Top down or bottom up resilience? Don’t ask Nick Clegg

Earlier today I went along to the launch of Demos’s new report, National Security for the 21st Century, by Charlie Edwards.  It’s an excellent pamphlet and anyone interested in how governments co-ordinate themselves to deal with complex risks should read it.  Anyway, at the event, Liberal Democrat leadership contender Nick Clegg made a strong call for an end to the “politics of fear” (duly picked up the media), arguing that the public “will come to resent parties and governments who beat the drum of fear most loudly”.  He said:

“In a climate of fear, decisions are taken as a short-term response rather than as part of long-term strategy.  As more and more of these decisions are made, the overall approach becomes less – rather than more – coherent.  And as government lurches from one decision to the next, it succeeds in neither protecting people nor empowering them”.

Well, amen to that.  Instead, Clegg went on, we need a national security strategy “based in part on public engagement, involvement and action … putting power and confidence into people’s hands so they are equipped to tackle danger”.  So, he said,

“If Britain is to be prepared for emergencies of all kinds, I believe we need to re-establish some form of Civil Defence organisation.  And it must be community-based, community-led, and engage people. I want to explore how we can get people to learn skills to serve their community, and share the skills they have, so when emergencies happen – from flooding to a terrorist attack – it isn’t just a small, professional elite who step up, it’s everyone, with their own particular skills.  I will set up a working group to look at how best to structure this sort of Community Resilience Force. And I want to use the principles of openness, engagement and individual action across the board, not just in terms of national security.”

Now, admittedly Clegg’s Community Resilience Force is thin on the detail.  Well, fair enough; he’s in the closing straight of a leadership contest.  But what’s appealing here is the idea of resilience as a bottom-up undertaking.  Clegg seemed tacitly to admit that faced with a really serious system shock – a ‘Black Swan’ event – top-down co-ordination will quickly become overwhelmed: even a competent FEMA would have struggled to cope with Katrina, in other words.  In such circumstances, a resilient citizenry will be the difference between breakdown-and-recovery versus outright collapse (c.f. The Upside of Down). 

Or so I thought.  But then came the questions.  Having spent the weekend reading John Robb’s must-read book Brave New War, I stuck my hand up.  Quoting Robb, I observed that insurgents in countries as disparate as Iraq and Nigeria were proving increasingly adept at identifying ‘systempunkt’ nodes: the critical hubs which, if attacked successfully, risk taking down the entire system through a cascading failure.  There are plenty such points in our power, water, gas, food and financial systems – just look at today’s FT for a snapshot of how much trade into Britain relies on a couple of over-congested ports, Felixstowe and Southampton. 

What would Clegg’s vision of participatory resilience look like in the context of that kind of shock, I wondered? Hmm, said Clegg.  Well, community empowerment wouldn’t really be the point in that kind of context.  That sort of context is more a matter for the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.  Right, I nodded, ignorant of the content of said Act but resolved to look it up at the earliest opportunity.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered this afternoon that not only does the CCA 2004 not appear to be based on participatory resilience, it is in fact the epitome, the quintessence, the very archetype of a top-down approach. 

Once you’re past the (sensible) parts on emergency planning, you find that the part Clegg was referring to is about overhauling Emergency Powers in UK law.  What it says, in essence, is that that in an “emergency” (that’s any event, not necessarily in Britain, which “threatens serious damage” to human welfare or the environment, or “war or terrorism that threatens serious damage to the security of the UK”), then the relevant Secretary of State – that’s any Cabinet member, not just the PM-  can do anything

Oh, you think I exaggerate?  Here’s section 22 (1):

Emergency regulations may make any provision which the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate for the purpose of preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency in respect of which the regulations are made.

Now, I may not be a politician, but I must admit that I’m struggling slightly to see any particular correlation between (a) this interesting approach to governance and (b) community-based resilience or decentralised, participatory citizenship. If I understand Nick Clegg’s position correctly, then, the executive summary goes something like this:

“Centralised bureaucracies perform badly in conditions of stress, while decentralised citizen-led systems are more robust – except if the conditions of stress are sufficiently stressful, in which case the exact opposite applies.”

Um… glad we got that straight.