Submission to Liaison Committee, 11 Nov 23 from

Professor Sir David Omand GCB, War Studies Department, King’s College London


The value of strategic thinking in crisis survival


This submission is in response to the call for written evidence from the Liaison Committee dated 22 Jun 2023. It is prompted by the public evidence given to the Covid-19 inquiry in the last few weeks that bear upon the Committee’s terms of reference. It draws on the lessons identified my recent book, How to Survive a Crisis, to emphasise the importance of strategic thinking in crisis survival.[1]


The nature of crisis

It is worth distinguishing between emergencies, crises and disasters. Emergencies happen all the time, to government, to communities and to business. There are emergency services on hand and wise executives have rehearsed contingency plans for business continuity and have professional advisers that can swing into action. But being in crisis is different. Crisis is when events pile on with an intensity and speed faster than our responses can cope with, often the result of some external catastrophe such as the Covid-19 pandemic that for a while turns the world upside down. The situation threatens to spiral out of control. And the feeling of not being in control can be deeply unsettling, and lead to odd behaviours.

Think of a crisis being poised between an emergency and disaster. If we have anticipated the potential for future trouble and invested strategically upstream in sensible preparations, then after a short period we can turn the crisis into emergency situations for which, with improvisation and flexibility, we can bring plans and capability to bear. It will still be tough. But we will have reasserted control. But if we have not anticipated the possibility (or, as happens, we have ignored the warning signs for too long – looking but not seeing the looming problem) – then when crisis does break it can be beyond us. The situation will worsen and tip towards disaster.

Using strategy to anchor decisions

In my time as a Permanent Secretary (of GCHQ, Home Office and Cabinet Office) I always enjoyed participating in some of the gossip that takes place as Ministers and senior officials gather for Cabinet and its Committees and meetings in No.10. Such informal exchanges have obvious value preparing the way for the passage of formal business, in reinforcing relationships and at times of letting off a head of steam when pressure has built up. It is understandable that WhatsApp messages might fulfil a comparable function during lockdowns that limited much face-to-face contact. But to judge by the evidence now made public by the Covid-19 inquiry such exchanges (leaving aside the vile misogyny) had become the foreground means of forcing outcomes not just sharing background mood music. That Covid rationale no longer applies, if it ever did. It is essential to have a proper decision-making process if we are to survive a crisis in good order. There is little point in devoting effort to identifying strategic opportunities and strategic threats and risks if when the time for action comes there is no proper process for weighing decisions against strategic goals and adjusting course accordingly. The complexities and important nuances of any decent strategic analysis (of the quality I am sure the Liaison Committee will recommend) cannot be conveyed in a WhatsApp exchange.


As I analyse in my book, during a time of serious crisis events are not fully under control. That is the definition of a crisis. Especially for those used to being able to dictate the pace of their day and to being in charge crisis can be deeply scary. Under stress, well documented behaviours often show themselves, such as states of denial and a refusal to accept bad news (and to denigrate the bringer of it) together with displacement activity. Inter-personal tensions are exacerbated and tempers fray. All that is to be expected. All the more important therefore that there is an understood, well-supported decision-making process that goes on regardless for the proper conduct of urgent business, especially ensuring there is the strategic thinking needed if the crisis response is not to become a series of knee-jerk responses. Such process helps provide a containing environment for the heightened emotions that stress will always bring, and minimises the risk of erratic judgements driven by personality clashes or personal ambitions. Surviving crisis is a team sport.

The UK has over many years, facing down terrorist threats and civil contingencies, evolved such process along with the codified behaviours that will optimise sound decision-taking. In my book I have described how this interdepartmental COBR system, based in the Cabinet Office, came into being as a result of having to respond to terrorist incidents and later to civil contingencies including the 2000 Fuel dispute, the Foot and Mouth outbreak, Fire Service disputes and severe flooding and the potential dangers of SARS and MERS. As lessons were learned, we established and got agreed crisis doctrine across the thousands of organisations potentially involved, built emergency capabilities and plans, and tried to get everyone trained and exercised in how they could adapt them dynamically in the light of circumstances. When mobilised, the COBR-based process can operate 24/7 (including weekends). Despite the cutbacks due to the years of austerity, and the major diversion of planning effort onto the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, enough was in place at the start of 2020 to have been rapidly reconstituted, reinforced and scaled up to meet the circumstances of crisis if that had been ordered.

Good practice includes regular ‘peacetime’ exercising of Ministers and senior officials on difficult scenarios so they understand the nature of decisions they may be called upon to take in major crisis, maintaining a single operational picture of what is going on (a capability now reinforced by the setting up of a National Situation Centre of data analysts in the Cabinet Office), operating to a ‘battle rhythm’ of Ministerial and official meetings to ensure advice can be properly prepared, harnessing scientific, statistical and other professional input, and having a dedicated strategic policy team looking ahead to what needs to be done to prepare for the post-crisis period.


Without prejudice to Lady Hallett’s future findings, I suggest that it was not sensible, whatever the frustrations, to scorn that system, well understood in Whitehall, local government and the devolved administrations, in place of ad hoc management of a major crisis from a few offices in No. 10. One of the advantages that seems to have been lost thereby is the disciplined process that would have introduced consistency, a measured challenge to conventional wisdom, and the commissioning of strategic thinking on the wider impact of measures being contemplated, including in the longer term after the crisis period had passed.


When a major crisis arrives the ‘peacetime’ level of effort will need to be rapidly enhanced in the centre of government and in the departments most affected (drafting in immediately the best qualified and most experienced senior staff from across the public sector).[2] I identify in my book the mobilisation of the best minds and managers as one of the first tasks of those in charge when crisis strikes (and from the private sector as was done for the Vaccines Task Force). That can only be done with an early and strong signal from the top of what the national priority is.


We must expect to have to face many serious crises in the decades to come. The Liaison Committee is identifying in their case studies[3] serious issues that could generate future crisis if not anticipated by sound strategic thinking. My submission is that the worst effects of crisis can be mitigated if – based on that sound strategic analysis we work upstream to build up resilience (at a personal, organisational and national level) so that when crisis comes we can absorb the shocks, learn the lessons and bounce back stronger. 



War Studies Department, King’s College London

11 November 2023



[1]  David Omand, How to Survive a Crisis: Lessons in Resilience and Avoiding Disaster (London: Penguin Viking) June 2023

[2] When the Falklands were invaded in 1982 the MOD quickly mobilised with extra staff including alternate Directors appointed to Service Staff and civilian Secretariat Divisions so that they could operate in shifts 24/7. It was made clear at the start, from the top, what the priority was.

[3] Liaison Committee, New Inquiry to explore select committee scrutiny of strategic thinking across government, H of C, 22 June 2023.