, flooding). In the same way, we don't teach children to be resilient to only one of life’s many dangers. Resilience requires a total immersion. This means the national goal should be resilience across the board or 'in the round' as the Review declares. We simply don’t know what is beyond the next corner so we must be prepared for all eventualities with generic, threat-neutral measures.
Moreover, there is no absolute resilience – it’s a journey, not a destination – but the values adopted in its pursuance should reflect the culture of the population. Certain nations will accept more rigorous regulations (for instance, Singapore) while others will be more familiar dealing with repeated threats like flooding (such as Bangladesh). In the UK, we are fortunate not to witness many severe natural disasters, so our goal should be more psychological – the soft- skill competencies – rather than placing an over-reliance on the physical dimension – the hard-skill competencies. London is often said to be resilient not so much for its infrastructure, relatively modern as it is in part, but more from the robustness of its people; the old Blitz spirit that the pandemic has somewhat reawakened.
If people are the first priority in a national resilience strategy, place (infrastructure) and process (services), as well as supply chains and technologies are other important drivers of a strategy, and the way they knit together seamlessly in the ecosystem. There are double-edged swords to be wary of here, however. Efforts to achieve greater and greater efficiency – just-in-time delivery, for instance – threaten long-term sustainability and ultimately performance. It would be better to adopt a just-in-case strategy, as the Chair of the National Preparedness Commission has highlighted. A search for better self-reliance when modifying supply chains can misconstrue the balance between the costs of independence and wider commercial benefits, while technology can generate its own dependence, all too evident when it fails. The internet has saved lives and livelihoods in the pandemic but can we assume it will always be available?
HOW to implement a national strategy is a case of the carrot and stick. The carrot is about providing citizens and companies with incentives to become more resilient, while the stick is about helping the process along through government encouragement. Both are required, not necessarily in equal measure.
The role of insurance is a key strategic tool for incentivising the protective and preparatory resilience measures that people could take. Although the reputations of some insurers have been dented by the pandemic, insurance companies can be helpful in setting standards of cover and providing the backstop to losses. A pan-Re facility with the government providing a reserve is one measure. In addition, the increasing demand of shareholders on companies to show their stewardship credentials (for example, by achieving carbon net-zero targets) could spur more resilience-wide responses.
As for the stick, government regulation can play a major part. Requirements around board-level reporting should be elevated to include resilience measures and accountability standards. The financial markets appear to be leading the way here. The FCA is about to release its guidance on Operational Resilience for boards of financial firms and this could be extended to other companies and to all non-executive directors who oversee the workings of top management.
The WHO element of a national resilience strategy can be viewed in terms of the entire population. Resilience begins with teaching children at home and at school on ways that they can become more robust and adaptive. The pandemic has reinforced this personal aspect, and the dangers of not doing so can be seen in increased mental ill health.
Then, there are community groups and voluntary organisations who have a role to play in any strategy. In fact, the Integrated Review states: ‘We will also consider how to extend this [military reserves] to a civilian reservist cadre for support in times of crisis.’ The pandemic has again shone a light on the idea of volunteering, sometimes with mixed results. Organisations should encourage and facilitate volunteering; many already do. This can be part of a move towards a greater diversity of skills and improved social capital to help broader-based recovery and resilience.
Last but not least, the government should bring weight to bear on the issue of national resilience by making a ministerial-level appointee who can oversee the implementation of the strategy as it will take time, resources and heft to accomplish. Such a minister could also be the person who takes charge in major national disasters and musters all the requisite governments departments, working in close association with the private sector, to achieve a national recovery. S/he should be served by a department that includes an expanded Civil Contingency Secretariat and an independent organisation that horizon scans to assess the short-, medium- and long-term risks (via a revised risk assessment process, also acknowledged in the Review) as well as measures the level of preparedness of the country as a whole.
In conclusion, a national strategy is a start point, but only that, in the plan to make the UK more resilient. It will require dedication and resourcing from many quarters if it is to move from intention to implementation. Any cost involved will be potentially saved multiple times over if through preparedness we can avoid the worst effects of serious disruption. Covid-19 has revealed the massive sums involved in recovery and should give us all the incentive to spend more on being prepared and resilient as another major shock is sure to appear over the horizon.