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  1. Spotlight on Policy
20 March 2024

How to turn the UK into “resilient Britain”

Overhauling central government and following the lead of big business will help us face complex risks.

By James Ginns

The year has started with deeply sobering assessments of the UK’s geopolitical outlook. Foreign Secretary David Cameron described “the lights [as] flashing red”. In the words of Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, we have moved “from a post-war world to a pre-war world.” The mood of policymakers is further darkened by the increasingly complex risks to our safety posed by artificial intelligence, biosecurity and climate change.

We need to ask big questions about how well prepared the UK is for this new world – not simply conducting an inventory of soldiers, planes and ships, but interrogating how our institutions of state and the organisation of society can be geared up for the challenges to come.

“Resilience” is the single most important word in policymaking, but it is a nebulous term, with little retail appeal to voters. In short, it’s about the UK’s ability to manage a major shock and recover quickly – arguably the single most important duty of government. The Covid-19 pandemic was such a shock, but there are few signs that we have learned the deep-reaching lessons that we should have.

The good news is that the British state has in the past proven its ability to meet the scale of threats it faces. In Peter Hennessy’s chronicle of the civil service, Whitehall, the historian and crossbench peer credits the government in the 1930s with undertaking an extraordinary level of state reorganisation and innovation as war was on the horizon. In just a few years, government was rewired, experts were drafted in, and new technologies were introduced. “Wartime Whitehall was a success story,” Hennessy observes, “a crucial factor in producing what became the most thoroughly mobilised society on either side in the Second World War.”

That same level of ambition and delivery is required today. Not that we need to move to a war footing; we need a smart reconfiguration and upskilling of government. This needs to happen alongside a reassertion of what contribution is expected from citizens across society. The term “Global Britain” is used by policymakers to characterise our post-Brexit posture, but “resilient Britain” is the state we must urgently become.   

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A starting point, as recommended by the Institute for Government’s recent report on the centre of government, is to establish an overarching structure in Whitehall for managing the range of risks Britain faces. The private sector has pioneered successful systematic approaches to risk, driving dramatic improvements in safety in sectors like aviation. After the Enron scandal and the 2008 financial crisis, the “three lines” model has also been developed, now widely used by big businesses. This model introduces checks and balances to separate the ownership of risk in operating departments on the first line from its oversight on the second, with independent assurance that the process works on the third line. A chief risk officer provides accountability. The model breaks open silos and challenges groupthink. Government should adopt it.

Second, the civil service desperately needs to innovate. Countless civil service reviews have made the same exasperated plea. Kate Bingham, who led the vaccine task force, has noted that less than 10 per cent of the fast-track civil service uptake are candidates with backgrounds in Stem (science, technology, engineering or maths), lower than countries like the US, France and Germany. Moreover, the continual churn of generalist civil servants prevents the accumulation of deep subject-matter expertise, including in resilience. A new or returning government has the chance to make some important changes.

Finally, there is a crucial role for the whole of society. Government alone doesn’t have all the resources and skills. In Finland, for example, the government works with businesses, through a specialist organisation, to maintain critical supplies in the event of an emergency. Norway selects the brightest and ablest young people for a highly prestigious form of military conscription. Sweden this year introduced a new mandatory civic duty, a form of national service which will apply at first to those trained in emergency services and electricity provision. Every day Ukraine is proving the potency of societal resilience – local community groups deliver supplies to the elderly, repair homes and provide improvised online schooling.

In the UK, a nationwide civil reservist cadre could be established without great cost. Emergency response and cyber defence training would provide young people with new skills and opportunities. A local resilience forum in every local constituency could help cohere the many thousands of community groups across the country. Above all, we need to reaffirm a new, more purposeful sense of social responsibility where everybody understands their personal obligation to the nation’s preparedness.

In January, Admiral Rob Bauer, a senior NATO commander, said that “we need public and private actors to change their mindset from an era in which everything was predictable, foreseeable, controllable, focused on efficiency… to an era in which anything can happen at any time.” That means becoming a resilient country once again.

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