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If the government does not learn lessons on leadership and oversight for whole system risks, this may come at a high cost to individuals, the economy and society in the future. Many of the major risks that the country faces would cut across institutional boundaries and affect multiple areas of government and society, if they materialised. Yet, no-one in government is tasked with forming an overarching view of whole system risks, ensuring that all departments are adequately prepared for them, and prompting departments to enhance their preparedness in the areas where they fall short.
That is among the findings of a report by the Public Accounts Committee of MPs, titled ‘Government preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons for government on risk’. Its chair, Dame Meg Hillier, a London Labour MP, said that the PAC is very concerned about the Government’s approach to risk management, ‘which seems to betray a resistance to constructive challenge and unwillingness to learn from, for example, areas of the private sector that have a mature risk culture’.
She said: “On its current path, the Government will be similarly unprepared for the ‘next major crisis’ and is also failing to take on the important lessons in crisis and risk communication with the public – and internationally, with other countries – which will be crucial in dealing with it. Too much is left to individual departments. When faced with funding pressures the long-term concerns are too often sacrificed for short-term priorities. We need Whitehall to hold the ring on risk management and coordinate departments.”
In the report, the MPs queried Government ability to use data effectively to support policy interventions; given a long-standing ‘lack of government-wide data standards, ageing IT systems, fragmented leadership and a civil service culture that does not support sharing data across departmental boundaries’.
On communication of risk to the public, the report noted that the ‘Cabinet Office acknowledged that Government has a chequered history in communicating risks to the public and stated that Government’s messaging on risks should be more balanced, accessible to non-experts and lend itself to practical actions’. While the UK Government has made leadership roles across departments – such as a Chief Scientific Adviser and a National Security Adviser – there’s not one such person for risk; although as the report noted, UK Government has published a public-facing national risk register since 2008.
The report pointed to variations in how government departments went about risk; before the pandemic, ‘departments lacked an agreed understanding of risk tolerance, such as which consequences of a pandemic they deemed acceptable and which consequences they needed to mitigate’.
You can read the 23-page report on the parliament.uk website.