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Questions arising from the UK’s resilient society report 

January 2022: Reading Roger Gomm’s recent blog on the subject of the House of Lords Select Committee’s Report:  Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, encouraged Phil Trendall to dig deeper into the report. Here, he advocates the simple idea that bodies other than central government can examine evidence and conclusions and consider using them to self-assess their performance

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There are many questions arising from the UK Government’s report that can be asked and considered by anyone working in the emergency management profession. Image: Vectorhuman/123rf

The report is, literally, a noble production. Its aims are as lofty as the title suggests. It does not pull any punches and is critical of the government. Most of the report’s recommendations and conclusions tackle the big issues and are directed at ministers mainly, although it occasionally gives in to the temptation to dip into the detail.  

The government may choose to action only those parts that agree with their own analysis and policy directions. Such is the nature of our constitutional structure. But what does the report mean to those involved in emergency management outside of central government? Before we start to feel too glib about the criticisms of Whitehall, we should ensure that our own houses are in order.
Game-playing is an important part of preparation. Whether we are talking about wargaming – a concept supported by the committee – or simple ‘what if’ games played after near misses and minor incidents, it can all contribute to an organisation’s state of readiness. 

Another game I have seen played to good effect is to take the work of something akin to that of this Select Committee, scale it down and reframe it to use as a tool by which local or commercial organisational efforts can be re-assessed. In this context, it is a variation of that other professional favourite the: “So what?” game. The Select Committee and its staff did a lot of work to produce this report and they took evidence from a wide range of sources. It would be a shame not to use it. A dexterous approach to this sort of product is exactly what our much-ignored emergency management profession is good at.

Looking at the report’s conclusions, the relevance to local and organisational activity is soon clear. Almost at random and using the chapter headings of the report, I suggest a couple of areas where this report can map across to local activity, but I really recommend reading it in full and thinking about the issues in the context of the reader’s involvement with the subject.

Resilience
The Committee is highly critical of the culture of secrecy that surrounds civil protection. Are there local manifestations of this? Is there a hint of the: “I know something you don’t know” culture in multi-agency working? Is everything that can be shared being shared between partners? Have all those fears around data protection and confidentiality been bottomed out before the next incident? Is there a culture of openness between agencies and departments? Does someone have the job of fostering this approach?

For Local Authorities, are elected members fully involved in the civil protection, risk assessment and mitigation processes?

Are resilience, emergency planning, business continuity or civil protection departments structured to achieve the maximum benefit in your organisation and to act as public and partner facing representatives for you organisation?

Is your resilience work seen as an investment or an overhead?

Do your people have the right skills for resilience tasks?  Of course, this does not just apply to people with the word resilience in their job title! How are skills developed, assessed and rewarded? Do the most skilled staff have access to senior decision makers?  Are you sure that your organisation’s top team are as ready as they should be for the next resilience challenge? Are their processes in place to overcome any executive arrogance in this area?

Whole society approach
Is your Local Resilience Forum (or equivalent) working as smoothly as it should? How can you be sure of this? Does your organisation support the LRF as much as it can? Answering this point might involve considering issues such as staffing, finance and meeting attendance.  Is your LRF practised at working with Cat 1 and Cat 2 responders beyond the ‘usual’ members. For example, national organisations have to fit in at a local level. This is a lot easier if there is a warm welcome from the stalwarts of an LRF.

Do you embrace and support the Voluntary Sector the value of which has been made so clear in the last eighteen months? Do you engage actively? Does your organisation encourage staff to be volunteers? If you are a voluntary organisation, have you kept under review how you interact with Cat 1 and Cat 2 responders – could you do it better?

How do you communicate with the public or your customers?  How do you know if you are successful in this endeavour? Do you have plans which go further than social media?

Are you clear about insurance issues in the context of a major civil emergency or terrorist attack? This is much better done in peacetime.

Does your organisation have plans to accept offers of help in crisis? Huge amounts of time in the middle of a crisis can be taken up by responding to such offers. Ignoring them is a public relations own goal and a waste of potential sources of salvation.

Risk assessment
How much confidence do you have in your own civil protection/BC/resilience risk assessment processes? Do they really guide the efforts of your organisation? Are they a tick box exercise, used to justify some activities and to avoid others? Would they really stand up to external scrutiny? Do you have confidence in the methodology, especially after reading this report? If they are really good, do you share them with partners? Is the corporate imagination engaged?

Risk planning
Are you confident that your organisation, firm or group is not guilty of silo working? The public expect organisations to work together to avoid disasters and to respond to them.  Anything that falls short of this will be harshly judged in the aftermath.  

Are all the people who need to be, trained and exercised and up to date? Does this include the executive or command team? Organisations often boast about their involvement in exercises, but when their claims are examined more closely it can be seen that participation in training and exercising is rarely comprehensive. If something is reasonably foreseeable, surely staff should be prepared? The Select Committee had some hard words on this subject; ongoing public inquires may well have more to say in the weeks and months ahead. 

The question of learning from incidents and exercises is the subject of eternal discussions. Mature organisations have a firm grip of this activity and place a high value on corporate memory, but many more treat lessons as something difficult to comprehend, hard to implement and as having a short shelf life.

Is your material up to date? Often this is easier said than done, but it is essential, both for internal consumption and for public information. The report highlights shortcomings in the gov.uk website. Is it a mere embarrassment or the symptom of a deeper problem? This is a question that need not arise in your organisation if things are maintained as they should be.

In writing this, I can hear members of the emergency management profession crying out that all of this would be easy if the resources were available. You are right. One of the underlying themes of the Select Committee report is that if we are serious about resilience, we need to invest in it. Senior managers, chief officers, chief executives and councillors take note.

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