From Brenda in Hove: When the going gets tough, the tough gets going: a matter of resilience

21 October

The Economist tells us this week that resilience has become “the buzzword for governments in the face of the pandemic (and) covers not only supply chains but also the ability to forge a political consensus around a strategy.” (October 17th) How fortunate that one of our bloggers (Louis van der Merwe) is just about ready to publish a book on that very subject: Gauging the Resilience of City and Town Government: A Manual for Strategists. 

The book addresses the issue of resilience in organisations – and especially resilience in those organisations that go to make up the government of a country, its towns and cities and other units employed in managing an increasingly complex world. It not only gives practical guidance on how to gauge the levels of resilience, but also ways of developing strategies to improve resilience.

The manual does indeed come at a fortuitous time. We would have done well to pay more attention to organisational resilience before the advent of the Covid19 pandemic. Emerging economies as well as developed economies are all experiencing serious economic decline as they struggle to adjust to the realities of life in a pandemic. Their lack of readiness to withstand the challenges posed are being exposed in most areas of public life: health, transport, supply chains, education, human capacity management, and governance systems, to name but some. It is almost like the sticking plaster that was keeping things together has been ripped off and the wounds below are exposed – fault lines if you like. Some would argue that this pandemic and how we steer our way through it is just a “dress rehearsal” for the much larger disrupter that lies ahead: climate change. However one frames the issues, there can be no doubt that making sure we have resilient towns and cities is a significant way to rebuild economies and organizations and prepare ourselves for a future that is significantly different to the past. We will be surely tested to the limits. Louis’ work and the research that went into the book (with a doctorate collected along the way) will be useful.    

Resilience is of course not just a matter for organisations but also for individuals. A couple of years ago, The World Health Organization described stress as the “global health epidemic of the 21st century” and building resilience (physical and mental strength) has been on the agenda of healthcare professionals for some time. It has also been on the curriculum for training in leadership for several years. And that was before COVID (and its attendant recession) and the prospect of climate change.

I have long been interested in resilience as a topic to address in mentoring and other activities. There are all sorts of ways to build individual resilience and most of us are familiar with the mantras of exercise, meditation and other good practices in our daily lives. What is less discussed are the casts of minds that help people through difficult times. One of these is optimism. Optimism is certainly helpful in maintaining resilience. I am a naturally optimistic person, but I must say I have to concentrate on staying that way, at the moment. In the UK we have a government which has not distinguished itself in handling the Covid crisis. We learn that the NHS did go through a disaster management exercise a few years ago – the kind of exercise designed precisely to gauge its resilience in the face of something like a pandemic, and simply shelved the result. No-one has been held accountable for this unpardonable failure of leadership. Books, manuals, strategies all rely on implementation – and on accountability.

The very heart of democracy seems to be under attack – even in those countries which we have come to believe are models of democracy. I point to the UK and the US as just two. Both have leaders that seem to defy the very fundamental underpinning of democracy in action – and get away with it. I long for the American people to call out these things as they go to the polls and I hope they restore our faith. I am holding my breath.

In the meantime, I cling to the motto of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, a motto he described as having “the pessimism of the intellect while at the same time having the optimism of the will”. That is, our intellect tells us that there is much to concern us, but we know that humans are good at solving problems. Exercising our will to be optimistic means we have hope that the difficulties we encounter can probably we resolved to a greater or lesser extent.   

Neither the adaptation to the covid virus nor the greater challenges that need to be wrought in the face of climate change will happen by wishful thinking. Helen Macdonald in her powerful new book (Vesper Flights) warns against the danger of “apocalyptic thinking being antagonistic to action.” There are all sorts of ways in which we can act, she says: “we can exert pressure, we can speak up, we can march and cry and mourn others, and hope and fight for the world, standing with others, even if we don’t believe it. Even if change seems an impossibility. For even if we don’t believe in miracles, they are there, and they are waiting for us to find them.”   

Congratulations to Louis for playing his part.   

From David Maughan Brown in York: Risk Management

August 21st

Throughout my time in University management in England I managed to avoid line management responsibility for staff whose lives were dedicated to Health and Safety and Risk Management.  Very important areas of activity, but ones that never exactly stirred my blood.  I was well and truly inducted into the arcane mysteries of the sect when I was required to attend a Health and Safety Committee meeting as part of my induction to my new university role in York.  It was soon enough after my arrival for me still to be driving my car around York with windows and doors firmly locked to avoid being hi-jacked, and still making a point of backing into parking bays to the same end, both being legacies of having lived in South Africa for the previous 30 years.   There were two substantive items on the agenda:  a four-page paper titled “The Safe use of Ornamental and Christmas Tree Lights” (it was November after all); and a six-page paper titled “The Dangers of Working Alone”.   Enough said.

But the management of Risk Management has now caught up with me in retirement, and is taking its revenge.   When I accepted nomination as Chair of the U3A in York, the crystal ball a colleague gave me as a parting present when I left the University of Natal for a primarily ‘Strategy and Corporate Planning’ role at York St John failed rather dismally in its responsibility to alert me to the impending onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.   U3A is gradually easing itself out of lockdown, and every tentative step has to be risk assessed.  We are acutely aware of the extent to which the vast majority of our members are, by definition, in the ‘vulnerable’ category, and very conscious of our responsibility to try to make sure that, in resuming their U3A activities, they will be as safe as we can possibly make them.   

In some instances, particularly with outdoor activities, that is relatively easy.  So, for example, we just have to review the risk management measures advised by the Croquet Association, and make sure the members of our croquet group are aware of them and happy to abide by them.  But even with outdoor activities there can be complications.  We have a number of walking groups of various sizes.  The Ramblers Association allows parties of up to 30, but we have group insurance through the Third Age Trust and their advice is still that only six people from different households should meet outdoors, as our cycling group is doing.  So is it OK for our large walking groups to divide into groups of six, each with a sub-leader who has reconnoitred the route with the Group Leader, with a view to many more than a total of six going out on the same walk, but at five minute intervals?

The restarting of group meetings indoors makes the complications of outdoor activities pale into insignificance.   We have an excellent relationship with the Friends Meeting House in York where our office is situated and where we rent meeting rooms for a significant portion of the well over 100 groups who meet indoors.   The Friends will take responsibility for the regular cleaning of the meeting rooms, but what about the ‘touch-points’ between sessions: door handles, light-switches, window-catches etc.?  And what about our office, storeroom, and equipment? Assorted Group Leaders, some probably about as absent-minded as I am, will be accessing the office at different times, taking PCs, projectors, cables etc. from the storeroom, and returning them at assorted times.   Is it reasonable to expect them all to remember to clean all touch-points as they go in and out? And what about cleaning the equipment?  None of this is insuperable, and we are expecting a very gradual return to indoor meetings from our understandably cautious membership, but it is taking a great deal of time – particularly for our Groups Coordinator.

A kindly neurosurgeon came to my aid on Wednesday.  He didn’t offer to help with the solution to the problems of cleaning the touch-points in our office, but he did put the occupational hazards of being Chair of a U3A branch with ultimate responsibility for risk management in a time of Covid into perspective.  His aim was clearly to make 100% certain that, in signing a consent form for a fusion operation on my spine, I was graphically aware of the risks involved.  ‘See that thin line there,’ he says, pointing to a very thin line on the MRI scan up on the screen in front of us, ‘if I nick that, you die on the operating table.  It has never happened to me – yet, touch wood, but it has happened to most of my colleagues, but only once.’   I was inclined to think that ‘happened to’ might, perhaps, be more appropriately applied to the patient rather than the surgeon. ‘You obviously have to be lying on your stomach, probably for around two and a half hours, so if we don’t have your head positioned correctly, there is a risk that you could be blind when you wake up,’ he continued, adding as an afterthought, ‘and if we don’t have your arms positioned right you could end up with permanent nerve damage.’  Those were by no means the only risks he enumerated, and he is not a man to pull his punches, but, oddly, he managed to be quite reassuring at the same time.  Reassuring enough, at least, for me to try to fit my signature into the appropriate box on the consent form for an operation which, he hopes, will be in time to ensure I am not one of the 10 million people predicted to be on NHS waiting lists by Christmas.   I just have to hope that there is plenty of coronavirus-free wood around for him to touch from time to time as he goes about his business.