The latest edition of the Whitehall Monitor from the Institute for Government looks at the government’s preparedness and resilience before the pandemic and the impact on the civil service of reforms arising out of the National Resilience Framework as well as increased transparency about national risks. It argues that ‘ensuring that resilience and preparedness are appropriately resourced, effectively coordinated from the centre, and scrutinised properly should be a priority for the civil service to make sure that the UK is better prepared in the future.’
While this 126-page report embraces a wide range of policy areas, it does spend considerable time on the preparation and response to the pandemic to illustrate broader points about resilience and preparedness and the change to structures at the heart of Whitehall that saw the demise of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.
It is not the first time that the Institute for Government has considered the subject of resilience, indeed in a report on responding to extreme risks published in 2022, the researchers found that government departments were ‘poorly prepared for key risks and risk management was not seen as a priority.’
‘The Covid pandemic showed that risks can materialise at any time; reform of the civil service’s approach to resilience and preparedness should be a priority for the next parliament.’
This report says that prior to the pandemic, exercising was not given the priority it should. The lack of focus on exercising is nothing new and is picked up by Ministers in the National Resilience Framework published in late 2022 and the annual update published just before Christmas 2023. This confirmed that the National Exercising Programme has been restarted to test readiness to respond to risks set out in the National Strategic Risk Assessment.
‘The new programme of preparedness exercises will only be successful if there is effective oversight of the response to findings and clarity that actions are being taken as a result.’
Acknowledging the abolition of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and creation of a Resilience Directorate and a COBR unit, the report welcomes this development along with the change to Ministerial oversight of a new resilience sub-committee of the National Security Council. The changes to reporting risks set out in the NSRA and the National Risk Register – in a newly transparent form containing 89 acute risks – are also supported by the report’s authors.
The skills of civil servants to understand and carry our resilience work were variable and not incentivised to be desirable before 2020, says the report. This position was compounded by the considerable churn of officials in these roles but the report adds that the 2022 proposal for a Resilience Academy to address these issues is a positive step forward. There has been little information about how an academy might operated and how that in turn fits with the Emergency Planning College, which is run by Serco for the Cabinet Office.
The report commends the creation of a National Situation Centre to bring data and analysis together for crisis and risk management. This, along with several new resilience related strategies and organisations including a new centre for pandemic preparedness should, say the report authors, be drawn together by the Resilience Directorate ‘to ensure a cohesive and streamlined process for identifying and managing risks.’
‘Reforms take time – but better preparedness and risk management should be an urgent priority, with no assurances on when the next extreme risk might come.’
The IfG recommends that the government adopting a modified ‘three lines of defence’ model for resilience which separates out responsibilities for risk management, oversight and audit. It says that the division of the former Civil Contingencies Secretariat has gone some way to dealing with the second line of defence – the oversight – by separating out the crisis response (COBR) from the preparedness activity now found in the new Resilience Directorate, but is doubtful if this is enough.
There is an interesting point made about the seniority of the leader of the Resilience Directorate, who as a grade 3 level civil servant, may not be ‘senior or empowered enough to impel departments to focus on resilience.’ Added to that, there is a concern that there is not enough funding to expand the Directorate in size to deal with the work required.
On the third line of defence – audit – the report says reform is needed through greater scrutiny by Parliament and a cross-cutting committee focused specifically on resilience and preparedness. It adds that a body akin to the independent Office of Budget Responsibility could provide independent oversight and scrutiny – particularly of the annual statements to Parliament that are a commitment in the National Resilience Framework.
The Whitehall Monitor 2024 was launched at the IfG’s annual conference in London on 24 January 2024. Rhys Clyne, Associate Director at the IfG set out key findings and these can be viewed online as part of catch up recordings of the day-long event.