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Responding to Crises

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Some advice that President Trump would have been wise to heed, from

Responding to Crises

by ukcivilservant

I have been waiting for a quiet period in which to publish the advice which experienced officials will bear in mind, and share with Ministers, when they face a new crisis or emergency. However … as the Government appears to have ignored pretty much all this advice when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as there is no quiet period on the horizon, I am publishing it now, annotated with examples of the errors that seem to have been made over recent months.


This note summarises best government practice when responding to serious crises.

The Initial Response

It can be difficult to know how to react to a rapidly growing threat.

There should be well-practised plans to help you cope with predictable emergencies, together with appropriate resources.  Even so – and more likely if not so – you may need to take strong action early in the crisis, when the threat appears small.  But you should nevertheless take the time – maybe just a few hours or a couple of days – to listen to experts, to discover, to organise, and to absorb what information and knowledge is available.  Then act decisively.

Ignore those that tell you not to ‘over-react’.  A significant proportion of the population and the media will continue to deny reality, even as things fall apart.  Others accept the new reality too easily.

  • Example:-  Well over 1,000 were dying each day at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, and yet this horrendous total seemed to be accepted with a shrug by large sections of the population.

Then Organise …

One person should be given clear, full-time cross-Whitehall responsibility for leading the response to the crisis.   That person should confine him/herself to taking strategic decisions.  Tactical decision making should be left to those on the ground.

  • Example:  It was never clear who was responsible for leading the response to COVID-19.

… and Consult

Continue consulting, intensively, as you develop your strategies in response to the crisis.  Again, consultation need not be time consuming, but it should include all those who might wish to be consulted.  This will greatly increase the chances that your strategies will be effective – and accepted by consultees, even if they had argued against them.  Modern communications, including social media, will allow you to summarise issues, suggest ways forward, and seek comments, against very tight timetables.

  • Example: The teachers unions were not properly consulted before the initial announcement that schools were to be reopened for certain age groups.

Try to identify and allow for unintended consequences.

Measures that might be seem attractive so as to ensure public safety/security do not necessarily have priority over consequences including damage to human rights …  nor do they always trump economic damage.  Ministers – and if necessary Parliament – need to make these judgments and agree the necessary compromises.

  • Non-COVID example:   The US emergency response to 9/11 led to all borders being closed.  This severely damaged companies operating supply chains over the Canadian border.

Don’t promise, unless you are near certain to be able to deliver.  Try to avoid announcing ‘targets’.  Targets are, by definition, often missed.  And they rarely yield the most effective use of resource within government.

  • They initially reassure the public that concrete steps are being taken.  But they focus media attention and destroy confidence if they are not met.
  • They can also galvanise officials.  But they can lead to excessive resource being needed at the expense of other important areas.

Instead, explain what you are doing, and the extent to which you depend on others, and on technology being made to work.

Examples:  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

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