Decision making under uncertainty

FIRE’s Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks at how the wider public services can learn lessons from the approach to decision making taken by the military and how that can feed into FIRE’s Charter for Resilience

General Dwight D Eisenhower, the commander in charge of the D-Day invasion of occupied Western Europe, once opined that “in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. This remark brings out one of the ley maxims of warfare. A plan is only as good as when it breaks down during first contact with the enemy. When a plan is broken resilience is tested. The ability to survive setbacks, create some form of order from what is often a chaotic and dynamically evolving situation, is where the military specialise. They debate it. Train for it. Inculcate it in their younger officers. Flexibility and adaptability are key, whilst holding one thing above all paramount: the mission. What they originally set out to do.

Military Model

Recent evidence emerging from the response to the Covid-19 virus has reminded us all of the utility of military forces in the time of a national – non-wartime – situation. During the pandemic, the military has again shown its versatility. Helicopters have lifted people from the Shetland and Orkney islands to hospitals on the mainland, British Army logisticians have rapidly helped build hospitals and sourced PPE and helped deliver them to locations where they are needed and played a role in delivering vital food supplies to vulnerable people.

Whilst the contributions of the many forms of key workers in the UK has rightly been praised, the work of the military often goes under the radar. Noted by political leaders from their platform in Downing Street but not fully appreciated by many in the public. For many in the military this is normal.

Aside from the work on Covid-19, the military has a track record of stepping into the breech when emergencies call. The fight to save the vital electricity sub-station in Gloucestershire from flooding in July 2007 is one example of many. This facility, located at Walham, served 500,000 homes in the county. Two hundred members of the Royal Navy were drafted in to help the work to shore up the defences to the sub-station. Fed by the Salvation Army, another often un-sung group in such situations, the naval personnel worked tirelessly and saved the facility as the waters threatened to breach its defences.

There are many notable other examples of occasions where the military have been able to step in and provide assistance. As far as Local Resilience Forums (LRF) are concerned the military advisors are embedded in the decision making that occurs for all major incidents to which they are required to mobilise resources to address.

In those forums the mantra of the military is simple: do not ask them for specific resources, tell them the effect that is desired. The military will then plan and decide what is the best way to achieve the desired outcome. This was seen over the last winter in Derbyshire. When the dam at the head of the Toddbrook Reservoir threatened to burst and flood the town of Whaley, the Royal Air Force deployed Chinook helicopters to shore up the dam. A crisis was averted by their timely response.

So, what is it about the military that makes them so useful when a crisis strikes? One answer is that they have to operate in situations where certainty is a rare commodity. Whereas many in the public sector dealing with day-to-day issues are guided by handrails (legislation) that is clearly defined and require a specific process to be followed, the military excel at moving off piste when decision making becomes urgent and the handrails disappear.

For those in the public service immersed in the issues of following trajectories that are pre-defined, such situations naturally feel uncomfortable, as is the disappearance of the handrails. Some people simply do not like working in situations where the constraints and safety of the handrails disappear.

“In developing our Charter for Resilience, we at FIRE have set out to look at what skills can be brought together from other parts of society to help fashion a new architecture for society”

Mission Command Ethos

At the core of the military thinking is a can-do approach. It is based on the idea of what is known as mission command. From the highest level of the military, seamlessly, to the lowest level, everyone buys into the mission. In the public sector there are times when that apparent clarity and direction from ministers is not bought into by those further down the chain of authority.

This is a subtly that members of the public simply do not appreciate. They believe that if ministers state something will happen, that it will occur. The weak press, unable to understand the complexities of the situation and driven by rumours and anecdotal examples of apparent failure on social media, then get focused on trying to embarrass political leaders. They go on to blame ministers when things they have said will happen do not occur. It is possible to marvel at the number of times political leaders ‘vow’ to get things done when in practice they have little to zero control over the outcome. It is surprising how easily ministers set traps for themselves in such situations.

Another key facet of the military response is need for speed of decision making. It is axiomatic in military circles that any delay costs lives. Any sign of command inertia and more people will die. The response of the emergency services in general to terrorist attacks is a specific example.

Whereas an armed police response unit will now go straight to the terrorists to neutralise them, as illustrated in the London Bridge incident where the three individuals were shot in eight minutes, the response from the Fire and Rescue Service and the Ambulance Service can often be hampered by a failure to gain a detailed assessment of the situation. Where prevarication exists, it is inevitable that people will die whose lives could have been saved with a more-timely response. In the 21st century, blaming communications problems is not a viable position. We simply have to do better.

Arguably, the most important thing the military bring to such situations is a focus on tempo. Speed of decision making is critical. Decision cycles (loops) must be processed quickly. That way, young military officers are told, they retain the advantage. They call the shots. An enemy starts to respond to them rather than the other way round.

Whilst a great deal of effort has been expended in the emergency services arena to roll out the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Protocols (JESIP), some fundamental points were missed. The first of these is that the cycles vary in tempo across different command layers. At the strategic level, the cycle can be slow and almost unchanging. At the operational and tactical levels, speed of thought and decision making is essential. Even taking initiatives before the strategic level group has been established.

Command Inertia Clause

The equivalent of the JESIP decision model in military circles is the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop. Simply put, you look at your enemy (observe), orient yourself to their actions (understand their aims and how they seek to achieve them), decide and then enact a suitable response. By doing this at speed the initiative is retained. Armed police units, with their greater freedoms to operate, have embraced this idea.

The difficulty with all decision making loops is that any pre-occupation with trying to develop certainty out of a highly chaotic situation is unlikely to bring success. Luck may play a role, but history shows that a decision is made, and the consequences of that decision mitigated if it goes wrong, the better the outcome.

One facet of JESIP training that was not delivered from the outset was the place in the decision-cycle where uncertainty will inevitably cause command inertia. As far as the military OODA loop is concerned, which is also relevant to the armed police response teams, it is in the orient phase of the cycle where you try and appreciate the actions and aims of the enemy. A similar point exists in the JESIP loop.

One of the key reasons why the military is often resilient at this point is that they conduct numerous, high intensity exercises that enable commanders to dress-rehearse such situations. By going through these exercises in detail and conducting what are known as After Actions Reviews – in detail where the basic premise is that everyone is entitled to an opinion and that collective learning only occurs when everyone contributes – the military build in innate resilience into their approach to decision making.

Another important aspect of decision making is the notion of dilemmas. For those in the public service, the point of handrails is designed to establish a situation where there are no dilemmas. For the military, the uncertainty of the enemy response creates potential dilemmas that must be faced and addressed. Making decisions when dilemmas present themselves is the sine qua non of their approach to resilience.

A New Architecture for Society

In developing our Charter for Resilience, we at FIRE have set out to look at what skills can be brought together from other parts of society to help fashion a new architecture for society that is inherently more able to cope with unexpected situations. In doing this work we acknowledge the large number of times that our military forces have helped our society be resilient.

In this part of that analysis we have sought to bring out the nature of decision making in the military and how that compares to those that operate in the public sector. The analysis shows that there are differences that once identified may help develop more nuanced approaches to managing crisis situations in the public sector. Through such an approach the mantra of the Covid-19 situation of saving lives can become further embedded into the day-to-day lives of decision makers in the wider public services and assist in creating the new architecture for society.

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