Central government authorities are avoiding using the "ResilienceDirect" emergency collaboration system designed by the Cabinet Office and should be forced to "fully explain" why they are not using it during a given crisis, according to a new report, as frustrated users hit out at an "insane" lack of consistency.
The ResilienceDirect system was built in 2014 as a "secure digital platform for emergency response agencies to exchange information and develop shared situational awareness” and is hosted by UKFast. It has been used by more 60,000 emergency services personnel to coordinate and manage more than 3,000 major incidents including the Manchester bombing, the London Bridge attack and natural disasters across the UK.
But a new report by Loughborough University -- which makes 10 recommendations for future use -- based on a series of interviews with users, found that despite being a Cabinet Office project, Whitehall is not keen on ResilienceDirect even though the platform is generally well-received by its users.
What is ResilienceDirect?
Launched in 2014 to replace the National Resilience Extranet, ResilienceDirect is accredited as “Official Sensitive” by NCSC, meaning it can be used to transmit information which requires special handling.
But as Loughborough University found in interview, central government use is highly limited.
“We do not use ResilienceDirect as a means to communicate ... because we have got multiple tiers of secure systems for doing that already.... Across government it is used with some misgivings about ease of use by some across government communities for official sensitive material,” said one HMG manager.
An emergency officer at another central government agency said: “There’s no corporate direction of how we should use ResilienceDirect .... [We] don’t use it for response at all. They’re not using it during Covid-19 at all.
"All of our stuff is either coming out via emails or going on to SharePoint sites.”
Among the report’s 10 recommendations around ResilienceDirect, two related to improving its functionality and interface, which the report suggested would reduce the need for training, and enhance the platform’s effectiveness. Another key suggestion was to make ResilienceDirect the government’s default information sharing platform.
Analysing how ResilienceDirect performed, and how users responded to it between August 2020 and September 2021, in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers found central government departments and agencies were reluctant to use the platform – which caused confusion and resentment among other users. They also found users were frustrated by the absence of features commonly seen on commercial collaboration platforms.
“ResilienceDirect should be the primary technology to share information during a response. When decisions are made within central government departments not to use ResilienceDirect these decisions should be fully explained to all users through the ResilienceDirect notification system.
“Consider whether different government information systems can be better integrated to reduce duplication of effort and facilitate information sharing (e.g. link to DELTA on ResilienceDirect dashboard). Local resilience bodies should encourage the use of ResilienceDirect to share information during a response, even if that duplicates other local arrangements,” said the report.
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The report noted Excel spreadsheets were used to share data in the early stages of the pandemic, but when the inadequacy of this system became apparent, the government switched not to ResilienceDirect, but to the DELTA reporting system. Unfortunately, this was not always well-received by ResilienceDirect users, with one saying the move “drives me insane” according to the researchers.
“We ended up going into the DELTA system for reporting, which is completely outside of ResilienceDirect. Why the hell are you doing that? There is seventy thousand of us on ResilienceDirect. And now quite a lot of us have got to learn this new system for reporting. Why have you not designed and put that in on ResilienceDirect?” said a manager at an English local resilience forum.
(Local resilience forums (LRFs) are bodies made up from emergency responders and other relevant organisations, including local authorities, the NHS and the Environment Agency. Each LRF corresponds to a police area. DELTA is a statistical reporting system operated by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, mostly used to collect and share local authority finance and housing data.)
One LRF manager summed up the main issue: “The problem is I guess from a PR perspective, both for the ResilienceDirect team and government as a whole: if it’s the government’s preferred solution for information sharing, why is the government not using it? And if the government response is: it doesn’t deliver what they need, then what is government doing to make sure it does deliver what they need in the future?”
The lack of features was the other main issue researchers found with ResilienceDirect. Some users said they didn’t use it when they were in “response mode”, and others said it “falls apart” in not being a collaboration space, in comparison with other platforms, and that the platform was “of its time”.
“As things are evolving you wonder whether it could be more live time? Meetings are now being held virtually, documents can be shared virtually and some of our cells are storing files in the cloud....I think the opportunities for more instant information sharing should be utilised as much as possible,” said a resilience officer at a LRF.
“We need live collaboration. Other systems are far more powerful than ResilienceDirect. It will get to the point of all of us using Office 365,” said a LRF manager.
Loughborough University researchers surveyed 494 users of the platform, and interviewed 66, for the report: “ResilienceDirect during Covid-19: understanding and enhancing digital collaboration”. The report was written and research conducted by Dr Daniel Sage, Dr Chris Zebrowski and Nina Jörden.
Update 15 August 2022, 17:25: In an emailed comment to The Stack, a government spokesperson said: "Ministers and officials work across government, together with our partners, the devolved administrations, as well as our dedicated emergency services, to make sure we continue to have the right contingencies and systems in place to respond to national emergencies.
"We regularly seek input from our local and national resilience community on Resilience Direct, ensuring that it remains fit for purpose to meet future challenges."
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