The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has completely blindsided society in 2020, with devastating effect. But was this cataclysmic event a black swan? It appears not. According to the National Risk Register – an overview of the risks of major emergencies that could impact the UK in the next five years – the threat of a pandemic was firmly on the government’s radar: “experts agree that there is a high probability of another influenza pandemic occurring, but it is impossible to forecast its exact timing or the precise nature of its impact.” In fact, of all the high consequence risks outlined in the register – from severe weather to terrorist attacks – a pandemic was considered to have the highest potential impact.
This threat wasn’t classified information reserved for senior figures in Whitehall; it had filtered down to local government level. Take Camden Council, for example, which – like other local authorities – already had information about pandemic risk fed to them by Public Health England. Camden subsequently rated a ‘pandemic flu’ as a 4/5 likelihood and 5/5 for potential damage on its risk register – proof that more high-profile risks like terror and cyber-attacks weren’t their only focus when it came to organisational resilience.
Public sector feels the pressure
Despite receiving a heads up about a pandemic and grading it accordingly, few in the public sector expected it to happen on their watch – or at least not to the extent seen during Covid-19, which escalated at a scale not experienced since Spanish Flu in 1918, when global mobility was limited. The result? Risk registers that acknowledged the possibility of a pandemic, but without a recent precedent to draw upon, failed to provide an adequate framework for organisational resilience.
Public bodies and government agencies find themselves in unchartered territory in the UK and across much of Europe, putting departments under pressure as they try to ensure public needs are met. This response has been radical and exhaustive, pushing their resources to the limit – for example, health services have mobilised at scale. All of which has been compounded by the lack of certainty around when the crisis will end – giving rise to a range of challenges that have tested their organisational resilience:
- The damage caused to international supply chains by lockdown restrictions has made it difficult for public bodies to procure essential medical equipment – such as PPE and ventilators – and establish medial facilities.
- Increased reliance on public sector technology infrastructures has created operational challenges. For example, England’s NHS 111 online system had its busiest day ever on 17 March when 950,000 users accessed the service – compared to a daily pre-pandemic average of around 10,000. And the number of court cases conducted over video call in England and Wales rose by 800 per cent within just two weeks of lockdown.
- The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that public finances could be hit harder by COVID-19 than the 2008 global financial crisis – albeit more briefly.
- Lockdown restrictions have made homeworking – a practice that’s not commonplace within the public sector – a forced necessity for some departments. This sudden change has created challenges for both staff and employers – from mental health issues caused by isolation to problems with connectivity.
- Public sector systems and data have been targeted by cybercriminals during the pandemic. These opportunists have been quick to exploit the overwhelmed capacity of systems and a lack of awareness among employees around cyber security. For example, a recent survey of 1,000 UK public sector employees revealed that almost half of respondents (47%) have either not heard of, or do not know what ransomware is.
Leaders across the public sector understandably remain focused on the immediate impact of COVID-19. However, they are increasingly mindful of its longer-term implications – and for some, this precedent could be a turning point for their agency. As the impact of the pandemic reduces over time, government agencies and public bodies will learn lessons that can be used to re-evaluate their organisational resilience strategies. Examples include:
- Supply chains and third parties – The pressure on public services has forced government agencies and public bodies to engage a broader ecosystem of partners and suppliers on critical projects, while easing regulations over procurement and data sharing. Before government footprints are extended permanently, time must be taken to reflect if other sectors were effectively deployed to deliver the best outcomes. This retrospective process reminds us of the importance of vendor risk management, before and during the lifecycle of third party relationships – a vital discipline that was compromised by the demands of the pandemic and must be reinforced under similar circumstances in the future.
- Cyber security – The pandemic has presented the public sector with the chance to press the ‘reset’ button on their cyber security practices – with a view to becoming more secure in the future. In addition to ensuring technical aspects of cyber security – such as multi-factor authentication and security updates – are managed effectively, employees must be provided with guidance and education around cyber security best practice – a requirement that has been brought into sharp focus by the rise of homeworking.
- Homeworking – While the rapid shift to mass remote working has been challenging, many government departments will want to retain its advantages going forward. That will present financial, technological and HR implications; and could impact the size, location and composition of the government estate.
- Staff wellbeing – Even those who thrive working from home have indicated they would appreciate more social interaction with colleagues. Organisations must develop strategies for supporting staff in their new work environment – such as online social events. Looking further ahead; a balance could be struck between working from home and in the office using flexible arrangements.
- Ensuring a legacy – While the pandemic has fostered a desire for long-term change that delivers increased resilience, there is a danger these good intentions will evaporate amid the immediate pressure of the crisis. Leaders must create mechanisms and opportunities to capture and develop these ideas for post-pandemic action – from live online discussions to crowdsourcing platforms.
Driving positive change using technology
Organisations often ask a common question during their quest to adapt and be resilient during normal business operations and through disruptive events: how can we integrate software that can drive meaningful decision-making from a risk perspective using data that’s aligned to our objectives and KPIs?
The answer could lie in Camms’ uncomplicated, affordable, and comprehensive organisational resilience software solution. With integrated solutions in risk, strategy, projects and people, our business software will help you make the right decisions, manage risks, align the talents of your organisation and focus on what matters.
Find out more about how Camms support UK-based Public Bodies and Government Agencies and request a demo call today.