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Commentary

Overview of the Local Resilience, Emergency Preparedness, and Response Conference - November 2023

Was it worth it? What did we learn?

 

Last month, I had the privilege of attending the Local Resilience, Emergency Preparedness, and Response Conference. It is my hope that this overview is useful as the delegate cost for many was a significant barrier to attendance. One that many may feel cannot be justified as a sensible investment at a time of competing priorities particularly those working in the public sector. In other instances, where conferences feature top civil servants representing government, we might be concerned they will tow the party line or toot the same organisational rhetoric, that complex string of buzzwords, empty assurances and the traditional dodging with vagueness to avoid explicitly answering direct questions. A particular consideration is what will I learn here that I have not heard before? My previous experience of all-star speaker line-ups is that I hear less than desired and am left underwhelmed. Another concern might be speakers delivering their keynote and leaving immediately after, thus for those who attended with the goal of face time, leaving frustrated and out of pocket.

 

However, I am pleased to say this was not such an event. It honestly did deliver its nearly every penny's worth. This was a rare gem in the conference season calendar, worth the time, money and effort invested in attending for the following reasons:

 

  1. I got more details on specific aspects and workstreams that I might not otherwise have had or certainly not been provided in one single place. I left with clarity.

  2. I left the conference with a more holistic understanding of all the moving parts currently delivering the UK Government's Resilience Framework (UKGRF). A more precise and complete picture of all the different departments, their workstreams, and how they interlock together to deliver on this enormously complex and ambitious mandate. I got a satisfactory understanding of the scope, scale and complexity of what is required and the roadmap of what is needed to continue driving this at pace. Along with this, I left with a feeling of shared ambition and a much deeper appreciation for the challenges senior leaders and civil servants are up against to deliver. It helps to foster a culture of kindred spirits. 

  3. In particular, I better understood what is being done by Fiona Gaffney and her team, who are working to deliver the skills aspects around professionalisation and standardisation outlined in the UKGRF. This included critical updates on the skills pathway, Resilience Academy and National Exercise Programme. With an outline of the seven faculty areas they are working to develop. Strategic prevention and citizen preparedness are the areas I am most eager and excited to see develop.

  4. The speakers stayed for the entirety of the event. In addition, they proactively networked, engaged and actively listened to participants. They gave their full and undivided attention the entire day. They didn’t run off to check their emails or duck out for phone calls in the breaks, ensuring genuine attention and focus on those in the room. This signals a massive change in how cabinet office staff interacts with stakeholders. For that reason, in person is always better; making new connections, maintaining existing ones, putting names to faces and meeting off-screen for the first time is a rewarding experience.

  5. The energy, passion, enthusiasm and excitement were abundant, inspiring and catching. The most stand-out speaker in this regard was Paul Phipps-Williams. The passion and ambition to see resilience mainstreamed is inspirational. This helped to foster a culture of shared ambition, on the premise of mutual respect for collaboration and challenging thinking. With realism and awareness that whilst we may not all agree on the steps required to get to the destination, we do all agree on the destination, with a commitment to two-way dialogue and participatory iteration on the route.

 

But as with all things, it would be wrong to say this is all rainbows. In the interest of a balanced review, some dark rain clouds left me with pockets of disappointment. The Government's ambition for mainstreaming resilience is commendable, clear and evident in the continued pace of delivery. This agenda has a rejuvenated focus sustaining momentum, evidenced by the long list of workstreams already implemented and in progress. But my concern rests on the root cause, the why, the rationale and the justification for doing this. Some may think, what does it matter as long as it's done? For me, it is a significant factor in the how and the outcome.

 

From my perspective, I got a strong sense that the lack of reference to risk reduction, vulnerability reduction, and sustainable risk-informed development, was inherently lacking. There was some acknowledgement of inequalities, but not so much the root cause and the factors of dynamic risk and systemic vulnerability. This is a hugely missed opportunity, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get disaster management into the mainstream. The sheer lack of any reference to the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction from the Government side was the biggest and ongoing let down for me. Most of us look to Manchester and Chief Resilience Officer Kathy Oldham as the guiding north star. They have always been aligned with Sendai and put disaster risk reduction at the heart of building a resilient city. A sigh of relief can be drawn from this, but why does the Government ignore the apparent successes their experience has to offer? You want demonstrable good practice, its right there for generic mainstreaming with local adaptation. The UK is one of the leading knowledge powers on disaster risk reduction, a major thought contributor to Sendai, and a signatory. Yet, we completely ignore the first opportunity in 20 years to implement it and deliver on the targets?!? – is this intentional or not – one must question the rationale for this significant omission. The result of this is that the resilience agenda here in the UK is presented as one of an economic-driven goal, and nothing more, one that serves as a means to delivering on the levelling up agenda for political mandates more than the actual matter at hand – saving lives and livelihoods, preventing and preparing for disasters and emergencies, for building sustainable and resilient places and spaces.

 

On reflection, this linked well back to Zonia Cavanagh. The Lessons Digest unveiled the shift from integrated emergency management to the resilience cycle earlier this year. This looks more like integrated disaster management, perhaps a compromise to align the two schools of thought. Perhaps in time, it’s something we will get answered through the outcomes of the pilots and these programmes of work. It’s the age-old question: Should emergency and disaster management be integrated, separate, paralleled, or are they the same? Or have we now moved to a new era and paradigm of ‘emergencies, risk and resilience’. I'm sure we could debate that again for many years to come. Kathy Oldham gives a brilliant insight into how Manchester has been addressing the issue of resilience and paves the way and at the heart it comes back to disaster management. The principle focuses on risk reduction for people and places, the wrap around to all risk and emergency management. Further to that, it was interesting to see how Manchester has pivoted its stronger Local Resilience Forum (LRF) proposal into something that intrigues and inspires many with an exciting method of addressing the problems of integrating temporary structures in or onto things that already work well.  Inevitably drawing us back to the central argument of what should and shouldn’t be the remit of an LRF.

 

The lack of reference to that critical element of risk reduction from government makes me pause to believe that ‘this time could be different’ and that ‘this time is the time for resilience’. It still feels that the critical bridge required to join up resilience and emergencies through risk reduction and risk-informed development is a major gaping cavern in the silos of Whitehall. One which I would encourage anyone with a chance to influence the UKGRF Programmes or workstreams to advocate for in its inclusion. This was reflected again when asked who oversees all of this. Where is the independent oversight and accountability?

 

It’s clear that a significant amount of work has been done across the cabinet office in response to the ambitious UKGRF, and a lot more remains to be done. Still, we should reflect positively on our accomplishments and renewed commitment, focus and energy. We can see so many parts of the Government machinery taking resilience into their remit, which is fantastic and improves communication and alignment between specific departments. However, who has the strategic oversight of all of it? Who monitors and manages all the moving parts to ensure continuous symbiosis and not asynergy or antagonistic consequences for risks between policies, programmes and interventions? This made me think back to the conference abstract and the UKGRF: “There is now a greater focus on prevention and preparation to drive and improve resilience across the board.” Regretfully, I don’t see how you can deliver and maintain that shift and achieve outcomes in prevention and preparedness if you’re not explicitly doing risk reduction.

 

But despite those provoking thoughts, the most apparent thing from the day was the alignment of ambitions and priorities for resilience. The energy and passion from those in the room and the belief and conviction of those pushing for change. In the last year, there has been a definitive shift in the culture and tone of seniors and cabinet office; it genuinely feels to be one of greater humility and proactive willingness to facilitate two-way, meaningful collaboration in a way that feels more than rhetoric but as an authentic attempt to adopt a new way of engaging with partners and stakeholders. But as they say, the proof is in the pudding; yes, they can create the space and platforms for communication, but to what extent will the partners' input be considered in the outcomes? This is why next year will be so exciting and why this event was worth the time and effort. The eyes and ears of the entire resilience community are watching to see if this is genuinely participatory or if it's another tokenistic consultation. I, for one, want to believe and support this; we need to. We have to, there is too much at stake for anything else. This is not the time for scepticism and undermining. But equally, it is not a time for blind faith. It must be a time of caution and vigilance, one where we can all hold each other to account. 

 

Lord Toby Harris was a brilliant and effective chair who set the scene gracefully right from the start and added much-needed wit and character throughout the day to something others might otherwise find intimidating, dull or complex. He wilfully and expressively articulated the role of devil's advocate well throughout the day, tactfully addressing key issues and giant elephants in the room that could have been ignored. I, for one, am glad he sought to vocalise the thoughts and concerns of those in the room.

 

It’s plain to see the commitment to challenge thinking is a big focus taking the UKGRF forward with the acknowledgement that whilst we don’t all agree on the ways and means to implement the UKGRF right now, we can agree on the need, urgency and intended outcomes. Recognising that the complex nature of LRFs and local resilience means one size fits all is not an appropriate solution. Instead, it tries to solve the issue collectively through new and exciting approaches with iteration and value creation over heavy-handed centralised legislation. Who knows whether this is right or wrong at this time? Many might see this as a way for the government to push it in the long grass, shirk responsibility and pass on the costs. I hope those notions are proven incorrect. I think this is an enormous opportunity regardless, and I would echo Paul to say that every LRF, even those not selected for stronger LRF, should be grabbed by the bull-horns. It is an opportunity that may not happen again. It’s a chance to co-develop, test and iterate the models for the future to see what can and can't be delivered without tight-fisted regulation. Some think this is a good thing, and others believe this is a bad thing, but we don’t know until we try and can infer which tool is most suited to which job.  In the long term, I want to see a new National Resilience Act alongside nearly all the measures outlined in the National Preparedness Commission (NPC) Report: The Independent Review of the Civil Contingencies Act. I firmly believe that’s what is required. But to get anywhere, we must understand more about the how, the who, and what and enable this to be done in a participatory community-based approach.  For me, that's exciting; that’s the sector operating in a manner where it practices what it preaches, evolves and innovates. But I share the fundamental concern that resourcing is unlikely to match the ambition without the arrangements, despite the urgency. Therefore, resilience may remain an ongoing back-burner non-priority for delivery without a strategy, legislation, regulation and accountability.

 

To anyone in the multiagency space, I would implore you, if you want to see change, if you are tired of the issues and barriers, don’t let this opportunity pass you by or slip through your fingers. Rally, support, and provide constructive influence on those programmes and proposals. Specifically, when I think reflecting further on the objectives, one, in particular, stands out; “The conference will shine a light on the changing roles and responsibilities of LRFs.” for me, this was an ambitious objective that I did not expect to be met, and I don’t think I was surprised when I left feeling it hadn’t. To some extent, it was, in so far as was possible, which I will return to shortly. But firstly, it must be said Paul Phipps-Williams, Zonia Cavanagh, Bruce Mann, and Kathy Settle did an excellent and commendable job of attempting to. Still, I think the fundamental issue here is—that the exact ways of how, why and what is changing are yet to be fully realised and understood. There is an ongoing lack of consensus in the Sector about the role of the LRF, especially in the resilience space. Should the LRF remain purely Emergencies as it always has been despite the name, or is it a case that Paul hit the nail on the head? Is the model capable of facilitating the collaboration required for delivering resilience at the local level if modified and adapted to do so? I stand with Paul on the latter, but I know many will disagree, and that’s ok. An unchallenged consensus is not what we need right now; we need differences in opinion, safe and fair debate and room to challenge and explore our thinking.   

 

The other significant element, the elephant in the room and the greatest concern of all is the remaining question of finance and resources for the LRFs not selected as pilots - what about the other thirty? We know there is a national need for all LRFs to have more significant resources and a real sense of urgency behind this. But waiting for the outcomes of the pilots seems rather unacceptable in light of the increasing magnification of risks and their complexities and the urgency of upscaling and upskilling. Paul did seek to address this well regarding considering the following planned spending review. It is not within his powers to grant us more resources, and he freely admits he is as beholden and accountable as we are to the purse string of the Chancellor and the government mandate at the time. He asks for LRFs to support and assist the Cabinet Office in determining the costs and demonstrating the need and value for investment. That, to me, is a valid and reasonable ask. Please show me the evidence and give me the numbers, costs, and value for money delivered, alongside the desire to see how the stronger LRF works out to work out future funding models. I genuinely can’t see any more they can do, and at least they are honest and direct about it. At this point, I would consider it down to us, as a sector, to get innovative in finding other sources of supplementary funding or resourcing or take it up through local channels, use pen and paper or even, dare I say it, at the polling station - however you see fit.

 

On the whole, though, I think until we can accurately outline the details around what, how and why the role of the LRF is changing and what new responsibilities and functions they will have to deliver, it is challenging to set out precisely what funding is required. The genuine problem is that, in many instances, the current funding and resourcing don’t match current requirements, let alone any additional needs or requirements that could result from this shift to resilience.

 

The most informative aspect of this matter of potential future roles, responsibilities and functions of the LRF and others came from Kathy and Bruce. Who delivered a fantastic presentation with extremely well-articulated points that provoked deep thoughts on core issues. They summarised the key points and issues identified in the Covid-19 Public Inquiry clearly, and the use of video helped to reinforce many of the points alongside the continued reflection and reference back to the independent review by the National Preparedness Commission. The message remains clear and one I would shout from the rooftops. If you and your organisation want to get ahead of the game – use the independent review of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA) as your roadmap.

 

On the thought of individual growth, development, and understanding of future resilience roles and responsibilities, Fiona Gaffney was a fantastic speaker who gave far more detail into what the Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College (EPC) is working on than I had expected to gain. Her passion and excitement for the seven workstreams was catching, and I am eager to see and hear how these evolve and progress. With confidence that this is being delivered based on stakeholder input and experience- the learning needs analysis is still available online, and I encourage anyone in the resilience sector to do it if they have not yet, as this will continue to feed into the digest, and the ongoing work on the resilience academy. Fionna promoted and advocated for stakeholders in the resilience sector to get involved with the EPC Learning Needs Analysis survey if they have not done so already, as this will inform those workstreams, and input will directly shape the outcomes. This I know to be accurate, having completed my survey last month and then being invited to attend a stakeholder panel for further engagement and input. This panel event coincidentally occurred the day after the conference, and I found it extremely rewarding. It was a panel of mixed stakeholders from academic, private and public services and differing levels of practice. This embodied the truth of what was said at the conference – there is a new way of working with stakeholders. But one I wasn’t able to see upscaled and become business as usual. But again, the proof and genuineness will be in the outputs that stem from this exercise. 

 

Helena Edwards, Alex Woodman, and Assistant Chief Constable Mark Williams, led a good session summarising key challenges and barriers common across the sector – linking to the need for authentic, accountable leadership, collaborative approaches, stress testing, lesson implementation, and improvements in data sharing. An audience question was about who has mapped and tracked those everyday challenges and how to develop an action plan to address them specifically. I would point to the NPC Independent Review and the House of Lords Select Committee Preparing for Extreme Risks Report as the two most comprehensive syntheses of all UK issues.

 

Overall, in the interests of transparency and participatory collaboration, I would like to see events like this held by the Cabinet Office for the stakeholders with more two-way dialogue built-in and, most of all, an event of this nature to be free.  That would be the most significant thing moving forward that could signal the most remarkable change in behaviour and commitment to this new way of working.

 

Overall, I am glad I went. I learned a lot, and I do feel it was worth the time and effort. I hope for more events like this in the future and more opportunities for collaboration and engagement between sector partners as we collectively seek to deliver the UKGRF resilience ambitions.

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