Crisis-Hit Britain – is this as bad as the 1970s?

It seems incredible that, in the space of just a few weeks, we have stumbled from the chaos of the withdrawal from Afghanistan to national CO2 shortages and now a fuel distribution crisis.  Inevitably, comparisons are being made with the end of James Callaghan’s government and the “Winter of Discontent”.

Despite the title of this post, I’m not going to join the debate as to whether the current situation is better or worse than the 1970s, entertaining though that discussion is.  However, from the perspective of crisis management, I would argue that the failings of the current government are worse.  The chronic economic and industrial relations problems that Callaghan faced may have been, to a large extent, of the government’s own making; but, having pursued the policies that they did, the crisis itself in 1978/79 was largely unavoidable.  By contrast, the recent trio of crises that the UK has encountered was entirely foreseeable and hence, with suitable planning, avoidable.

Looking back over the last few weeks, I am reminded of Weick and Sutcliffe’s principles of High-Reliability Organisations (HROs).  Based on decades of studying how inherently risky organisations, such as nuclear power plants and aircraft carriers, operate safely; they derived the following five principles:

  • Preoccupation with failure
  • Reluctance to simplify
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Commitment to resilience
  • Deference to expertise

How does our current government measure up against these principles?  I think that the area where they have most strikingly departed from the principles is in terms of “preoccupation with failure”.  HROs actively seek evidence of potential problems and treat any near miss or minor incident as a potential warning sign of more severe incidents to come.  All politicians focus on the positives and gloss over bad news; but Boris’s “boosterism” seems to take this optimistic overconfidence to dangerous new levels.  It appears that the vital warning signs of trouble to come are either not reaching senior ministers; or are reaching them but being ignored.

I could go on to analyze departures from the other principles; for instance, a lack of “sensitivity to operations” was very evident in the Afghan withdrawal, with ministers clearly not comprehending the logistical complexity of evacuating such large numbers of people in such a short space of time.  But, fundamentally, the most striking common feature of all three recent crises is this inability to recognise and act on warning signs in a timely fashion.  Absent this ability, any subsequent crisis response is likely to be clumsy and ineffective.

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