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Risk Governance Management Specialists

COVID19 - Applications of the Principles

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[Last amended: 30 Nov 20]

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In 2019 the Global Health Index produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit in conjunction with John Hopkins Health School ranked the UK 2nd out of 195 countries for its pandemic preparedness. In late October 2020 the UK ranked 5th highest in the list of countries suffering from COVID19 related deaths. While there may be some debate about the way these numbers were collected, it is still clear that the UK's response to COVID19 was not as effective as had been hoped. As part of our examination of the reasons behind this discrepancy, we will take a look at the way the UK prepared for handling pandemics. In this case we will be looking at how the action taken by the Government maps onto a set of principles developed to guide an organisation's response to a crisis.

 

These principles were developed jointly with PM.be during 2019-20. PM.be is a crisis management consultancy in Belgium.  The principles were developed based on our combined academic and practical knowledge of crisis management and were refined by practice over the course of the year. I have used them to start my analysis of how the COVID-19 crisis has been managed.

 

MAPPING UK GOVERNEMENT APPROACH AGAINST THE PRINCIPLES

 

The team developed 10 principles whose purpose it was to guide and test the actions of an organisation facing a crisis. The aim of this exercise is to map UK Government action against these principles in order to identify any major divergence. We accept that any divergence may be the result of two possible causes:

 

  • The first is a failure to consider and address the issue.

  • The second is that the principle is ill-founded and needs to be revised.

 

The aim of this analysis is based on the first supposition. We are however open to the possibility of the second being true and are open to that debate.

 

In the table below we comment on how we see the UK Government's mapping against each principle.

 

 Remember to "fly the plane"

 

Despite the crisis, business has to continue where possible. Manager should avoid solely focusing on the crisis while overlooking the needs of "business as usual".

The phrase comes from an air-crash investigation where the pilots became so absorbed by a failed landing gear light bulb that they failed to notice that they were running out of fuel … yes, it ended badly.

 

UK Government Response to COVID: This is about how well the Government performed their normal (non-COVID19 related) roles of Government. It is about assessing which aspects of life have deteriorated due to the Government's focus being on the crisis. This begs the questions as to what are the critical functions of Government?

 

 Avoid doing more harm

 

While the crisis will be caused by one source of harm (which will be tackled as a priority), some new actions may cause harm through unintended consequences. Be careful not just to replace one problem with another.

 

UK Government Response to COVID: 

Related to the previous point, here we can list those aspects of life that are worse than pre-pandemic and have to question whether this was unavoidable. These issues include:

• The economy.

• Societal Health.

• Hospital waiting lists.

• Performance of the educational sector.

• Trade negotiations.

• The state of the Union.

 

  Identify stakeholders and their real concerns

 

In our definition of crisis we talk of "events that someone cares about”. Find out who cares about what and address those issues.

 

UK Government Response to COVID: 

It has never been clear

• which stakeholders the Government really cares about;

• What their concerns were.

• What the Government planned to do to address their concerns?

Good practice suggests that these issues need to be managed in a systematic manner. From the crisis management messaging coming out of the Government, it is not clear that they are taking this approach. By trying to make every group that they are the priority, every group feels let down.

 

 Know where you are going and how you will get there (fitness landscape)

 

Take time to define the end state desired. This needs to be defined to ensure everyone has a common end to which to work.

For example: These principle are all based on the delivering the outcome of "winning back trust in the organization".  Here we see issues such as "brand" and "reputation" being about how much trust the stakeholders have that the organization will deliver its output in an acceptable manner. The purpose of crisis management is to win back the trust lost through the crisis. 

 

UK Government Response to COVID: It is assumed that the Government’s primary goal when managing the COVID19 pandemic at first was to save lives. This is suggested by the Government’s early slogan (April 2020) that was  “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.” However the Government has never explicitly stated this as its longer term goal. The statement on 17 March 2020 by Patrick Vallance that the country would be doing well if it kept the overall number of deaths to below 20,000 was as close as the Government came to this. Its crisis management goal and what their strategy was for achieving this goal have never been made clear. The lack of a clear goal and enabling strategy has resulted in the Government being pushed around by circumstances where it has tried to react effectively to each new facet of the crisis as it appeared.   They managed what was in front of them rather than getting ahead of the game.

 

  Resolve the problem at the appropriate level

 

The expertise required to resolve a crisis may not reside at the highest level of the organisation. Management needs to seek out the right expertise to deal with the problem at hand.

 

UK Government Response to COVID: 

This principle concerns the issue of where control should be centralised and where it needs to be decentralised. This issue had previously been identified by the 2010 Hine report into the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic. This issue is also highlighted in the 2011 pandemic strategy where it states that a "UK-wide approach to the response to a new pandemic but with local flexibility and agility in the timing of transition from one …".

In terms of the Government's management of the COVID19 crisis, its desire to be seen to be in control, seems to have led it to trying to centralise key functions such as testing, track and trace.  There is no evidence that the Government has considered the merits of each approach for all parts of the COVID response system and yet the disadvantages of centralising the testing, track and trace system is clear for all to see.

… what else that they have tried to do centrally would have been done better locally?

 

 Listen and align

 

This about ensuring that different parts of the organization are not working against each other. Again this often manifest in the unintended consequence of an action rather than the action itself. Here we are talking about the phenomenon of "emergence" within complex systems.

 

UK Government Response to COVID:

Any organisation's response to a crisis will feature a complex mix where there is a risk that one well intentioned activity will have an unintended adverse effect on another well intentioned activity. In the case of COVID19 these adverse effects can be seen in the relationship between:

1. Saving lives versus the damage to the economy.

2. Where deaths from COVID are given disproportionate weight over deaths from other causes.

 

  Prioritize 

 

This is about ensuring that the organisations makes best use of time and other resources available to it.

 

UK Government Response to COVID: The politics made this very difficult for the Government to articulate as they were not prepared to antagonise any group who demanded resources.

 

  Avoid looking shifty (devious)

 

Spokespeople often try to word their statements to avoid blame: this can make them come across badly to the public. The consequence of this is the public lose trust in everything they say. The purpose of this principle is to mitigate this route to a further loss of trust.

 

UK Government Response to COVID: The Government's communications statements clearly failed to maintain the trust of the public. Their desire to "look in control" has backfired. Their apparent lack of  candor helped to erode the public's trust. This faltering of trust has then been used by all those whose self-interest was to erode trust in the Government further.

 

  Be consistent as you can, balanced with flexibility

 

This principle is driven by two contrasting ideas. 

  • The first is that the world is constantly changing, and therefore we need to adapt to these changes ... we need to be “agile”.

  • The second is that it takes time to change direction. Even at the micro level (day to day operations) it takes time to decide on a course of action, disseminate the instruction and then to implement it. It is much easier and quicker for those in charge to change their mind on what needs to be done than it is to implement the action. When the decision cycle gets out of alignment with the “decision-action” cycle then this can (and often does) end up with “order-counterorder-disorder”… chaos.

 

The point of the principle is to remind decision-makers that any change of orders/ direction has to be given time to be implemented. Remember that the best option can be the enemy of a good option. Be consistent as you can (try not to chop and change the direction you are giving) but be ready to make changes, as quickly as possible, when absolutely necessary.

 

UK Government Response to COVID:

It is of note that The Pandemic Strategy 2011 sets out as one of its three principles the need for 'flexibility'. Within this principle is the recognition of the need to balance flexibility with consistency.

The Government saw the need to adapt to circumstances but failed to recognise that the rate at which they wished to make changes far exceeded the public's adaptability. The Government has clearly failed to heed this principle in their management of the COVID19 crisis.

 

 Rest: tired minds make bad decisions

 

The "Boss" often "wish to be seen as being in charge" of the crisis management and they do this by being always present. The downside side of this is they become exhausted and the consequence of this is that they become more prone to making bad decisions.

 

UK Government Response to COVID: The application and relevance of these principles, designed for an acute crisis, are more difficult to see over a chronic crisis such as the current COVID19 crisis. The key point is that people become tired. In terms of the COVID19 crisis, the tiredness in question is the public's sense of exhaustion with the restriction being placed on their lives. It is not clear how the Government is identifying or managing this issue.

 

 

DISCUSSION

 

We see considerable divergence between our set of principles and the action of the UK Government. At this stage we are unable to determine why this might be the case: we can only speculate that they are either unaware of them or they have rejected them. There is also no evidence that we can so far find that suggests that the Government is being guided by any set of crisis management principles. While we recognise adherence to such a list does not ensure that a crisis will be managed successfully, the gaps identified here do suggest that such a list would provide warning that key issues may need to be addressed. We also accept that there may be good reasons why an organisation may, in a particular circumstance, deviate from one of these principles but that should be the result of an informed debate rather than just be neglect.

 

As for the validity of this list of principles, this usage has brought to light some of the more obvious gaps in the Government’s response and so can be seen to be useful for this purpose.

 

CONCLUSION:

 

Based on the assumption that principles have considerable practical utility to guide and test action while trying to cope with complex situations, it is not clear whether the UK Government has identified and used any set of principles to guide their action. It is clear from our brief analysis that there are clear gaps between their action and what would have happened if they had been guided by these principles.

 

Learning about Learning

 

So, what have we learnt about learning from this analysis? As always, in order to enhance the practical utility of this learning, we couch the learning in terms of some questions that managers might ask themselves if they find themselves in similar circumstances. In this case we have one question.

 

What set of principles is guiding our action, where are we diverging from them and why?

COVID19 Application of Crisis Management Principles