How can governments balance responsiveness with resilience?

Caroline Field

By Caroline Field

To protect citizens and critical infrastructure, governments are responding quickly to a myriad of complex crises. However, constant firefighting can detract from long-term strategy. How can governments balance these priorities, and build resilience while maintaining responsiveness?

Government departments are often locked in a tug-of-war between responsiveness and resilience, firefighting while trying to move towards long-term strategy. In the era of permacrisis, this is a difficult balancing act. Crises demand instant attention, pulling resources and energy from strategic development. This cross-sector challenge calls for ‘always-on’ resilience – a new kind of resilience that anticipates and responds to disruption while unlocking valuable opportunities.

One answer is to create dedicated teams for response and resilience. The UK government, for example, has a dedicated emergency response function – the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR) – and a new Resilience Directorate. The Directorate supports the UK Government Framework’s ‘whole of society’ approach to engage everyone in resilience, enabling societies to withstand crises and ease the pressure on governments. In the tug-of-war between response and resilience, how do you cut the rope? Creating successful resilience functions requires a mindset shift, strong leadership, robust standards, and data-driven measurement.


Our recent research found that across geographies and seniority levels, public servants’ confidence in government responsiveness has declined. This is unsurprising, given recent socio-economic events such as COVID-19, economic crisis, international conflict, and industrial unrest. Between 2021 and 2022, the percentage of officials with confidence in their organisation’s strategy-aligned contingency plans has fallen from 56 to 45 percent. But, encouragingly, over half believe their organisation can turn uncertainty into opportunity. 

This adaptive capacity has helped governments to stay afloat. It’s all about getting your head in the game, guided by a compelling purpose. With purpose to guide them, people can take ownership for their actions and deliver meaningful work. To change peoples’ priorities, give them a purpose. To change peoples’ mindsets, give them a mandate.

Building societal resilience relies on changing mindsets at a macro scale. This includes plugging in the voluntary and community sectors to understand what support they need and how to empower them to take ownership. It can be as simple – and rewarding – as getting people round the same table. For example, we hosted a ‘whole of society’ community resilience event in Rochdale with local government, central government, local community leaders, the voluntary sector and volunteers, and local businesses to discuss how to link top-down with bottom-up. We explored opportunities, set out design principles for societal resilience, and paved the way for a pilot programme.


Leaders are a focal point for encouraging others to take ownership, and driving purpose-aligned activity. People gravitate to leaders with a clear vision – our research shows that leaders occupy a critical role in shaping resilience, role-modelling the right mindset and behaviours that embrace uncertainty. They also need to empower others to lead and be collaborative. Interestingly, our research shows that leaders are more confident in their organisation’s ability to respond to uncertainty than those in less senior positions. They are supporters of, and advocates for, change.

Assigning a full-time, experienced Chief Resilience Officer for each Local Resilience Forum area can help to ensure resilience in at the centre of place-making by working collaboratively with local elected leaders across the full range of local policy.

We’ve seen first-hand the importance of resilient leadership in our project initiation work with the Ministry of Defence and Defra. Strong, resilient, flexible leaders help to get people on board from day zero, creating the conditions and culture for change right at the start.


Standards and regulations, sweetened by incentives, are a powerful tool in driving behavioural change. Brandishing both carrot and stick gives organisations a reason to move forward and a reason not to fall behind. Standards and regulatory frameworks help organisations and departments to move in the right direction, requiring resilience plans and measurement for critical value chains.

The Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities, which manages local resilience forums across the UK, is embarking on a three-year journey to find effective governance structures for societal resilience. This will help to inform standards and legislation by identifying possible additions, for example to the Civil Contingencies Act.


Resilience should be viewed as a strategic enabler – protecting and enabling strategic objectives to be delivered. By linking resilience to outcomes, we can start to measure the benefit of investing in resilience initiatives. Measurement methodologies such as our six dividends of resilience model use real-world data to assess resilience levels. Within the model, resilient characteristics such as leadership and accountability, flexibility, collaboration, and the ability to learn and innovate can be measured through qualitative and quantitative metrics.

With so many moving parts and interested stakeholders, it’s important for governments to be aware of how different parties might be impacted, and whether changes will lead to success. Digital twins, for example, can help to assess the likely impacts of specific changes on systems and networks. Similarly, a system resilience model can help to understand the whole system and linked dependencies, addressing the lack of understanding in interfaces across and between organisations and industries.

Harnessing data can provide useful resilience insights, when collected, cleansed, and analysed in the right way. More than half (56 percent) of our global survey respondents say they can quickly source the required data, information, and intelligence needed for decision-making in a crisis. However, this is still a worryingly low percentage. Our broader research also indicates that this neglects citizen feedback. Cyclical measurement processes, including feedback gathering, are key to iterative improvement.

Balancing responsiveness and resilience doesn’t have to be a trade-off. It’s possible to do both, with the right mindset, leadership, standards, and measurement methods. Ultimately, it means shifting from a reactive stance to a proactive dance.

About the authors

Caroline Field
Caroline Field PA national resilience expert

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