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A review of the UK’s new national resilience framework

The UK Government has released its Resilience Framework, which sets outs a structure for the development and improvement of resilience across the UK. In this article Robert Hall reviews the framework and considers whether it lives up to expectations.

In the week before Christmas, and in the face of growing industrial unrest and a severe economic squeeze, ‘The UK Government Resilience Framework’ was published (1). That may be a good time for the release of this long-awaited statement on national resilience but perhaps less so for publicity. Contrary to expectations raised in the Integrated Review (IR) (March 2021), the document is branded a ‘framework’ rather than a strategy. It ‘is the first articulation of how the UK Government will deliver on a new strategic approach to resilience’, so more can reasonably be expected in the future. Yet, for an outline or foundation stone to consume 79 detailed pages, with many commitments and actions, one should legitimately ask how much further a full strategy could extend and why the need for a staging post.

Overall, there are no major surprises in the document. Much was announced separately or alluded to in open Committee meetings beforehand. (See a pre-release assessment by the author.) (3)      

There are many points to be welcomed in the framework. There is much that has been considered and included. The document is organized around six ‘themes’: risk, responsibility and accountability, partnership, community, investment and skills. As a foundation document, these are useful headings; they will hopefully will be retained in any subsequent ‘articulation’ but in possibly more succinct form.

Focus

The aim of the framework is sound, namely ‘to strengthen our resilience in order to better prevent, mitigate, respond to and recover from the risks facing the nation’. This is a step back from the earlier ambitious and aspirational vision of making the UK the ‘most resilient nation on earth’. The stated aim of the framework does raise an interesting and valid question. Buried within the word ‘recover’ lies a myriad of nuances – regeneration, renewal, restoration, etc. Beyond the obvious one of getting back on one’s feet, the key issue is whether it means a return to the status quo ante or building back better through adaptation and change. To experience a major (national) disaster, it is likely that recovery will require some modification to past behaviours and processes – that is adaptation – and yet the framework is sadly lacking here. The references to adapt/adaptation (without explanation or expansion) hardly do justice to this important concept within resilience, probably because it is the hardest part to articulate. It is also harder for the public than the private sector to accomplish. That makes it all the more troubling to read that the Government has yet to ‘agree on a working definition of resilience activities and capabilities’.

Principles

The document is based on ‘three core principles’: first, to develop and share and understanding of the civil-contingencies risks; second, to prevent rather than cure wherever possible by placing a greater emphasis on preparation and prevention; and, third, to be more transparent and empower everyone to make a contribution with resilience being a whole-of-society endeavour. These might be better described as goals based on the principles of openness, prevention, and community that were revealed in pre-announcements. The approach is a clear reworking of the ‘five action priorities’ given in the IR. The framework describes objectives out to 2030 and sets out what has been achieved to date and will, hopefully, be achieved by 2025 (12 expected commitments).

Prevention

In terms of marking a shift of emphasis, the move to prevention is both worthy and overdue. ‘There will be a shift away from simply dealing with the effects of emergencies towards a stronger focus on prevention and preparation for risks.’ The document rightly states that ‘It is more cost effective to invest in risk prevention and building resilient systems that can withstand crises rather than to rely solely on having the world’s best crisis response systems.’ The appointment of a Head of Resilience to provide leadership will complement the newly formed Resilience Directorate and the COBR Unit but is short of the call by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy for a ministerial appointment dedicated to contingency planning and national resilience. (4)

Openness

As for openness, the declaration that more ‘Relevant information from the NSRA [National Security Risk Assessment], sensitivity permitting, will be openly available to the public’, an Annual Statement to Parliament on risks and resilience performance, and an annual survey of public perceptions of risk, resilience and preparedness – all by 2025 – are to be welcomed. The notice that the NRSA will scan over five years rather than the current two-year timeframe, as well as include multiple scenarios and interdependencies, means that a better picture of over-the-horizon risks may be possible. By 2025, it is also hoped to develop ‘a measurement of socio-economic resilience and vulnerability to key civil contingencies risks’ to guide and inform decision making on risk and resilience.

Community

It is perhaps with the approach to the whole of society that future work on a strategy could be focused. The framework states that ‘our ‘whole-of-society’ approach to resilience means that everyone recognises their role in, takes responsibility and contributes to, the UK’s resilience’ and to achieve this, the Government will support greater community responsibility and resilience, driving a cultural shift where everyone who can, is prepared and ready to take action and support themselves during an emergency.’ This objective will be delivered largely through the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) and the VCS Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP) in England. However, there is little indication of how wide-scale community engagement will be achieved in the numbers required (i.e. multi-thousands if not millions) that a national emergency is likely to demand. The pandemic showed the additional numbers needed for the NHS alone. If 2,500 soldiers and 1,000 civil servants are being made ready for the current wave of industrial disputes then the community input for a really serious disaster or disruption needs investment beyond the £1.5m allocated for VCSEP out to 2025. It would also have been reassuring to see more on the activation of a civil reservist cadre, as introduced in the IR, and beyond the greater use of civil servants or military reservists – both elements limited in capacity.  

Business

The other area for further attention is the partnership between government and business. This has historically not been good. The establishment in 2021 of a UK Resilience Forum ‘to steer partnerships across the resilience system’ involves to date one industry trade body beyond the utility companies. Yet, the Government acknowledges that it ‘must work with businesses to encourage an active partnership in resilience, and to itself learn from the experiences of businesses. This must be a joint endeavour, with the UK Government doing more, through consultation with businesses, to set standards, and share guidance and information.’ This acceptance of doing more, learning from others and consulting is encouraging and not before time. At the same time, it may mean the ‘UK Government asks more of some parts of the private sector’ and involve the raising of private-sector resilience standards. Perhaps the formation by 2025 of a UK Resilience Academy, built out from the Emergency Planning College, will ensure that all those who work on resilience have the capability and knowledge they need to play their part: training will be ‘accessible to businesses’. The Government will ‘also draw upon the expertise and data within the private sector to inform our resilience efforts.’

LRFs

As one might imagine, there is much in the framework about Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) as these are seen as the main delivery platforms for resilience across the UK. It is proposed under a title heading of ‘ambition for change’ that the 38 LRFs across England will be strengthened through three ‘pillars’: leadership, accountability and integration. The formation of a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) for each LRF, accountable to executive local democratic leaders, will help with wider local delivery and levelling up. Consideration will be given to putting existing Resilience Standards onto a statutory footing for LRFs and all responder organizations.

Communication

Two points in closing. The first is the announcement that Government will introduce a new system of Emergency Alerts, expected to launch in early 2023. This will ‘allow government organisations and emergency responders to send alerts, with a distinctive message appearance and tone, to every compatible mobile device (over 85% of 4G/5G smartphones released since 2015) within a chosen geographical area at very short notice.’ Delivery of this system was promised back in the Autumn so the timeframe may slip further. The second point is the framework would benefit from a list of acronyms which are loosely scattered throughout the document.

The author

Robert Hall is an independent consultant and former Executive Director of Resilience First Ltd (2018-2022). His book ‘Building Resilience Futures’ will be published by Austin Macauley in early 2023. It contains a chapter on National Resilience. Contact: robertcmhall33@gmail.com

References

  1. The UK Government Resilience Framework, 19 December 2022.
  2. Global Britain in a competitive age. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021. A revision is expected in the spring.
  3. Hall, R. The UK’s National Resilience Strategy: what can we expect? Continuity Central, 31 August 2022.
  4. House of Lords Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Readiness for storms ahead? Critical national infrastructure in an age of climate change, 27 October 2022. 


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