Conflict Crisis Management Resilience Resilience & Society Security & Defense
New Atlanticist July 21, 2023

Prepare for the worst: Five steps for leaders in an age of crises

By Elizabeth Sizeland and Veera Parko

Crises are guaranteed: war and pandemics, infrastructure failures and terror threats, extreme weather and climate disasters. In a world in which extreme events seem to be increasing in frequency and severity, policymakers and government officials need to do more to prepare for them.

That means gleaning emerging lessons on preparedness from crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they take years to fully understand, while also preparing for worst-case scenarios in other areas. Doing so is time-consuming and expensive, but ultimately sensible and proportionate. Ukraine, for instance, withstood Russia’s cyber aggression in the early part of Moscow’s 2022 military campaign by drawing on lessons learned from prior threats, investing in cybersecurity, and building effective international partnerships. 

Why does proactive leadership matter in a time of crisis? Preparedness and resilience—including a genuine commitment and actual follow-through—are the cornerstones of a government’s ability to address the emerging impacts of a crisis effectively while simultaneously accomplishing broader goals. Areas of crisis work such as mass fatalities management, mass evacuation and shelter, and continuity of government can feel almost fanciful or alarmist for officials who are not in the day-to-day business of understanding relative risk. And this kind of work competes for resources with more politically attractive and immediate needs. Yet, to protect societies in a manner proportionate to the risks they face, it is essential that politicians across the political spectrum, together with senior officials, consistently champion the resourcing needs of national preparedness and shepherd them through often reluctant governmental systems. Insufficient preparation and a lack of up-front investment will have severe consequences, both economically and in terms of human welfare.

No government will say it doesn’t care about these issues, but the practical steps and leadership focus on long-term improvement and innovation are often lacking. Yes, it can be a daunting task for any government. But the last few years have shown that addressing some of the fundamentals will never be a bad investment. With that in mind, here are five steps policymakers should take to build resilience for the next crisis.

1. Shore up the foundations

Now is the time to focus on the undervalued but important work of organizing systems for success. A government’s ability to assess and, crucially, to communicate relative risk lies at the heart of this. Governments with a clear national strategy that sets out priority activities for the whole of society will give themselves a solid foundation: Finland’s comprehensive security model is a good example of this, and the United Kingdom recently published its own resilience framework. The basics of governance and resourcing are especially important to ensure that key institutions locally and nationally are engaged and have the leadership, skills, resources, and facilities needed to plan for and respond to crises. 

Evidence shows that it’s a false economy not to invest in crisis preparation and resilience. Munich Re, a multinational insurer based in Germany, estimates that natural disasters in 2021 cost $280 billion globally—of which only $120 billion was insured. And that doesn’t include the unquantifiable individual and societal impacts of such events. Crisis preparation needs to be protected even when new priorities appear because stripping resources from preparedness functions inevitably results in critical gaps when future crises hit. 

In addition, governments need to place a high value on the deeply unglamorous work of putting in place structures and governance to ensure momentum and oversight to deliver a clear plan of work—the absence of which will quickly become a critical weakness. Consistent and energetic leadership together with clear accountability on resilience really matters.

2. Exploit technology wisely

Many governments have vastly underestimated and underimagined the utility of science and technology in risk management. Governments need more curiosity among leadership teams about how technology can be harnessed to assess risk and support decision makers. Challenging the status quo to develop new capabilities that fuse the best of technical knowledge with traditional risk-management expertise offers some exciting potential. 

The United Kingdom’s new National Situation Centre is a vanguard example of how data science can help officials anticipate and navigate unfolding emergencies by bringing together public and government information to answer tough questions. Fusing all-source data in this way has already proved useful in managing risks around major national events, such as the 2021 Group of Seven (G7) summit, as well as anticipating risk during periods of extreme weather. Synthetic environments could also provide safe and low-cost ways of working through crises and decisions, using data and information to simulate a crisis scenario and testing different courses of action to see what the impacts might be. In addition, recent advances in artificial intelligence can help professionals by flagging risks to consider and manage before they become acute.

3. Understand supply chains

The interdependencies of supply chains are extremely complex, and the threat of disruption is now a regular occurrence. The impacts of supply chain disruptions on national security can be severe, even life-threatening. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a salutary lesson in how medical supply chains can unravel, leaving countries struggling for basic resources to manage the critical health of the population. And much of the world’s production of key technology components happens in areas with considerable risk of natural hazards or geopolitical conflict. 

Most worryingly, the West’s adversaries often have a better understanding of supply chain vulnerabilities than Western governments do. Investing in professional technical teams to collate and exploit data will help to anticipate risk and support both governments and the commercial sector to shore up vulnerabilities before they are exposed by events or deliberately exploited.

4. Invest in practical international partnerships

The cost of preparedness for high-impact but low-probability events is huge. Investing in outreach, understanding work in other countries, and finding like-minded international partners are smart options for governments. International cooperation can create extra capacity to respond to many kinds of events. 

Why do it alone if you can pool resources such as niche medical capacities or highly specialized chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) expertise? Many countries are already doing this: for example, the European Union is coordinating its civilian aid to Ukraine through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and building CBRN equipment stockpiles in different countries. Governments should continually benchmark each other’s best practices, bilaterally or through multilateral bodies—something NATO does well. Governments could make use of guidelines and objectives developed in international fora, such as NATO’s seven baseline requirements for national resilience. In a moment of crisis, close personal contacts between crisis management officials is extremely useful; key officials need time to develop these relationships before crises hit.

5. Adopt a whole-of-society approach

There are some things only a nation-state can do to prepare and respond to crises, but that is only one piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Local governments, individuals, academia, commercial entities, and charities all play an extremely important part in underpinning a country’s resilience: supporting this at a national level is vital. 

Governments need to engage across society to develop a “preparedness mindset” that inspires everyone to understand their role and take responsibility. This means sharing as much information as possible before and during crises to empower everyone in society to make sensible decisions. It also means engaging early with parts of industry to generate solutions, something that worked well during the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of developing new vaccines in record time with support from governments. Engagement in government-led risk scenario exercises and improvements to governments’ crisis communication also are key factors in broad societal resilience in the face of serious disasters. For example, both Sweden and Finland have invested in upskilling individuals and organizations so that they can understand risk and can act in their own best interest. This reduces the burden on government, leaving officials to manage only what governments alone can handle.

Heeding the wake-up call

The COVID-19 pandemic and the horrors of conventional warfare in Ukraine should have had a profound impact on how seriously governments take the work of resilience professionals, both nationally and locally. Yet, this area of national security is still underinvested in and rarely placed center stage. Chronic risks like climate change only reinforce the need to prepare and equip the whole of society to be more resilient. Western governments cannot afford to sleep through the wake-up call that recent emergencies have sounded. 

With so many live, high-pressure issues to manage, it is hard for any government to prioritize planning for future risk. But, when severe crises inevitably arise, governments rarely regret having invested time, resources, and consistent focus in this field. Now is the time for governments to learn from the past and place resilience and preparedness at the heart of their national security strategies.

Elizabeth Sizeland is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a former UK deputy national security adviser. 

Veera Parko is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Congress and the Presidency and director of international affairs at the Finnish Ministry of the Interior (currently on leave).

Further reading

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Image: "Danger to life! Enter strictly prohibited, ammunition contaminated area" is written on a sign, in the background smoke and flames rise from a forest area. Fires broke out on two former military training areas in southwestern Mecklenburg, near Lübtheen.