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The UK’s National Resilience Strategy: what can we expect?

During the coming months it is expected that the UK Government will launch a National Resilience Strategy that will focus on greater openness about risk, more action on prevention, and an ambitious whole-of-society approach. Robert Hall looks at what this might mean in practice…

The UK Government is soon expected to launch its National Resilience Strategy. This was scheduled for July but political machinations meant that it has had to wait for approval by a new Cabinet. While it would be imprudent to try and foretell the official contents, there are a several indicators that may help assess the forthcoming text. They are offered purely as open markers that reflect some of the many external comments during the formulation of the strategy.  

Background, priorities and principles

The build-up to the strategy was reflected in the publication of the Integrated Review last year(1). Under the section titled ‘Building the UK’s national resilience’, the Government pledged to develop ‘a comprehensive national resilience strategy in partnership with the devolved administrations and English regions, local government, the private sector and the public’. The five priorities would be to:

  1. ‘Establish a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to resilience, so that individuals, businesses and organizations all play a part in building resilience across the UK.
  2. Consider threats and hazards in the round, so that we can build national resilience across the diverse range of risks facing the UK.
  3. Develop more capabilities – people, skills and equipment – that can be used across a range of scenarios.
  4. Review our approach to risk assessment.
  5. Strengthen our analytical, policy and operational tools – including the collection and use of data – to better assess cross-cutting, complex risks.’

In an appearance before the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy in July 2022, one of the witnesses, who is a contributor to the resilience strategy, said that it would set out ‘broad principles and the generic frameworks that support the tackling of all risks. It will be ambitious, with greater openness about risk and more action on prevention rather than simply waiting for emergencies to occur and curing the problem instead of prevention. It will also be ambitious in its whole-of-society approach, recognising that it is not simply about government getting everyone out of a hole when there is an emergency, but about everyone acting in concert to prevent and deal with emergencies when they happen’ (2). The strategy will aim to set out ‘the new vision and approach for the UK’s resilience to 2030’.

Openness

The idea of greater openness should be welcomed, if adopted. A House of Lords Special Select Committee report in December 2021 concluded that: ‘Fear of criticism can drive an unnecessary reliance on secrecy. Our recommendations aim to bring transparency into the risk assessment process and to build better preparedness as a result.’ It went on: ‘There is limited independent challenge and much of the scrutiny is provided either by those within government or those appointed by the Government. Those producing risk assessments in Government departments should, according to the Cabinet Office, “work collaboratively with experts, including their Chief Scientific Adviser, other departments and agencies, the intelligence community, business and industry stakeholders, and external experts”’ (3).

The witness to the Joint Committee declared: ‘Finding a way to inject some independent challenge is probably our highest priority for the next round … We have to find a way to get genuinely independent but genuinely expert voices into the process, which inject genuine challenge and fresh thought.’ It will be interesting to see if this intent is transferred to the strategy and that more detail is openly shared on risk assessment and registers.

Prevention

The House of Lords report commented that the Government ‘has a strong disincentive to invest against possible risks, but prevention is significantly cheaper than cure and a failure to invest in mitigation can cause an increase in likelihood and impact. Government spending should, where possible, be directed towards preventing or mitigating disaster. Business cases must represent the future benefits of preparedness and mitigation, as well as the costs.’

Preparation and planning are the key to prevention. It goes beyond fire-fighting and short-term remedial measures. It means having the right organizations in place in advance, and the resources and reserves to mobilize when the time comes. These cannot be rapidly mustered at the drop of a hat outside, perhaps, the military.

In the quinquennial review of the Civil Contingencies Act, the Government gave prominence to ‘consider strengthening the role and responsibilities of local resilience forums (LRFs) in England’ (4). LRFs are there in the first instance to manage local risks as they occur but all emergencies are local and only some emergencies are national, [so] where we have national emergencies the local response is the building block of what we do. They can play a fuller part because of the funding we have made available.’

‘Some £22 million has been made available for the next three years to allow that to continue, because it was found to be helpful in allowing LRFs to perform the functions of convening, co-ordinating and amplifying their work on risk and so forth, as was necessary, as well as their engagement with the national level’ (2). Hence, one can expect the strategy to say much about the way LRFs will be engineered to deliver better outcomes and accountability with the increased budget. Greater co-ordination of the LRFs from the top may be part of this.

Another line of funding may allow a national resilience academy to appear after previous attempts failed. In the Government’s response to the House of Lords report, it stated that it ‘intends to propose, in the Resilience Strategy, the establishment of a UK Resilience Academy to establish competence standards and learning pathways in crisis management and resilience building’ (5). If adopted, this may allow the public, private and other sectors to advance thinking on resilience at senior level. The greater involvement of business has long been called for.

A whole of society approach to resilience

The concept of whole of society is a follow-on from the idea of David Cameron on a ‘Big Society’. Whole of society is a somewhat imprecise term but infers the coming together of the public and private sectors with the voluntary, community and charitable sectors. This is potentially a massive undertaking but one that should match the size of the task when nationwide crises arise. As the COVID-19 pandemic showed, the Government needs more hands on deck than official organizations can muster.

Albeit desired, the limitations of wider civic engagement are not just organizational but also financial. These factors, and no doubt others, contributed to the Government’s rejection of certain proposals in the Kruger Report of 2020 (6, 7). Danny Kruger MP suggested both a ‘National Volunteer Reserve’ and a ‘volunteer passport’ for use across the public, private and social sectors with single identity and criminal records checks for participants. The Government’s funding of, for example, the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership to co-ordinate the voluntary sector’s response and preparedness for emergencies was considered sufficient. This line can be expected to be taken in the strategy.
However, mention of a ‘Civil Reservist Cadre’ in the Integrated Review does open the door to some additional capabilities. These are likely to be limited in scope and may involve bringing together selected groups of individuals such as current and former civil servants who wish to volunteer to help in emergencies (8). The Government did have plans to undertake a pilot scheme to establish the viability and value-for-money of the proposal but this has been dropped for funding reasons. Wider interpretation of civic engagement, as practiced by some Nordic and Baltic countries, may have to wait for another iteration of the strategy.  

A positive step

A National Resilience Strategy, as part of national security, is long overdue. As public safety is the number one task of any government, it is incumbent on those in authority to communicate to the population at large the need to prepare for major shocks and stresses, as well as the importance of a social contract whereby individuals are aware of their societal responsibilities in a public emergency. A published strategy could facilitate this.

As COVID-19 vividly illustrated, and the climate emergency epitomizes, we are all in this together: a national strategy is a good approach for levelling up. Without such a focus, there is a danger of introspection which can easily result in divisions along political party lines, as well as between ethnic and single-interest groups. That can only diminish our national resilience.

The author

Robert Hall is an independent consultant and former Executive Director of Resilience First. His book ‘Building Resilient Futures’ will be published in late 2022 and is sponsored by Resilience First. There will be a chapter on National Resilience in the book. Contact Robert at robert.hall33@btopenworld.com

References:

  1. Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Updated 2 July 2021.
  2. Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy Oral evidence: Critical national infrastructure and climate adaptation, 18 July 2022, pp16-17.
  3. House of Lords Select Committee report on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning: Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, 3 December 2021, p5 and p28.
  4. Cabinet Office Post-Implementation Review 2022 of the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), 29 March 2022, p9.
  5. Government response to Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, 17 March 2022, p11.
  6. Government Response to Danny Kruger MP's Report: 'Levelling Up Our Communities: Proposals for a New Social Covenant', 2 February 2022.
  7. Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant: A report for government by Danny Kruger MP, September 2020.
  8. Government response to Preparing for Extreme Risks, ibid, p18.


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