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UK Government Report Card: High Reliability & Coronavirus

Could the UK government have done better during the Covid-19 pandemic? Given the size and unprecedented nature of the problem, can we expect them to have done better? I’m going to explore how well the UK government has handled the coronavirus pandemic so far by assessing them against criteria from research in high reliability organisations. How will they rate?

Saw edge
Being on the cutting edge requires high reliability (photo courtesy of Patrick Hardin)

High reliability organising comes from the realisation that accidents don’t always need to happen. Some complex organisations that operate in a risky environment can be productive and safe. For example, nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers and fire-fighting teams and mining companies are some of the organisations that operate as high reliability organisations (HROs). The UK government could (and should) also become a HRO as it is complex, deals with interdependent problems (think education, poverty and economy for one), and faces significantly negative consequences if it makes the wrong decision. It has the right background, but does it have what it takes?

What makes an organisation highly reliable? Karl Weick, Kathryn Sutcliffe, Karlene Roberts, Marlys Christianson, and others have identified five features of high reliability organisations. I will go through each of these and assess the UK government against them.

Preoccupation with failure.

Okay, this is an easy one. HROs search for errors, identify mistakes while they are still small and encourage people to report them, even if it was something that they personally did wrong. It’s almost impossible to imagine this in our government’s response to coronavirus… Let’s take one example where there was a failure. 25,000 tests a day was the target for mid-April yet when that target wasn’t met there was silence and denial. A government keen to be a HRO would be doing some deep searching trying to find reasons why that didn’t occur. More importantly they (and this goes all the way down the chain) wouldn’t be afraid of highlighting the potential failure early. When people are scared to report mistakes or lack of progress then those glitches can’t be fixed. Little problems become big problems. Solutions can’t be sought.

How should the UK government be handling the coronavirus pandemic? From a high reliability perspective, it is imperative to re-create the culture of “frank and fearless advice” and create a deeper culture of “error reporting”. Praise those who identify where a plan is going awry, don’t silence them and don’t crucify them. Yes, the press enjoys “gotchas”, admitting mistakes is jumped on by the opposition, and as a society we want a strong government that can take charge and make us feel confident that we will succeed. But there’s a time for Churchillian rhetoric and there’s a time for getting to grips with the issue at hand. Right now, there’s too much of the former and almost none of the latter.

REPORT CARD: Needs to try harder as tends to seek popularity at the expense of work.

Reluctance to simplify interpretations.

This aspect of the UK government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is more complex (pun intended). On the one hand, there is a recognition that the exit plan needs to consider a variety of factors to avoid a second wave of infections. This is good because HROs recognise that they are dealing with complex, interconnected and dynamic systems; and that the problems that emerge will be complex, interconnected and dynamic. And they don’t shy away from that. They don’t try to make nuclear reactors simpler; they ensure that they understand them.

The UK government, on the other hand, often does not. Let’s take the simplistic assumption they made that the public could not, and would not, cope with a Wuhan-style lock-down. “Behavioural fatigue” was highlighted as the main cause but it is apparent that the decision-makers simply didn’t believe that the UK population would engage. They took a simple approach to interpreting people and it resulted in a lock-down (that has, in fact, been very well heeded) occurring much later than need be.

As a society we have moved ever closer to wanting easy answers and simple solutions. We support newspapers and politicians who present the world as good or bad, black or white, succeeding or failing; and maybe that is why the government continues to do so. But perhaps coronavirus can be a wakeup call that our government needs to rise above this simplicity and acknowledge that we need to think in more complex ways in order to ultimately succeed.

REPORT CARD: Performance is improving but still inconsistent.

Sensitivity to operations

Leaders in HROs don’t sit in their offices and wait. Nor do they isolate themselves from what is happening in their organisation. Instead, they listen to those that are on the front-line. They talk with operators, they set up systems so that issues – both good and bad – can be raised by those who otherwise have little voice. They recognise the importance and the value of the people and the technology that is actually doing the work and they invest in them.

To what extent has the UK government responded well by engaging with the front-line during the coronavirus pandemic? Well, there were some initial photo-opportunities in hospitals and there are the pictures of Boris Johnson and other ministers clapping on Thursdays to celebrate the work of NHS employees.

More importantly, money has been made available to increase testing and provide equipment. But these top-level decisions have been riddled with problems during their implementation. Decisions are being made, handed down from on high, and little thought is being given to what that actually means on the ground – there is almost no sensitivity to the operations.

Let’s take the provision of ventilators. We know that the UK Government has made money available and that they need more ventilators. We know that many firms have identified ways to change their manufacturing processes so that they can help. We have supply, we have demand. But they can’t make it work because nobody is speaking to the front-line manufacturers. CEOs of manufacturing companies are offering to make changes but they have been given no information – and nobody in the Government is trying to talk with them.

It’s the same story with personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical workers. Anecdotally, front-line workers have been saying for months that there would be a shortage of masks and PPE but this operational knowledge wasn’t considered in any strategic decision-making. And now we have serious shortages. QED.

REPORT CARD: A lack of application of the basics has led to difficulties with the more advanced areas.

Deference to Expertise

At last, an area where the UK government has handled the coronavirus pandemic well – basing decisions on expert advice.  Over and over, we have heard the phrase that the government will be following the scientific evidence. This is exactly what they should be doing as a high reliability organisation.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that the expert base was too limited. A Reuters investigation shows that the expert advisors to the UK government made implicit assumptions about how the virus would behave and about how people would behave. Because the group of advisors was small and because the planning, modelling and assumptions were not made explicit to a wider audience, these assumptions were not challenged. This meant that although they were aware of the dangers of covid-19 early on, they did not emphasise this to the government, and time and lives were lost in the meantime.

What can we learn from this? The overall approach of the UK government to base its decisions on scientific advice and experts is great and a key feature of high reliability. However, it needs to ensure that the expertise is interdisciplinary, explicit and transparent.

REPORT CARD: Sound effort but a wider search for information would result in an improved quality of work.

Commitment to Resilience

Last, we come to the feature of HROs that is the most difficult to pin down. A commitment to resilience is, on its surface, a desire to bounce back from any situation. A willingness to get down and dirty and do whatever it takes to survive. Therefore, on its surface, the UK government has handled the coronavirus pandemic through a commitment to resilience. It has publicly acknowledged the hit to the economy that will come from the lock-down, it has guaranteed funding for tens of thousands of employees who have been furloughed and who otherwise would have been laid off, and it has put money into helping small businesses survive their shutdown.

But at a deeper level, a commitment to resilience is about thinking long-term. It is about investing in resilience over time, not just about reactively fire-fighting when the worst happens. And this is one of the most distressing aspects of the UK government’s high reliability assessment. If the government was a HRO, there would not have been a stripping of funding to the NHS, social care, health care and other key services. The essential workers that are keeping us going are generally the ones that have been devalued over time. That have been starved of funding, that have had to make “efficiency gains”, and that went for so long without pay-rises.

The reason our system is resilient is not due to the UK government’s commitment to resilience. It is due to the people that make up the system. It is due to the teachers who put themselves at risk everyday looking after the kids of other key workers – even though they are perennially degraded in the media as lazy and unaccountable. It is due to the council garbage workers, the social workers, the care home staff, the teaching assistants even though their wages have been stagnant for a decade. It is due to the retired NHS staff and police who have given up their “comfortable” retirement to help, even though they saw so many of their colleagues forced out due to funding cuts.

These people have certainly not been encouraged to go the extra mile. The system and the government have not necessarily been good to them. Luckily, this doesn’t matter to these people, but we should not have to rely on only their goodwill again. Instead, we should have a governmental commitment to resilience that goes beyond the superficial and reactive.

REPORT CARD: Basic skills have been neglected leading to serious concerns.

So, how well has the UK government handled the coronavirus pandemic? Is the UK government a high reliability organisation? It could be, it should be, and in some areas, there are some glimmers of hope. Let’s hope that the current pandemic alerts the government to the need for more error reporting and complexity awareness, for more communication and valuing of the front-line and broader expertise, and most importantly, investment in our key workers, so that the next crisis might be handled better.

2 thoughts on “UK Government Report Card: High Reliability & Coronavirus”

  1. Kerrie – certainly food for thought and perhaps it might be an idea to expand the analysis by conducting a similar analysis for other Governments, eg Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, South Korea, Japan, USA and others.

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