Policy Lessons from Catastrophic Events, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge

Ben Beaumont and Matthew Finn of FICA recently were involved in the working group looking at Policy Lessons from Catastrophic Events by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge. The workshop report has now been published and can be accessed from the following link.


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. And, as Bennett Institute research affiliate and former Ofcom board member Steve Unger has written for us, it is hard to sustain attention on such issues in government, once an immediate crisis has passed. A combination of optimism bias and the limitations of attention for complicated issues militate against sustained policy focus on them.

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. Could an interdisciplinary group with different kinds of experience start to identify the barriers and even generate some ideas for shifting them? The challenges the group discussed have only become more urgent in subsequent weeks.

One starting point is accountability. Persistent failure to learn appropriate lessons from all sorts of previous tragedies seems to have been a problem for several decades. For instance the Institute for Government’s 2017 report on public inquiries found that of the 68 public inquiries that had taken place since 1990, only six had been fully followed-up by select committees to see what government did as a result. Checking whether inquiry recommendations have been implemented seems an obvious starting point.

Our day of discussion led to several areas of consensus, concerning both the failure to learn and ideas for ways forward. For example, organisational cultures may focus on satisfying regulations rather than delivering outcomes. In some policy environments there is a ‘blame game’ for political or legal reasons. Experts and decision-makers lack cognitive diversity, tending to come from similar social and professional backgrounds. Rule by rule decision making is unsuited to increasingly complex social and technical environments.

The participants’ views about potential ways forward, including building in following up on recommendations, are also summarised in the overview. Some of those who took part in the workshop have contributed more detailed perspectives, with suggestions for how we might learn lessons from the past. This is a debate we intend to sustain and take forward in the post-pandemic environment, building on the workshop; and we hope to hear from others who would like to contribute.


FICA Attends Working Group II Session and Co-hosts Events in Vienna

Representatives of FICA attended the 70th session of UNCITRAL Working Group II in Vienna from 23-27 September 2019.  Constantin Eschlböck, Timothy Lemay, Herman Verbist, and Vincent Reynaud participated as FICA’s delegates during the session.

FICA’s representatives at UNCITRAL Working Group II (left to right): Tim Lemay, Constantin Eschlböck, Vincent Reynaud, and Herman Verbist.

In addition, on 25 September, FICA and the Vienna-based law firm, SMS – Schima Mayer Starlinger, co-hosted a well-attended event entitled, “Expedited Arbitration — The UNCITRAL Rules”.  The event was held in the SMS – Schima Mayer Starlinger offices.

Presenters and speakers at the event were Dr Veit Öhlberger; Judy Freedberg, with the Miami International Arbitration Society; Lisa Bingham, with the International Council for Commercial Arbitration; Tim Lemay, Constantin Eschlböck and Dr Herman Verbist, all with FICA.

Judy Freedberg and the other presenters at the event co-hosted by FICA and SMS – Schima Mayer Starlinger during Working Group II in Vienna.
Tim Lemay speaking at the event co-hosted by FICA and SMS – Schima Mayer Starlinger on 25 September 2019 in Vienna.
Some of the attendees at the event on UNCITRAL’s Expedited Arbitration Rules during the 70th Session of UNCITRAL Working Group II in Vienna.

FICA Task Force Issues Report on Expedited Arbitration Rules

The FICA Task Force has issued its Report on Issues Related to Expedited Arbitration.  This Report addresses various issues being considered in UNCITRAL Working Group II in connection with proposed amendments to the UNCITRAL Model Rules on Arbitration.  

The Report comments on issues discussed in UNCITRAL Working Group II at its 69th session in February 2019 on the basis of the Note prepared by the Secretariat (A/CN.9/WG.II/WP.207) as well as the updated Note by the Secretariat (A/CN.9/WG.II/WP.209) dated 25 July 2019.  These Notes, and this Report, will be the basis for further discussions at the session of Working Group II in Vienna, from 23-27 September 2019.

The FICA Task Force Report may be downloaded here.

The members of the FICA Task Force were Ben Beaumont (chair), Alan Anderson, Tim Lemay, Herman Verbist, and Rumiana Yotova.

Sir Michael Burton Appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire

Sir Michael Burton, QC, the President of the Forum for International Conciliation and Arbitration (FICA), has been appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen in her 2019 Birthday Honours lists recently announced. Sir Michael received the distinction for ‘services to the Rule of Law’.

In making the announcement of his appointment, the Prime Minister’s Office stated that Sir Michael

is the figurehead of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal since its inception in 2000 and has played a pivotal role in the UK’s world leading oversight of its security and intelligence agencies. He is an experienced QC and latterly a judge of the High Court. He has ruled on landmark cases that have had considerable impact on the landscape of investigatory powers. He has adapted the Tribunal to deal with new, wide-ranging counter terrorism powers. As a result of his work, there have been tangible improvements in how authorities operate to ensure that they are working within the law. He founded the Corinne Burton Memorial Trust in 1992 in memory of his late wife and for the past 26 years the Trust has funded art therapy for cancer patients as well as providing support for students wanting to pursue this field. Most notably, he has set up a scholarship fund at Goldsmith’s College, London University which is awarded every year to a student who wishes to study art psychotherapy with a focus on cancer care. As Chair of the Trust, he maintains an active role in its funding projects, outreach activities and strategic direction.

FICA congratulates Sir Michael on his well-earned and well-deserved appointment to the Order, which is a great reflection upon his life and career in the law. FICA is fortunate to count Sir Michael as its president and appreciates his association with the organization.

United Nations and UNCITRAL Approve New Convention and Amended Model Law to Facilitate Mediation to Resolve International Disputes

On December 20, 2018, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the new “United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation” that was the culmination of over three years of effort by UNCITRAL’s Working Group II.  In addition, at its sessions in June and July 2018, the full UNCITRAL Commission adopted amendments to the 2002 Model Law on Conciliation, which henceforth will be known as the “UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Mediation and International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation, 2018”.

The Convention, which will be known as the “Singapore Convention on Mediation,” will be open for signature by all States in Singapore on 7 August 2019, and thereafter at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

FICA actively participated in all the sessions of Working Group II on this project, from its beginning in February 2015 until its conclusion at the 68th Session of Working Group II in February 2018. 


Previous posts regarding Working Group II’s efforts on this project, as well as FICA’s involvement, are available on the “News” page.