Strengthening national resilience through better coordination
This article first appeared in Open Access Government
Creating effective resilience across the UK, such as we have needed during the COVID-19 crisis, means bringing together government and the people to build capability and understanding at all levels of society. It requires government, industry, communities and individuals to coordinate to support education and skills development across the population and to establish a reserve of volunteers trained in resilience who can rapidly ramp up in a crisis. And this drive needs to come from leaders in government and industry advocating and demonstrating a commitment to UK resilience and their organisation’s role in that.
The balance of effort between the local community and national government needs to be one of local communities managing and coordinating in their local area – for example, the parish or a group of local businesses – leaving the national government to work at a higher level. Practical measures local communities can take include holding a central list of equipment, skills and available accommodation in the local area, or a list of company facilities and capabilities that can be shared. This means the community leaders know who to call in the event of a flood, power outage or influx of unexpected visitors stranded from a broken-down train, for instance. As a result, the community is less reliant on the national government, which may well be dealing with a bigger crisis.
At the same time, the national government needs to work more closely with the leaders of the national industry. If you have the top 250 people from government and business in the UK collaborating, you have a powerful set of decisionmakers who are collectively able to bring the majority of the UK’s capabilities to bear in a crisis. Harnessing the power of this cadre of leaders across business and government will build both the relationships and understanding of capability that we need to make decisions and act quickly in a crisis.
Finland, amongst others, has successfully put this into practice. Their method of building the relationships needed across government and industry so that, in the event of a crisis, leaders know the colleagues and friends they are calling, is to run national resilience exercises that bring together leaders from government and business for three weeks a year. They run tabletop exercises and explore the scenarios that need all of the Finnish system to pull together. The UK could benefit from setting up a similar model; an annual exercise to establish relationships between government and business leaders who can work together in a crisis and know the capabilities of the whole of the UK system would significantly reduce decision making and response times. This could extend to education and training sessions – tabletop exercises and joint scenarios that bring together all the government and industry capabilities available to the UK and, potentially, our allies.
To establish these interactions successfully, UK people need to also be more focused and educated on national resilience and know how they, as individuals, can help at the community level. This helps to empower the people to take responsibility and feel more capable themselves, which benefits both mental health – as people feel more in control – and national engagement, as they understand their role and contribution.
A key element of this is resilience training in schools. From training in first aid to understanding the resilience structure in the UK, education is a key tool for building skills the country will need in the future such as cyber and digital awareness. All of this helps raise the baseline of understanding and increase the self-resilience of the population. Sweden offers a good example of this with the commonplace training of school children in resilience as part of the curriculum for teenagers.
National Resilience Force
School engagement would also help feed into the National Resilience Force (NRF), which should encourage young volunteers to enrol in the NRF and train as a reserve unit to bring organisational and management skills in a crisis. During COVID-19 we have seen a huge groundswell of support and engagement with volunteers doing everything from local pharmacy runs for neighbours to re-enrolling as pharmacists and nurses if they had recently retired, so it is clear there is appetite from the population to engage more with the resilience of the UK in a structured way.
The NRF could also benefit the businesses from which it draws members, and business leaders have a responsibility to increase organisational skills, self-sufficiency and awareness of their employees. At a time when many organisations are reviewing their learning and development priorities, leaders could introduce medical, cyber and scarce skills training that are not only needed in a crisis but also benefit the business the rest of the time. Business leaders can actively help shape these requirements by engaging with government to set the structure, skills and governance for the NRF; enabling them to get closer to government decision making and contribute to the capabilities available in a crisis.
Ultimately, bringing together national government, business, communities and the individual will increase the resilience of our society in several key ways:
- Ownership from business and government leaders of the coordinated resilience structure;
- Empowerment of the individual and communities – reducing the reliance on the State;
- Raising the resilience of the country through training in schools and a National Resilience Force so that both natural and man-made events have less disruptive impact.
Now more than ever, business leaders have an opportunity to lean in and help government shape the UK’s collective response in the event of a crisis such as that we are currently navigating. This could include the establishment of a National Resilience Force and joint government and industry exercising. The resulting relationships and trust built between government and industry would create a more resilient society; one that has learned from the current pandemic and is, therefore, better able to respond to the next crisis.
Cate Pye is a cyber and resilience expert at PA Consulting