We did not need the coronavirus pandemic to teach us that in the interconnected, technically complex modern world it is easy to make policy mistakes and hard to act on lessons from the past. Still, the current crisis makes it more pressing than ever to consider why it is so hard to learn and apply the policy lessons from past catastrophes and crises.

In crisis response, such as the current context in so many countries, decision-makers face a torrent of often-conflicting advice from different areas of expertise, not synthesised, and sometimes developed in readiness for a different kind of context. One of the elements making for policy responses that later seem clearly inadequate is the regulatory framework. This sits alongside other areas affecting decision-making such as the adequacy of advance planning, information flows, the institutional context and political considerations.

Regulations in technically challenging and safety-critical domains, such as construction, power generation or mining, have accumulated piecemeal over many years. This is often the result of policy reactions to specific events or perceived needs in complex environments. A common criticism is that this accumulation of regulation does not achieve its intended aims, while imposing a large regulatory burden, just as the proliferation of advice in a crisis imposes a large attention burden. This suggests more effective regulation with greater efficiency might be possible, but there are substantial barriers to change. These barriers are high enough, in fact, that there has been a failure on the part of policymakers and regulators to learn and implement the lessons from successive crises – such as fires in tower blocks of the kind that tragically consumed Grenfell Tower in west London in 2017.

This constant failure means there is an abiding need to think more systemically about regulating and managing complexity, and yet – despite major catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon explosion or the Grenfell Tower fire – this imperative is not being addressed. And research into policy and policy failures tends to focus on analysis rather than implementation and enforcement. The Bennett Institute was therefore pleased to host with Gill Kernick of JMJ Associates an ESRC-funded workshop bringing together people from different domains of safety practice and research backgrounds to discuss the challenge.

This report details those discussions.

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