Public Servant Article April 2012

Public Servant article


Over the past few months, the nature of the new security challenges we face has been clearly highlighted by the rapid global spread of the H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic. Experts have warned that several million people across the UK may be affected by the virus, with some scientists predicting that in a worst case scenario, as many as 1 in 200 people who contract the disease may go on to die. The ripple effects of an epidemic of this magnitude would be considerable: beyond the serious costs in terms of human life, large numbers of schools would be forced to close, and severe pressure would be put on hospitals, local GP surgeries, transport networks and other vital public services.


It is important to keep this threat in perspective. Concerted action on the part of government, the emergency services and the NHS has meant that the UK is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than ever before, and there are sophisticated contingency plans in place to cope with the social and economic disruption that would result. But questions remain about how well equipped we are to deliver on these plans at all levels, from the international right down to the local.


This speaks to a wider problem with the government’s current approach to national security, which has not adapted quickly enough to keep up with the profound changes in the international security landscape that have taken place since the end of the Cold War. In a world where climate change poses arguably a greater threat to our long-term security than terrorism or war, the protection of our country can no longer be left solely in the hands of the Ministry of Defence. It now requires all government departments to coordinate their activities much more effectively, and to move away from the stovepiped structures that inhibit the development of an integrated and strategic approach.


It also requires a fundamental change in the way that we think about national security. Henceforth, policymaking must encompass global, regional, national and local domains and better understand the roles that civil society, business, local communities, frontline professionals and citizens can play in delivering a secure United Kingdom. Our capacity to network UK government effort across these levels of action and with this wider range of actors will be crucial in meeting the complex challenges ahead.


At the end of June, the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) published Shared Responsibilities: A National Security Strategy for the UK, the final report of its two-year independent, all-party Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. Lying at the heart of this report is the conviction that for a positive influence to be exerted over the modern security environment, action must be distributed, coordinated and legitimate. Distributed in the sense that many different actors need to be involved in addressing the security challenges we face; coordinated in that they need to be made to pull in the same direction towards the same ends; and legitimate in that they need to be, and be seen to be, both legal and ethical.


This analysis has significant implications in terms of the government’s relationship with public service providers, for we would argue that to build a distributed response internally in the UK, and to deal particularly with challenges related to resilience, counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism at home, central government must do more to share knowledge, power and resources with local government and the communities it serves.


For example, in the context of our national response to emergencies such as pandemic disease or extreme weather events, the Commission calls on both central and local government authorities to enhance and coordinate their efforts to assist communities in understanding risk-oriented decision-making processes and outcomes and enable them to access funding to build community level schemes, local networks and capacity to contribute to resilience on the ground. We would also encourage Local and Regional Resilience Forums to review how they might benefit from further third sector involvement, what relevant training they could facilitate for interested individuals and voluntary and community sector organisations, and how they could more widely consult on and disseminate their emergency plans.


Turning to the critical roles played by local government and community-level organisations in the national counter-terrorism effort, the Commission also believes that more should be done to push power and responsibility for preventive action down and out to these actors, which would involve moving from a ‘need to know’ approach to a ‘responsibility to provide’ mentality. In practical terms, this would mean sharing more sanitised information and intelligence products with Local Authority Chief Executives, Council Leaders and Police Borough Commanders regarding perceived vulnerabilities to radicalisation in their respective areas.


We also recommend that good practice on the prevention of terrorism nationally should be shared more widely: it is currently concentrated in only a small number of Local Authorities, usually those that have experienced terrorist or counter-terrorist activity directly, and the lessons learned need to be applied across the board.


A more broadly-based, joined up and inclusive national security strategy is needed. Public servants and the public they serve have key roles to play in its design and delivery.