Wise after the event

Too early to start thinking about a post-Covid public inquiry? Maybe so – everyone and everything is maxed out. Those working night and day to contain and improve the situation have better things to think about.

And yet. And yet.

Even in the midst of a crisis, establishing an audit trail is important. Why? Because hindsight needs a robust evidential start point. 

Whether the promised inquiry is a Leveson, Francis, Chilcot or some other format, it needs to focus on learning, and on accountability. From a public policy perspective – and national crisis management is accelerated, pressure cooker public policy – we need to know what worked and what didn’t. 

As much as it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees when you’re in the middle of a situation, there’s a kind of visceral immediacy to the learning. So forgive me for trying to get ahead of hindsight and consider some of the themes an inquiry might explore. I don’t know the answers; but I can hazard a guess at some of the questions. 

First, capacity – were we prepared? 

We knew that there was the threat of a pandemic, albeit focused on influenza, not a novel virus; and that the risk was felt to have increased since 2015. A pandemic response was exercised in 2016, and one of the learning points was that ‘an effective response would require capability and capacity to surge services to meet demand’. 

The inquiry will want to know whether this was in place when Covid first emerged as a threat to the UK, matched by financial, human and other (eg PPE) resources. It will want to know what funding patterns over the previous period had done either to diminish or enhance our resilience, nationally and locally.

The inquiry might also usefully broaden its remit to wider Government policy, given the relationship between the way we have chosen to structure our society and the consequent impact of the virus. Someone working in the gig economy, for example, might have a choice between self-isolating and eating. Public policy needs to be alive to these causative relationships, and incentivise accordingly. 

Second, planning and strategy – were we confident how this would turn out? 

Like ‘normal’ public policy, a crisis response needs a story arc – a strategy. This isn’t just a nicety – it’s the thing off which practical plans, at all levels, hang. The alignment of the story arc with reality needs to be constantly tested. How, for example, did the UK’s Covid strategy compare with those of other nations; and how did we adapt through those comparisons? 

And strategy can’t assume a linear narrative – the unexpected always happens (in this case in the form of new variants and ‘Long Covid’ – though an inquiry might also ask how virus mutation and the possibility of longer-term illness were factored into the strategy). There’s a military thing called the ‘OODA Loop’: the ability to get inside an opponent’s operational rhythm and defeat them. Was the Government inside the Covid OODA Loop, ahead of the range of possible scenarios, constantly planning the next response to changed circumstances, always feedback looping into decision-making?

A crisis management strategy also needs to be followed through single-mindedly. Brexit will have absorbed government time and energy just at the time when it needed to focus on a national crisis. The same for machinery of government changes through 2020. Of course, a crisis doesn’t mean that everything else has to go on hold, and to a certain extent maintaining some degree of normality is key to surviving the experience. But was this the right set of priorities, and to what extent did in-trays overlap for key personnel? 

Third, leadership – were we well led? 

Most of us will have experienced Government leadership through messaging. But leadership of course goes much deeper than strategic comms. I’ll explore this theme more deeply in my next blog, but one point now: effective leaders need to invite challenge, welcome diversity of thought and avoid groupthink. These are the foundation stones of good public policy. 

The challenge comes in part from expert advice. Experts need to be able to explain complex issues to non-experts; but more importantly, non-experts have to have the capacity and ability to listen and comprehend. Understanding evidence and analysis is a learned mindset, not an intuition. 

Maybe we need to do more to help our politicians manage the expert/ non-expert dialogue. It’s striking, for example, that only one of the Two Cultures (the humanities) is represented in the current Cabinet. There might be a need for training. Or it could involve actively changing the political demographic to bring on board more scientists, medics, analysts and so on. The political class is strikingly short of people with any kind of scientific background (noting, of course, the possibility that scientists might for some reason be less interested in political careers). 

Two final points.

In crisis management, you either have an insurance policy, which you pay for upfront; or deal with the problem, and pay for it, when it occurs. It’s a core judgement in public policy, and one that requires constant attention. It carries a heavy political overlay, depending on your perspective on the function of the state.

And whatever kind of inquiry we get, and whatever its findings, the Government of the day needs to act on it. Inquiries have a role in catharsis, certainly, but more important is that they should lead to beneficial change. 

Memories are short, and inquiries are an opportunity to bake a particular experience into the way we think. How often they do so is open to question. On this occasion, we need the thoroughgoing, no holds barred inquiry that this monumental episode warrants. 

One that, in turn, better prepares us for the next time a multi-faceted, all-encompassing, social, economic and political crisis comes calling.

Photo by Sid Ali on Pexels.com

8 thoughts on “Wise after the event

  1. Hi Roger. Another very good blog which I think addresses many of the right questions. Some kind of public inquiry is inevitable (and right) and there is a respectable case for doing it sooner rather than later. In that context, you might like to read Lawrie Friedman’s article written in May 2020 about the government’s initial response to Covid. Here is a link:

    https://www.iiss.org/blogs/survival-blog/2020/05/the-uk-and-covid-19

    The other issue I would pick is your point about scientific and mathematical literacy in the Cabinet. My rather harsh judgement is that the Prime Minister and other Ministers have never really grasped the inexorable mathematical truth of exponential growth and the massive premium that places on acting early rather than putting off hard decisions. The government has been caught out on this at least three times during the Covid crisis, probably at the cost of thousands of lives.

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    1. Thanks, Martin. V helpful to have the Lawrie Freedman link – thanks. On your point about scientific literacy, I agree. Here’s a quote from CP Snow’s Two Cultures essay:

      “A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

      And by the way, I’m planning a blog on the Second Law of Thermodynamics in a few weeks’ time…

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  2. I shall look forward to it. On exponential growth, I often cite the example of rice and a chess board, where if you put one grain of rice on the first square, two on the second, four on the third and so on, doubling each time (ie an R number of 2), how much rice would be on square 64? Depending on assumptions you make about the weight of a rice grain, the answer comes out at between one and two trillion tons of rice. And the moral of the story? If you want to avoid being swamped by rice, it is far easier to act on row 2 of the chess board than row 3 or 4: every square counts.

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  3. Roger,
    Thank you for this. I agree with just about all of it. Three comments if I may:

    1. The elephant in the room for any enquiry is going to be the sheer complexity of the management structure of the Health Service in the UK – which in comparison/contrast makes the Ministry of Defence look like a kindergarten organisation That is almost certainly not something any enquiry could deal with – anymore than various overhauls of the system have managed over the last 10, 20, 30 ….years. But at some point it is something which is going to have to be looked at again – the sheer number of actors in the press briefings is mystifying.

    2. Good to see the reference to C P Snow – one of my heroes in younger days. But I think part of the problem is that there are probably only one C P Snow characters in any generation. The only similar character I can think of is probably Jonathon Miller. I agree with your point that there needs to be a broader artistic/scientific appreciation in policy making but I saw little evidence of that sort of ability in my career and see little to suggest that our education system is adjusting to the need.

    3. Finally, I wonder whether even C P Snow would have got his head around some of the modelling theory and practice which seems to have been central to some of the Covid policy making.

    Paul

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    1. Thanks, Paul. Having spent a short spell in the NHS myself many years ago, and being connected to it through family, I know what you mean about its structure. I’m guessing that the inquiry will try to simplify this by looking at national and local respectively; or, put differently, policy and delivery. On the Two Cultures, I think other countries have been better at building this into their education systems. In ours, we tend to be streamed one way or the other quite early on. I was lucky that I did a science degree that also covered off science policy and languages, so I was drawn towards the humanities as well as learning science. As you say, Jonathan Miller was an example of someone straddling the two cultures, and I’ve been impressed by efforts to do the same with radio shows like The Infinite Monkey Cage (science focus, but leavened by comedy). As to modelling, well, I’m far from being an expert. But there is a subtle difference between science – which is based on theories tested through empirical data – and techniques which strive to draw on scientific disciplines as much as possible. I guess the models are themselves akin to theories, currently being tested empirically?

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  4. Your point about the Two Cultures (C P Snow) is an interesting one. There are 21 members of the current cabinet. Only 2 with a numerical/science background:

    Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, PhD in Chemistry.

    Simon Hart, Secretary of State for Wales, Chartered Surveyor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I went through the CVs of all Cabinet members, Laurence, and confess I missed Thérèse Coffey’s PhD. I’m not sure I’d count a Chartered Surveyor, though. With all due respect to the profession, it doesn’t require application of the scientific method. But thanks for the audit!

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