Why future system resilience must be built into recovery plans

By Jon Ainger | 18 May 2020

Personal resilience has been in vogue for a while, and has been given an obvious boost by the pandemic. We are urged to learn techniques such as mindfulness, to get enough sleep, take exercise and eat healthily. Employers are encouraged to invest in their employees’ resilience, and managers to do the same for their teams. But is the value of investment in resilience for whole organisations equally well understood?

Every week, people around the country clap to show their appreciation for those on the frontline of public services at this time of crisis. But what has it cost the public services themselves to step up?  The truth is, we don’t know yet. The real test of their resilience is only just beginning.

Resilience is not about the ability to respond to a crisis – it is about capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. The next six months will show us which areas will demonstrate ‘bouncebackability’, and which lack resilience and may therefore have been broken by the pandemic.

The variation will partly be due to the differing impact of COVID-19 across the country, but will also be down to levels of underlying resilience. Differences in resilience will be particularly stark when we see neighbouring areas with similar COVID-19 profiles but profoundly different recovery paths.

During the research for our recent book, The EDGEWORK Manifesto, we looked at powerful insights drawn from a wide range of sectors demonstrating that whilst external shocks cannot be controlled, it is possible for leaders of frontline public services to identify, measure, invest in and deliberately build resilience beyond the boundaries of their organisation.

This means going beyond the traditional limits of resilience planning, which is usually focused at the operational level (ie testing the ability of core functions to persist in the face of disruption). It focuses on planning for known risks by building in specific protections, and investing in hard infrastructure – physical assets, technical assets and systems. These are vitally important foundations. But protecting these is not enough. We also have to think at a system level.

In addition to operational persistence, system resilience requires building in the ability to adapt tactically, and to transform strategically at pace. In addition to specific protections against known risks, it requires building a general resilience to unknown threats - for example prioritising adaptive technologies offering systems-level flexibility and connectivity, and building human agency, agility, and the ability to act independently.  Alongside investment in hard infrastructure, it requires investment in soft infrastructure – institutions, rules and regulations, staff, service users and community.

IMPOWER has developed a practical management tool for identifying and measuring the factors contributing to healthy system resilience, and tested it across a range of complex public service systems. There is a remarkable consistency in the core factors required; whilst the specific details vary, system resilience requires the same basic building blocks in health, housing, social care and street services.

In thinking forward to recovery, there is no better time than the present to learn from the experience of the pandemic and build future system resilience into recovery plans. Bad choices taken now could have long-lasting effects, but equally, well-informed investments made today have a greater chance of paying back in future – and protecting the organisation against future shocks.

This blogpost draws on ideas set out in ‘A framework for conceptualising and assessing the resilience of essential services produced by socio-technical systems’, by Susara E. van der Merwe, Reinetta Biggs and Rika Preiser (2018)

Jon Ainger is director of IMPOWER

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