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Alice Millington, Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

26 January 2021, 4:34 UTC Share

Policy development for organisational resilience

The University of Cambridge’s Alice Millington reviews the insights into resilience shared by Policy Fellows of the Centre for Science and Policy.

The Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) in Cambridge principally acts as a knowledge brokerage between academics and policymakers. However, an equally important mode of achieving our mission – to promote the more effective use of evidence and expertise in policy – has been to create opportunities for our Policy Fellows to learn from each other. CSaP Policy Fellows are drawn from policy officials working in government departments, agencies, learned societies, industry and the third sector.

Over nine weeks in autumn 2020, we invited our Policy Fellows to think about the importance of resilience in a lunchtime seminar series, with both academics and Policy Fellows as speakers. Conducted online during the Covid-19 pandemic, the nature of CSaP’s Policy Fellowship Programme has changed dramatically over the past year. But we as an organisation have remained flexible and innovative to reflect the changing circumstances – two characteristics which, over the course of the series, we discovered are inbuilt to resilient societies.

Whilst personal resilience has long been a valorised trait, resilience has perhaps insufficiently been thought about as a potential group or organisational characteristic. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the error of this thinking. Critics are divided as to whether the disease – and its enormous economic fallout – was an unpredictable ‘black swan’, or a foreseeable and manageable hazard that should have been mitigated. Early on in the seminars, it became clear that, to advance its utility, cultivating ‘resilience’ must be thought of as more than just optimising our ‘risk management’. These terms are often used interchangeably, yet drawing up ever-more elaborate risk assessments may be a poor strategy to safeguard against specific severe threats like the COVID pandemic (with much more detailed planning having gone into the risk possibility of an influenza pandemic rather than a coronavirus pandemic).

Indeed, one of our guest speakers noted that ‘risk’ is typically thought of as an external threat – something which must be guarded against. In traditional approaches, the risk is identified, its possible consequences are assessed, and resources are redirected to minimise its associated hazards. But ‘resilience’, conversely, is an internal property of a system; it provides the capacity to adapt to indeterminable threats. The latter is inherently more protective, particularly considering the latent biases of industry. Indeed, risk is often quite narrowly drawn – assessors overwhelmingly outline what is felt known, familiar, and quantifiable. This approach can leave us staggeringly vulnerable.

Becoming ‘resilient’ still requires a significant leap of faith. To do so, we must abandon our deep-rooted assumptions of predictive power, as these are fast becoming incompatible with the complexity of the modern world. Instead, organisations should turn their sights to interior dynamics – for instance, asking what is the internal culture of our workplace? How is innovation encouraged and rewarded? These considerations help organisations to be proactive rather than reactive; preventive without needing to be predictive.

Over the nine weeks, CSaP Policy Fellows and invited guests presented us with an extraordinarily diverse range of case studies of resilience in practice. One week, we heard from the Communities & Engagement Unit of the Home Office. Our speaker discussed the multiple layers of interventions which are required to safeguard vulnerable adolescents against entering organised crime. Resilience is implemented across scales: in school PSHE lessons, in far-reaching youth programmes, and by case workers in individuals’ lives. In another, we learnt about the collaborative initiative drawn up by once-competing UK Space organisations. By working cooperatively, they spearheaded a data-sharing program which helped streamline the notifications that forewarn them of satellite collisions, bypassing the inefficiencies of relying on slow and inaccurate US Government warnings.

Resilience is rarely high on organisational agendas as a trait to cultivate deliberately. Since this is likely to change after the pandemic, Policy Fellows mused on methods to increase resilience. Importantly, more adaptive capacity must be developed in public and private sector systems at all scales. ‘Bottom-line’ thinking and the logics of capitalist efficiency – which rely upon the removal of all that can feasibly be trimmed out of systems to maximise margins – has left UK industries exposed to the full force of the pandemic’s economic shocks.

For resilience, we must move beyond the external and probabilistic frameworks and look within – at our workplaces, our social and political cultures, and the makeup of our institutions. By prioritising long-term robustness rather than short-term gains, we will see ourselves in good stead to withstand the surprises of the future, when they inevitably come.

Alice Millington is a PhD Student, at the Department of Geography, and Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. She is currently a Policy Intern at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) at Cambridge. For her PhD, she is researching indigenous frameworks for understanding climate change in Tibet and the Himalayas, and plans to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in Nepal and India after her time at CSaP. One goal of this research is to better understand how local and/or indigenous climate knowledge should be utilised within regional and global climate policy.

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