'Significant overhaul is needed': Insights from a previously-secret review of centre-of-government crisis capabilities

Review makes 23 recommendations for “higher-quality faster-paced central decision making”, including reinvigorating the lead government response model
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By Tevye Markson

08 Dec 2023

As the last few days of the second round of Covid Inquiry hearings approach, there have been plenty of alarming and enlightening revelations.

From blame-gaming answers to genuine insights on the government’s Covid response, the broadcast hearings have often grabbed the headlines, but some of the biggest stories have been found in the digital bundles of evidence published by the inquiry.

One such document released by the inquiry this week – a previously-secret review marked “Official Sensitive” – will likely be one of the most important for the government’s future pandemic preparations.

Crisis Capabilities Review: Responding to Crises from the Centre of Government, written by Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft and then-Ministry of Defence director general for security policy Dominic Wilson, examines how government responds to crises from the centre.

Completed in February 2022, two years on from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it urges a “significant overhaul” to centre-of-government crisis response. Its 23 recommendations include: setting up a Cabinet Office Crisis Team, reinvigorating the lead government response model, and taking resilience responsibilities away from the Cabinet Office.

The findings and recommendations are based on consultations with more than 60 civil servants, including the cabinet secretary, perm secs, No.10 team and senior officials responsible for crisis response across government.

The government has said it will consider the outcomes of both this review and the Covid Inquiry itself in making further changes to resilience structures.

Here are the key findings and recommendations from the review.

The UK’s crisis preparation plans are outdated

The way the centre of government coordinates and leads its response to major crises “requires a significant overhaul”, the review argues. It says the “existing model” is shaped by early millennium experiences of fuel protests, flooding and foot-and-mouth disease while “the character of crisis has since changed significantly”.

The current arrangements stem from the creation of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in 2001 as the executive department of the Cabinet Office responsible for emergency planning in the UK, along with the Civil Contingencies Act – which followed in 2004 and sets out the framework for crisis response.

The review says the last significant update to this system was in 2010, and that since then “crises are manifesting in more complex ways, affecting the UKs interests at home and overseas simultaneously”, as well as unfolding at greater speed and being complicated by cyber and disinformation campaigns.

“The turbulent events and multiple crises of recent years are unlikely to be an aberration”, the report adds, pointing to fragility in the global system post-Covid, the growing impacts of climate change and “the trend towards sharper state competition”.

Crisis response, therefore, needs “higher-quality faster-paced central decision making”, the report argues.

Similarly, the Covid Inquiry has heard concerns from several witnesses that the only pandemic preparation plan ahead of the Covid-19 outbreak was a pandemic influenza strategy published in 2011. Plans to refresh the strategy were deprioritised in November 2019, just a few months before the UK's first cases of Covid were identified, former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara said.

‘Self-help’ structure for crisis response is weak and needs reform

Currently, responsibility for responding to crises is distributed across several policy teams in the National Security Secretariat, who are expected to independently manage most aspects of the response to crises that fall in their policy area, with ad-hoc support from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.

The report says this “largely `self-help' approach” to crisis response is “unusual” and has "several fundamental weaknesses”, including:

  • Underplaying the importance of crisis management expertise
  • Making poor use of specialist policy skills by using staff with specific thematic or regional expertise to do work that is common to all crises
  • Squandering experience as there is no mechanism for ensuring that hard-won experience is carried forward into future crises
  • Preparation for future falling by the wayside, with busy day jobs prioritised
  • Breeding inconsistent approaches to processes and structures.

To address these issues, the government should create a director-led Cabinet Office crisis team inside the NSS to provide a permanent capability for managing national and international crises of all kinds, the review argues. This “should significantly improve our ability to scale quickly in the face of serious crises”, it says.

The team’s wide-ranging responsibilities would include providing a basic training package for all staff who may be required to support the response to a crisis from the centre of government.

The current lead department response model needs a refresh

The Covid Inquiry has raised questions about whether the “lead department” model – in which a single department leads the crisis response with support provided by the Cabinet Office as required – is appropriate. Michael Gove told the inquiry last week that too much was asked of the Department of Health and Social Care in the early months of 2020, when it was the “lead department” taking charge of the government’s response to the novel virus. He said the pandemic should have been considered a “whole-of-system crisis” earlier than it was.

The review tackles the issue by saying that one of the Crisis Team’s responsibilities should be shaking up this model to “reset expectations around the division of responsibilities between the Cabinet Office and departments for responding to crises”, the report says.

It says the current system has had “mixed success”, working for well-understood risks like flooding and some kinds of terrorist attacks but struggling with novel forms of crisis which do not fit neatly in one department. “At times departments are reluctant to take responsibility. At times the Cabinet Office is reluctant to relinquish it,” the document says.

The review says the Cabinet Office should “reinvigorate” this approach by working more proactively with departments to build relationships and anticipate the demands of potential crises, and providing flexible support rather than bringing problems reflexively into the centre.

It takes too long to appoint the leader of a crisis response

Interviewees consistently told the review of concerns about crisis-response leadership, the report says. Currently, there is no formal process for appointing an official to take the lead in a crisis and, when they are picked, their authority and responsibilities often remain unclear.

The review says this problem worsens in complex crises where multiple departments have a major stake, frequently resulting in “ambiguity, friction and a struggle to regroup departments and align their various approaches”.

It recommends ensuring that a crisis senior responsible officer (CSRO), usually a DG-level official, is appointed at the first opportunity before, or at the onset, of a crisis. They would be supported by their department and the aforementioned Cabinet Office Crisis Team.

Former chief adviser to the PM Dominic Cummings told the Covid Inquiry last month it was “extremely difficult to know in No.10 who exactly in the Cabinet Office was doing what” during the first few months of the pandemic.

The CSRO’s responsibilities would include ensuring that a breadth of advice is available to ministers, sourced from in and outside government, the review suggests. The Cabinet Office would support this  effort by looking to replicate the SAGE model in other areas commonly drawn upon in crisis such as logistics, it adds.

Rycroft and Wilson also recommend that the Cabinet Office establish and sustain a Crisis Leadership Cadre of senior officials who could be appointed as CSRO for future crises. The cadre would receive training for the “specific and uncommon blend of skills” required for leading a crisis response. Currently, “surprisingly little is done to prepare senior leaders for leading the response to crisis from central government”, the report says.

The current Cabinet Office approach to learning lessons from crises is haphazard

The report also criticises the current approach to learning lessons from and during crises, calling it “haphazard”. It says there is currently “no real requirement for teams to make provision for capturing lessons”, and no consistent approach across the Cabinet Office.

The report says this is a product of the aforementioned “self-help” model and means the Cabinet Office is “failing to consistently identify, learn and improve on its responds to crises in any systematic way”.

The review once again tasks a Cabinet Office Crisis Team with tackling this. It says the team would have “explicit responsibility” for capturing lessons through a crisis and running effective learning processes afterwards. It also calls for learning from crises to be shared more freely and more routinely across departments.

Rycroft and Wilson also recommend an end to large set-piece exercises, which it says are resource-intensive and can fail to deliver real learning. They say government should build on the “good Covid-driven trend towards smaller more focused exercises targeted against specific testing or learning”.

Government should reduce reliance on COBR

The review also recommends that government reduce its dependence on Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR) system, which is used for high-level coordination in response to major emergencies.

“At times officials have been too keen to squeeze a crisis response into the COBR mould, irrespective of the circumstances,” the report says.

“COBR remains a powerful brand and useful, especially at the outset of a crisis” the review argues, but should “routinely be used just once…providing early coordination”. Thereafter, a new format of `Crisis Management Groups' should be used – building on the lessons learned from recent crises including Covid-19.

This system would “delineate more clearly between meetings required to secure ministerial agreement and direction, and meetings used to drive implementation and hold departments to account”, according to the report. It would also build on trends in ministerial decision making, including “a more executive style of senior ministerial decision-making, sometimes drawing just on ministers who are directly responsible for issues at hand; and a more flexible, practical style of working between junior ministers and senior officials to drive day to day implementation and quicky tackle 'blockers' as they arise”.

These new overarching arrangements for responding to crises would be set out in a “Governance Playbook”.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock told the Covid Inquiry last week that Cummings had chosen to circumvent the COBR system – excluding ministers from decisions in early 2020 as the threat from the pandemic grew. He said COBR was the “appropriate place” to run the response.

'Overwatch' and 'Framing'

The report also proposes that the government introduce new elements of process called ‘Overwatch’ and ‘Framing’ to mobilise and focus central government responses more effectively.

The government would declare “Overwatch” when an issue has the potential to imminently overwhelm business-as-usual arrangements and requires a crisis response, but this would need be used “judiciously”, the report says.

“Framing” would be provide clarity on the response to a crisis from the outset, setting out the magnitude of the crisis and the lengths to which the government is prepared to go to avert or manage it, avoiding the current situation where there can be “subtly (or significantly) different interpretations” across government.

The review also found that participants felt there was a “hero model” of leadership in government which emphasised outstanding individual contributions, often at the expense of more collaborative and sustainable ways of working. This model “becomes more pronounced” at times of crisis, the review said. It said the reforms outlined in the review should “should reduce some of the resource drivers of this behaviour”.

All of the above ‘is not enough’

The report also outlined “ambitious” wider reforms that government should consider to address the “unsustainable” level of central government focus on the management of crisis in recent years, stating that all of the above-mentioned reforms “alone are not enough”.

It says the Cabinet Office should create a National Resilience Group located outside the NSS, which would take on the “disruptive domestic challenges which are the product of deeper economic and social changes” partly stemming from Brexit and Covid but also from longer-term trends.

This, it says, would enable Cabinet Office national security machinery to focus on a more tightly bound definition of national security – addressing the “unsustainable” extent to which the centre of government has been drawn into the management of crisis in recent years.

It would also enable a higher level of “sophistication” that is now required to handle the increasing resilience demands, the review adds.

The group would bring together expertise from elements of the CCS, Cabinet Office data and analytical functions, and temporary taskforces which have been set up addressed some of the currents structural limitations.

Government would create a DG-level national resilience post to lead the group, which would report directly to the cabinet secretary.

Since the review, the Cabinet Office has reorganised its existing resilience functions to create separate capabilities for preparedness and risk reduction, and for crisis response, creating the Resilience Directorate, overseen by a new head of resilience, and the Cabinet Office Briefing (COBR) Unit.

The Cabinet Office said in an update on the implementation of its new resilience framework, published on Tuesday, that this separation has “created more stability and capacity for both tasks”.

“In the 12 months since the implementation of this new structure, the government has made significant progress on delivering upon our objectives to increase the UK’s resilience and preparedness for risks, and excellence in crisis management,” the Cabinet Office added.


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