Dealing with the growing threat of civil unrest

  • Public services can be particularly affected by social instability or prolonged industrial action
  • While disturbances and rioting are not new risks, it is a changing threat that must be evaluated individually by organisations because of specific vulnerabilities
  • Effective business continuity plans are essential in order for organisations to maintain services and functions

An Ebola outbreak, outcry over the outcome of the upcoming general election, or even protests stemming from austerity measures, could quite conceivably light the blue touch paper for civil unrest breaking out across the UK.

In its 2015 Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum cited social instability – caused by inequality and unemployment – as among the top societal risks facing the world today, and one we are least prepared for. The annual report highlights the most significant risks facing government, business and civil society and is drawn from the perspectives of experts and global decision makers.

Noted US economist Martin Armstrong has also warned that there is a new age of civil unrest brewing. “Turn the economy down and you get civil unrest,” he cautions.

Since the onset of the financial crisis, civil disruption in the UK has increased – notably the summer 2011 riots, protests over tuition fees and a series of public sector strikes. London, too, was recently voted one of Europe’s least ‘liveable’ cities, due to growing social unrest fears.

Planning ahead

Public sector organisations need to consider how they would deal with a range of these new civil unrest scenarios, as the scale, speed and, sometimes, lawlessness, of these incidents can often be unexpected – due in part to social media, which allows groups to mobilise with greater effect.

Prolonged industrial action is one potential scenario that the public sector should make provisions for, as it can cause widespread disruption – from bins piling up on streets, to the suspension of essential services for the elderly and disabled, school closures and transport chaos.

“Organisations need to look at their priorities: which services are fundamental and core to that organisation and the community, and which services could be stopped for a period, and have plans in place to deal with an ongoing situation,” says Andrew Jepp, Director of Public Services at Zurich Municipal.

“Even more importantly, we are starting to see the effects of interlinking events, where combinations of factors happen at the same time. What happens if there is strike action and a winter freeze? What happens if all the maintenance people are not available and there are hundreds of burst pipes to deal with? It’s about looking at how one risk could escalate into something serious.”

From emergency repairs to providing accommodation for displaced tenants, local authorities must be able to respond to any disaster. Housing associations, too, should plan for a number of business continuity scenarios in the event of civil unrest, such as evacuation plans in case of a fire or disturbance.

With charities and social organisations now playing a greater role in service delivery, especially of life-dependent services, the third sector must also have alternative plans in place should there be trouble in the community.

New wave of civil unrest

This new wave of civil unrest may be here for some time yet. Last year, the Metropolitan Police took delivery of three water cannons in anticipation of dispersing yet more unruly gatherings on London’s streets. Previously only used on the British mainland during the troubles in Northern Ireland, critics say this new deployment of water cannon is a move to a more military style of policing.

So, while civil disturbances and rioting are not new risks, it is a changing threat that must be evaluated specific to an organisation and its vulnerabilities.

Organisations need to look at their priorities: which services are fundamental and core to that organisation and the community, and which services could be stopped for a period

Andrew Jepp, Director of Public Services at Zurich Municipal

That is why Zurich Municipal is on hand to provide public sector customers with business continuity planning guidance – as well as to offer a detailed understanding of these new civil unrest threats, their expected proximity and types of organisation likely to become embroiled in an incident.

By prioritising, business continuity planning allows an organisation to continue to operate in times of crisis – ensuring business critical functions remain operational at all times.

It is not just about having a plan; it is about making sure it works in practice, too. This may mean developing plans to prepare for anticipated disturbances – including shutting down or curtailing non-critical operations as necessary.

“Business continuity planning has become a ‘must do’, not a ‘nice to do’,” says David Forster, Head of Risk Proposition at Zurich Municipal.