I didn’t predict a riot

10 August 2011

On Monday night riots in London turned into a serious crisis. On what aspects will the Government be held to account, and how can they learn for the future? Dr Catherine Haddon reflects on crisis management lessons.

The riots that began in London, and have now spread to other cities, represent the first big domestic crisis that this Government has faced. When they get a chance, senior politicians will want to sit back and reflect on how their reactions held up.

In previous work on the lessons from past crises, we have identified a number of roles that ministers needed to focus on, including:

• reaction and awareness in an emerging crisis
• accountability and delegation
• communications and public expectations
• different behaviour

Reaction

One of the top lessons for ministers is ‘recognising that you are in a crisis’. This is tough. Having repeatedly resisted calls for their return, the Monday escalation of the riots eventually forced senior politicians to leave their holidays. There is now a danger of them looking like they are responding to the horse that has already bolted.

Few of us appreciated that the riots would escalate on the Monday night in the way they did – nor that they would spread to other cities. Ministers, including the Mayor and the Prime Minster, will have to reflect on how the official machine kept them in the loop, whether they should have responded differently, or sought other ways to respond. But the risk is then overreacting about spotting the signs of escalation in the future.

Accountability and delegation

In a crisis there is a danger in politicians trying to take too much control, instead of letting those with operational roles get on with their specific tasks. In this case the government attempted to delegate, underlining that they were letting the police do their job.

But the difficulty of judging the course of a crisis begs the questions of who should take charge of it and when? Was this a crisis requiring the Prime Minister? Or the Mayor? Both eventually returned. In order for different bodies to work together there has to be clarity on accountability. This crisis has left us less clear on the relationship between the Mayor and central government.

Communication

At the heart of the ‘who is in charge’ question is the need for good communication. There are two aspects to this – one is simple information giving. The fast-moving nature of crises is always one of the biggest challenges. The riots saw police and mainstream media, let alone government, struggle to keep apace. Government and the public authorities were effectively cut out as a means of communicating what was going on.

The second aspect is strategic communication. Politicians and police were both found wanting in terms of seeming in command of events. The sense on the Monday night of how far things could get out of control has affected people’s perception of the vulnerability of the State and the Government will have to rebuild domestic and international confidence before the Olympics. The announcement of COBR meeting on Tuesday morning, increased police deployment and the continuing message about the consequences for criminals were an attempt to regain control. But the recovery message came from another source – #riotcleanup

Behaviour

One of the most difficult things for ministers to be able to learn about crisis handling is the different behaviour that they involve. The pace, relationship with officials, amount of information for decision-making, and risks of decisions are all different. Ministers will need to consider whether they got the balance of speed over certainty right this time.

What now?

The truism at the heart of crises is that they always seem to reoccur with a new twist, or ‘in a different form in a different generation’. But politicians need to be wary of fighting the last war. There will be internal reflections on how well the official machine responded to this particular crisis, and external critiques of how individual politicians performed their roles. But if senior politicians want to take away the right lessons they should treat their own learning with the same seriousness as they would expect of their officials.

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One Response

  1. Alex Cruttwell on 11 August 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Catherine

    Crisis management is always about the balance – between the need to do something (and be seen and heard to do something) and the need to accept that (in the words of D Rumsfeld) “stuff happens”; between the need for “action this day” and deliberative, considered decision making.

    This is as important for a range of policy questions: from the use of force by the police (e.g. water cannons and plastic bullets) to police headcount numbers.

    Alex C

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