Future Leader Scheme: Module Three OR… When training courses give you lemons

Future Leader Scheme: Module Three OR… When training courses give you lemons

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

Earlier in the year I blogged about my experience and reflections at the first module of the Civil Service Future Leader Scheme. I made a commitment to share blogs after each module, and promptly failed to blog about module 2! Not a great start, but let me explain…

In June, Network Rail and 13 Train Operators took strike action. That caused difficulties to travel arrangements and the decision was taken to shift to virtual delivery. There was much opposition, given the additional benefits of meeting in person, but ultimately the decision had been made.

2 days of training from my dining room was about as far from stimulating and thought provoking as it’s possible to get. Frankly I just didn’t feel inspired to write about it.

The great news is that Module 3 was back to in person delivery in glorious York, and was enlightening (and a little provocative). As with the first module, I’m documenting my early reflections ( subject to the group agreement about confidentiality) after two days of examining and challenging concepts relating to partnership working.

In 1642 the Dean of St Pauls Cathedral, John Donne, gave a sermon and said

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; is a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

There’s some heavy irony given Brexit, but this really encapsulates my views about partnership working. Everything is a partnership, or a collection of partnerships, or a complex, interdependent system of partnerships. We champion qualities such as independence and self-reliance, but non of us can exist without others, nor would we want to. Partnerships are fundamental to how society functions.

Things that I learned:

Coaching

  • An early activity was to highlight a personal strength and match with somebody who’s strength was an area for your own development.
  • I’m good in a crisis (helpful, that!) and comfortable with ambiguity, shades of grey, messiness and shifting sands. I matched with somebody far more disciplined, boundaried and goal oriented to be my co-coach, providing feedback on our observations at the end of the course.
  • This built on the Module 1 advice that self reflection isn’t enough, it is helpful to hear feedback from people who are not like us.
  • This was incredibly powerful and I’m very grateful to my co-coach and it was fascinating what they observed about me within just a couple of days, it all rang true but was delivered in ways which would have taken me far longer if I was just navel gazing.

Partnerships

  • Picciotto’s definition that partnerships are “a means to an end – a collaborative relationship toward mutually agreed objectives, involving shared responsibility for outcomes, distinct accountabilities and reciprocal obligations” generated much debate, particularly about whether they are a means to an end, or could be an end in themselves.
  • We talked about whether partners were equal and how power relationships affect the relationship and ways of working.
  • Considering how we might improve on Picciotto’s definition we covered factors such as trust and transparency, but also recognised that there would be limits to that, and that different partnerships might need different things as a result of their context and personalities.
  • There were suggestions that the definition also needed to reference clarity, but I’m less sure about whether that is the goal, or if understanding would be more suitable – in some respects it’s easy to have clarity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people understand.

Rules

  • Various activities and scenarios were presented where we were invited to consider rules and assumptions.
  • The first activity related to an escape room challenge. I love an escape room however, this activity rubbed me up the wrong way because it seemed to suggest that rules don’t matter, which I feel opens the gate to anarchy. If the objective was to ask us to consider what assumptions we might be making, rather than suggesting if we don’t like the rules then change them then the exercise failed for me.
  • Other activities related to ‘trading’ and ‘making a case’, both of these were interesting explorations and it was interesting to get feedback from the trainers that our our cohort collectively took a different and more collegiate approach, especially to the first scenario.
  • The most useful learning for me came from approaching the same negotiation but from different mindsets (avoidance, accommodation, collaboration, compromise and competition), where both individual preferences.
  • We considered the role of the Civil Service and it’s relationship to Government, democracy and morality. One particular conundrum is whether it’s better to work on something you’re passionate about or if that can present challenges to objectivity. I also have an emerging question about the use of consultants and contractors and whether this client-supplier relationship also impacts on objectivity.

Negotiations and Conflict

  • Distributive vs Integrative negotiations – each have their advantages and uses, but also limitations. Need to consider in advance what might style might work best for a particular negotiation.
  • For me there was a lot to learn from the session on preparing in advance for a negotiation. I frequently witness people doing this but rarely seem to find time to do it myself. A useful structure provided to structure negotiations was Process/Behaviour/Substance. In my world things like the Joint Decision Model provide a helpful process, the developed plans or emergency responders represent the substance, but perhaps the bit that is missing relates to behaviours. A useful technique to develop further.
  • There was also a connection, for me, back to the ‘VoicePrint’ work of Module 1, where different negotiations can literally require a different tone of voice.

New Commitments: 

  • I want to take advantage of co-coaching – exploring options for that and to learn how to get better at giving and receiving feedback
  •  I will practice using other conflict approaches which I’m less comfortable with – I currently feel anxious about using these which is a negative feedback loop, so if I try using them more, maybe I’ll change how I feel also.
  • I’ll attempt to be a bit more vulnerable myself – this also doesn’t come naturally (and maybe should explore that further separately), but it seemed to be a useful negotiation technique to build rapport and empathy.

How am I getting on with my earlier FLS commitments? 

A quick stocktake on whether I’ve kept my promises to myself…I committed to:

  • Be more intentional about reflection. Update: 9/10! I have allocated a weekly half hour slot, late-ish on a Friday afternoon, to consolidate my thoughts, what has gone well, what could have happened differently, what I’ve learned and what’s stood out in the things I’ve read. I’m capturing these reflections and sharing with my team and have received feedback that it’s often the favourite email of the week – perhaps because I make extensive use of emoji’s. 🤷‍♂️
  • Ask my team and colleagues for more feedback on how I work. Update: 6/10. I have tried to do this, prompting my team in their quarterly development conversations to consider this and seeking their input on an essay relating to leadership but still find it a little awkward. On the advice of my coach, I also asked some friends how they see me, and whilst there were differences, there are some consistent themes in their observation of my behaviour.
  • Review my personal objectives to make them more values-based. Update: 2/10. I haven’t fully completed this yet, it’s harder than I thought to marry my personal values to some objectives and activities in the workplace.
  • Push myself to be more forthcoming at an earlier stage. Update: 6/10. To be honest this has been hit and miss. I volunteer to get involved and to lead pieces of work, I make my views known and try to bring balance to discussions. However, I recognise that my comfort zone is to listen before speaking. Lots of things you read encourage listening before speaking and when I hear ‘be more forthcoming’ I internalise that as ‘speaking without thinking’. That’s not helpful, but I think the feedback is actually about being a bit more transparent, and that’s something that requires more work.

The next module is in November, so come back then to check on my progress and latest musings!

Ramen Resolution: Ebisu

Ramen Resolution: Ebisu

Reading Time: 2 minutes

 

After a week long holiday in the south of France and extraordinary wedding of a close friend, what I needed was delicious noodles. Ebisu in Toulouse did not disappoint!

Orders are placed via a touchscreen unit in the entrance. This reminded me of one of the very first ramen experiences I had in Japan, so that was some nice nostalgia!

The restaurant is located near the very popular public square at Le Capitole and has options of indoor or al fresco dining. There were no tables available outside, but inside there was plenty of space.

The menu options are simple but range from ramen to yakisoba, and they also have a cold ramen offering.

It has been 35 degrees for most of the week and as appealing as a cold dish sounded, I had to try the classic Shoyu ramen, I added an extra egg because why not! I also ordered gyoza and a large sparkling water, because I was super dehydrated after walking 30,000 steps around Toulouse!

The food arrived quickly, and was everything that you could have wanted. No frills, no fuss, just excellent noodles.

I think the noodles were probably handmade, they had a rustic-ness to them, almost like very long spatzle! That meant that some bits were chewier than others, which was a fun quality. Toppings included spring onion (which could have been sliced more finely), bamboo shoots and a nori sheet. The nori sheet was thicker than the ones that I have typically found in London and elsewhere.

The gyoza were incredible, from the theatrics in the kitchen of the flaming pan to get them crispy, to the plump and tasty dumplings, I couldn’t fault them.

Would it have been interesting for there to have been a French twist – like, we’re in Toulouse, have a sausage version, or throw in some cassoulet beans? But, it was a very good bowl of noodles and would definitely return or recommend if you’re passing by and need a quick ramen fix!

Future Leader Scheme: Module One

Future Leader Scheme: Module One

Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

Last year I was encouraged by my manager* to apply for the Civil Service Future Leader Scheme. I applied without expectation, was invited to a selection interview and heard I’d been selected towards in the autumn. And then…nothing!

For months there was a confusing barrage of messages, emails, virtual meetings and online platform messages, but little-to-no directed learning activity.

In part delays have been due to the COVID pandemic, and I suspect that wrangling 400 students and multiple levels of technology competence is no mean feat. But the course didn’t give me good vibes.

However, I’m writing this post on the train back from Coventry and can honestly say that it was one of the most stimulating courses I’ve attended in some time and a privilege to spend time with an array of people with massively interesting positions and unique challenges.

There were two consistent themes in the discussion for me, one about reflection and one about accountability. Which is why I’m planning to blog about my experience of the scheme; to force myself to reflect on the learning activities, organise my thoughts and set intentions, openly, about putting learning into practice. I can then come back and review these to see whether I have followed through on my intentions, and I welcome that challenge externally too.

As a group we agreed some rules, one of which was about confidentiality. Definitely don’t read this series of blogs looking for the latest scoop! They’ll be high level reflections rather than my verbatim notes and I won’t quote anyone directly. Where possible I’ll try to credit any intellectual property, but it’s not always obvious what is/isn’t IP! If I’ve inadvertently reproduced something without attribution or permission then I’d be happy to edit or remove.

Objectives and Overview of the FLS Module 1 course:

  • Outline the structure of the programme and define a working agreement.
  • Define critical reflection and explore links to self-awareness and leadership.
  • Reflect on values, biases and assumptions which underpin leadership.
  • Consider the impact of a leader’s behaviour on others.
  • Form an Action Learning Set and practice the skills needed.
  • Reflect on aspirations and outline steps needed to achieve them.

We were also asked, as part of the course to ‘share an image of leadership’. There were some great contributions and rationale given, and I’ve made a note to look into the pack behaviour of wolves as a result!

The image that I chose was of the part-submerged US Airways flight 1549, which made an emergency landing on water in January 2009. The pilot of the plane, Chelsey Sullenberger, said in a later interview that “it was comforting to me to know that [the cabin crew] were on the same page, that we were all acting in concert” and about creating the conditions for other people to perform their role effectively.

a plane, US Airways flight 1549, shown half submerged in water following an amergency landing in January 2009 on the Hudson River, New York

Things that I learned (sorry this is a lot of bullet points):

Reflection

  • Holding up a mirror to ourselves isn’t enough – mirrors can be distorted and we might need some constructive, objective feedback
  • A working agreement is a charter between a group which sets out the norms for how the group intends to operate. It helps to create a safe, supportive space.
  • Try to recognise where your feelings are (and label them – ‘name the demon’) before responding.
  • Reflection is a helpful diagnostic tool and way of embedding learning. We all do it differently and what works for one won’t work for another. Think about getting a better balance between mandated reflection (formal development conversations) and situational or spontaneous reflection.

Relationships

  • Are our relationships with people different, is knowing people different, as a result of the pandemic? What does leadership look like in that context?
  • The Johari Window wasn’t new as a concept, but it was the first time that I’ve seen it in this way, with the focus being not just on understanding where different traits sit, but what actions we can take through self-disclosure, external feedback and shared exploration.
  • ‘Knowing’ is not just what people tell you or is documented. There are things we know which it is hard to define or articulate.
  • Find ways to seek more information using open questions and strategically deployed silence.
  • We each have values, but those values exist in a hierarchy. Can also consider ‘anti-values’.
  • Where do values come from in a secular society?
  • Emotional intelligence varies, be aware of, accommodate and support neurodivergence.
  • Can also use empathy to find common ground and positives. Where does somebody get their energy from? Doesn’t always have to be a negative emotion/situation that is being empathised with.

Values and objectives

  • What do you want, and what are you prepared to do for it?
  • As you get more senior more people are looking towards you. It’s lonely at the top and you can trust feedback less. Find a tribe who can give the honest feedback you need.
  • Make one change at a time so you can determine cause and effect.
  • There are leaders and there are influencers. If they’re not the same people, find and connect them.
  • Consider the influence of culture on how you present yourself and how other people interpret you.
  • When the rate of learning > rate of change = thriving conditions.

Things I’ll (try) to do differently as a result:

  • Be more intentional about reflection – allocate a half day each week
  • Ask my team and colleagues for more feedback on how I work – including perhaps asking them to draw a picture of my leadership!
  • Review my personal objectives to consider where I can make them more values-based, which feels more natural and comfortable to me than what I see as destination-based goals.
  • Push myself to be more forthcoming at an earlier stage.

An activity that I enjoyed was to draw ‘our vision of a leader in the 21st century’. My contribution is below, without interpretation because I’d be interested in how this is perceived! Drop me a tweet or leave a comment (not about my artistic prowess please)!

drawing of a figure with brain and heart identified and linked with a green arrow, a series of connected dots, some of which are obscured by a dark shape and some are illuminate by light

The next module of the course isn’t until the summer, but there are virtual events and sessions interspersed so I intend to cover those in much the same way.

 

* I have a slight philosophical issue with ‘manager’ which I’d like to explore more some other time. To me, the idea of ‘managing’ carries a connotation of coping, rather than excelling and improving. For that reason, I’m more drawn to leadership than management.

What Comes Next: Future Nostalgia

What Comes Next: Future Nostalgia

Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

As we move into late-stage-pandemic I’m reflecting again on what has been learnt (here are my previous musings), and what lies ahead.

Four days after the first set of lockdown rules were introduced in the UK in March 2020, British pop star Dua Lipa dropped her highly anticipated second album, Future Nostalgia.

Future Nostalgia Alternative Cover Art shows a black high heeled boot treading on a melted disco ball against a grey background

That album features extensively in the soundtrack to ‘my pandemic’ and now, coming up to two years on, listening to it has the effect of evoking some very strong memories. Explaining the title to NPR it was confirmed that ‘future nostalgia’ was meant to describe a future of infinite possibilities while tapping into the sound and mood of something older.

The next few years will see us re-examining and re-evaluating the COVID response to shape what comes next. In much the same way as this album, looking backwards serves as the basis for looking forwards and creating something new. In this blog, I’ve set out my observations and tried to put that in the context of future nostalgia and the possibilities that lie ahead.

I ate a lot of chickpeas. I see a future that involves less meat for me. That’s better for the environment as well as animal welfare. I need to diversify my recipes though! 

I indulged in way too much doom scrolling. I have become better at setting personal boundaries with social media. I’m not great at it yet, and the recent ‘wizard author’ controversy tipped me back over the edge for a moment into rage, but it’s a journey of progress! 

I really missed hugs. I’m going to hug more (consenting!) people more often.

The long tail of delayed and postponed events is something I hadn’t considered in my own planning. I’ve had concert tickets that have been postponed for nearly 2 years. Adjusting will continue to require flexibility, patience and acceptance. I have decided to just see that as part of the rich texture of recovery, which emergency managers know is far more complex than the response phase.

I found both enjoyment and assurance in the creativity of online events and lockdown birthday celebrations. They’re not the same as in-person events by any means, but the future should embrace the creativity that has been shown (L Devine’s URL tour where she live-streamed on a different streaming platform each week, Sophie Ellis Bextor’s Kitchen Discos on a Friday evening, Drag Queen Bingo on a Saturday, Kylie Minogues Infinite DISCO extravaganza, the pivoting to recipe boxes by local restaurants, online virtual museum tours or gin tastings) and look for these to sit alongside more traditional events in the longer term.

Emergency managers knew with fairly high accuracy and confidence, what would happen, yet were ignored. Other professions will feel that too. We need to build our profile both within and between our organisations but also directly with society so that it is harder to ignore us next time. This isn’t about having the answers; all responses will be difficult and complicated, but about using the expertise, experience and capacity available.

Eat out to help out. Hands. Face. Space. Stay alert. Flatten the curve. Support bubble. Rule of six. Shielding. Clap for Key Workers. Control the virus. Protect the NHS. Lockdown. Our messaging has been far too simplistic. A global pandemic is bloody complicated. The implications are going to vary across both space and time. It is impossible to distil messaging to a three-word slogan without losing meaning and nuance. Simple messages need to play a part in a much more in-depth communications strategy. Instead of the Government telling us the rules, more time should be spent on explaining the science to allow individually informed judgements. People should listen to experts. Experts need to listen to people too (some of the SPI-B work has been fascinating but could have played a large role). In my view, this would make rules easier to implement (and could boost compliance) but might also help avoid the conspiracy, politicisation and fetishisation of future response.

I’ve started to feel nostalgic for lockdown. The clear blue skies, peace, the weather (of summer 2020 at least), the slower pace. Aspects of the last two years have been awful, but I can choose to spend more time in nature (like when we were only allowed one government permitted walk per day). I can choose to spend more time checking in with friends and loved ones. The intensity of my own nostalgia is driven by the ‘get back to normal’ messaging. I don’t want to go back to a normal that depleted PPE stocks to a bare minimum. I don’t want to go back to a normal where existing health inequities mean you’re more likely to die if you’re from a particular community. I don’t want to go back to a normal where office presenteeism is the measure of effectiveness. If we go back to normal, everything we have all been through has not been learned. We have an opportunity to remember and learn from the silence, stillness and incredible loss.

 

I’ll leave the final words to Dua Lipa herself:

You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game.

FUTURE NOSTALGIA.

 

Ramen Resolution: Panton Yokocho

Ramen Resolution: Panton Yokocho

Reading Time: 4 minutes

My Ramen Resolution ( to eat more ramen and blog about them) began life in 2017. Four years later, here I am still finding new noodles to devour!

For our work Christmas social we went on a treasure hunt around London’s glittering West End, and along the way we passed this incredible kinetic sculpture. I knew I would have to come back and find out more about Panton Yokocho!

advertising stand with moving noodles in a bowl

The original branch is in Mayfair (ooh fancy!) and I haven’t made it there yet, but another branch on Panton Street opened recently above the Japan Centre, which is really the ideal location, especially when you’re off the the theatre just around the corner!

From the outside it looks a bit like you’re just walking in to a generic Zone 1 office building. The moving noodles from December had been taken inside, so there really wasn’t much to indicate we were in the right place. However, stepping inside was like being transported to the hustle and bustle of a the Tokyo back streets (note: ‘yokocho’ translates as alleyway).

Think neon lights, colourful lanterns, retro signage and a banging j-pop soundtrack. A little like this…

mtthwhgn seated under lanterns at Yokocho

The menu concept is highlights of ‘regional noodle cuisine’, allowing you to sample different styles from across Japan.

I’d booked a table, but that seemed to confuse the staff a little, so I think it’s safe to say that walk-in’s are pretty popular.

To drink, we ordered a Matcha Detox (left, £6), which doesn’t appear on the online menus, so might be a special; and a Cedroni (right, £9), which is a take on a negroni, but made with tarusake rather than gin. I suppose this is to give additional woodiness, but to be honest I just enjoyed it and didn’t think too much about it. I was interested to try the sake flight, which seemed good value (£9) and the Blue Hawaii Melon Cream Soda, but they will have to wait for another day.

cocktails at Yokocho

The food arrived all together, which I don’t hate, but it does mean eating things in a slightly funny order so that the noodles don’t continue softening, and can mean that the side dished get a bit cold. But remember that ramen is designed to be a quick meal.

ramen noodles and food at Yokocho

  • Yokocho Ramen (bottom, £13.90) – ironically, this originates in London, so doesn’t really play into the ‘regional noodles’ vibe, but it was great. You probably know by know that tonkotsu is my favourite for the lingering creamy coating it can leave on your mouth. This is a different, clearer and saltier style of broth, but it worked really well and the presence of a naruto fishcake was a bonus.
  • Kumamoto Tonkotsu Ramen (top, also £13.90) – Nick tried this and thought it was delicious and garlicky. Special mention was given to the nitamago egg bobbing gently in the broth.
  • Cheese Tsukuni Yakitori (£7.50) – these were a little like the meatballs that you get in Ikea covered with a grilled dairlylea cheese slice. It was tasty and the chicken was very moist, but on reflection I’d probably go for the fried chicken karrage next time.
  • Shio Kosho Wings – we had visited on ‘Wing Wednesday’ where a side of wings was £4.00 instead of the usual £6.50. The wings were very crispy but definitely needed the addition of some Shichimi powder for a bit of additional flavour.
  • Pumpkin Croquette Bun (£4.90) – I always really want to like a pumpkin bun, but in reality they can taste a bit like a veggie burger. The spicy mayonnaise was a hit!

I don’t usually review the toilets in the places I go, but on this occasion they get a special mention too for the (deliberately?) badly printed martial art movie wallpaper, which I adored.

cartoon face on retro wallpaper

Overall, Yokocho was a little on the expensive side compared to other ramen joints, but this is about as central as it’s possible to get so I think there’s probably a bit of an uplift because of that. However, both ramens and the side dishes were great and would definitely make a return visit if I was in the area because you can also pop into the Japan Centre and pick up some cool stuff there too.

Here’s to another year of noodley goodness!

Ramen Resolution – Mikawa Japan

Ramen Resolution – Mikawa Japan

Reading Time: 3 minutes

 

I have a long-standing theory that the best Japanese restaurants specialise in a particular dish. I would always recommend exclusive sushi places, dedicated ramen joints, or restaurants that only sell okonomiyaki.

However, that theory has been blown clean out the water with a trip to Mikawa Japan, which offers a range of sushi, sashimi and ramen.

My visit ahead of a gig at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire was a bit of a last minute decision (thanks in part to the Victoria Line doing everything in its power to mess up my journey). The original plan has been to go for ramen at Shoryu at Ichiba Japan Centre in Westfield, but I thought that might be cutting things too fine for the start of the concert.

So Google Maps suggested Mikawa instead. Initially I was sceptical – the website is pretty sketchy and it was tricky to find details of the menu other than some photos which looked like they’d been taken on a potato.

Mikawa is one of those traditional Japanese restaurants – think sumo wrestler wood cut illustrations on the walls and red lanterns. However, they brought a Western vibe (and a great pre gig warmup) with a 90’s pop playlist!

I visited with my sushi obsessed friend, so we picked the Mikawa Set (an 8 piece salmon sushi roll, 6 pieces of nigiri all of different types and 3 types of sashimi and then we both opted for the Tonkotsu ramen. You know you’re in for a good experience if there is chūhai (essentially it’s a Japnanese alcopop) on the menu too, we chose yuzu and white peach flavours.

The sushi/sashimi arrived first and was marvellous.

My personal highlight was the tuna sashimi was so fresh, slightly salty and almost meaty rather than fishy. Nick loved the salmon sashimi, which I agree was also really good. The other stand out item was the wasabi, which was less lurid green than you find in some places, and has a texture similar to crunchy peanut butter. The only downside was that I wanted more, but we also had a bowl of ramen to come.

The noodles arrived as a ‘main course’ which is better than some places that just bring it as and when. We both noted how nice the bowls were too.

The noodles themselves were overdone (in that they were soft when they first arrived and then they continue to soften as you eat too). Nick wasn’t sure about the addition of ‘spinach’ as a topping, but I have to disagree; I thought it added a different more earthy dimension. The broth was delicious. It could have been more unxious (spelling?) but it was smooth and rich with a subtle sweetness. Two half eggs were also slightly overdone, but had so much flavour. And the pork slices were beyond great!

I would go back to Mikawa in a heartbeat.

It’s great to find new places, especially in areas of town that I’m less familiar with, because it’s an incentive to return and do more exploring. I’d make sure I go hungry beforehand though, so I could get even more sushi!

Book Review: The Silence

Book Review: The Silence

Reading Time: 2 minutes

 

I’ve blogged before about the importance (and absence) of a true lessons learned processes in emergency management. The current system of debriefs and action plans is something. But it’s not everything that we need.

One of the most primitive ways that we share information, and pass on important lessons, is in the form of stories. Admittedly that’s far less measurable than some RAG-rated entries in a database. But potentially it’s powerful.

My latest project is to collate staff experiences of response to an incident, but through less traditional mediums, their own artistic interpretations of their memories and then to collate that into a zine. It’s a bit of an experiment to see if there are different ways to tell the story of a response, rather than limit that to the narrow confines of a debrief and it’s report.

With that in mind, I set out last weekend to go to London’s largest zine collection for a bit of inspiration.

Along the way I stopped in to a bookshop and one of the recommended reads was The Silence by Don DeLillo. A short novella rather than a mighty tome.

The blurb:

Superbowl Sunday, 2022. A couple wait in their Manhattan apartment for their final dinner guests to arrive. The game is about it start. The missing guests’ flight from Paris should have landed by now.

Suddenly, screens go blank. Phones are dead. Is this the end of civilization? All anybody can do is wait.

My interest was piqued.

However, I have some bad news. This was not an enjoyable read. Other than a few fleeting references to the situation (and it’s still unclear exactly what happened – cyber hacking? power loss? geomagnetic storm?) it wasn’t really about the incident. Worse, I’m not really clear what it was about. Or what message it was trying to convey.

Critics have lauded the book as ‘stylistic’. However, it feels like the author simply developed an algorithm to say the ‘right’ apocalyptic fiction words regardless of what order those words appear in, and at the expense of any kind of plot.

There is dialogue, but rarely are there conversations, just a series of loosely connected statements. I have never met anybody who speaks like this, and yet here are a collection of people who all do. I found it incredibly hard to read, so it was fortunate that it was short at just 144 pages.

I would not recommend this book. You can find a million better things to do.

The one positive; I learned a lesson to avoid this particular style of book, and I learned that lesson through the power of a story.

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E4 Walkthrough

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E4 Walkthrough

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

How Sky described the episode: The team try to understand the latest discovery, while Francine’s criticism of Lord Singer is met with delight from the Labour leader. 

A brief recap on the wider context – in season one a geomagnetic storm knocked out power networks causing widespread chaos and (amongst other things) leading to a decision being taken to shoot a reporter. There’s mounting strength of feeling against the Prime Minister.

So far in season two, we’ve seen, well, A LOT – earthquakes off the Kent coast, an explosion of a sunken ship carrying munitions, coastal flooding, a helicopter crash carrying a notable Ukrainian, a cyberattack, radioactive blueberries as well as somebody poisoned with radiation and a dirty bomb.

If I’d have suggested that as an exercise scenario I’d have been laughed out of the room. (I have been for suggesting much less!). Developing an exercise is truly a dark art, and as emergency manager Luke Bird noted in 2014, you’re only ever a single inject away from accusations of straying into “the realms of fantasy.”

This episode starts with the Prime Minister gathering his most trusted (in the loosest sense) Ministers for a catch-up. It looks like the cyber attack and import of the radiation was a state-sponsored action, but there’s no suspect at the moment. Just based on the use of Polonium 210 would provide a fairly strong lead, given its use in the Litvinenko case.

A hacker (you can tell because they always sit in the dark and wear a hoodie) is editing a video about a politician “siding with the establishment rather than the will of people” feels close to the bone after the shenanigans in the House of Commons this week.

COBR is meeting now and discussing the rise of far-right extremism. I wasn’t really listening at this stage, because I was so distracted by what the screens in the background are showing.

They’re too far away to see the detail but I had a stab at what they could be showing…

screens in a meeting room

  • A This looks like it could be either some sort of topographic/digital elevation model or could be a chart of social media analysis?
  • B Duplicate of A (why bother?)
  • C CCTV footage from somewhere?
  • D This looks like it might be weather-related – a map on the right-hand side and then maybe a wind rose on the left? In which case, perhaps something similar to a CHEMET report for the potential dirty bomb?
  • E It’s not clear in the screengrab, but later in the same scene, this looks to be the online video from the cyber hackers Firestorm.
  • F Also looks to be footage from Firestorm. I’m not sure why either of these would need to be on repeat in COBR.
  • G I have no idea?! Is this an Audacity screen? Or just lots of mini DOS windows? Either way, I can’t figure out what it could helpfully be showing.
  • H Duplicate of D (again, why duplicate information that is already displayed?)

Some of that information is useful, but this is how I’d use the COBR screens:

  • 1 TV News channel (domestic channel) – to see what the public is seeing. Personally, I’d go with Sky News.
  • 2 TV News channel (foreign channel) – to see a snapshot of how it is being reported overseas.
  • 3 With the impact to cyber networks – some sort of analysis of their robustness – perhaps a summary of main SCADA system uptime
  • 4 The CHEMET modelling is a fairly good idea, that can stay.
  • 5 Maybe use this one for information on response capacity – what strategic resources are available/could be deployed?
  • 6 I’d keep this one free for video conferencing (as it doesn’t look like they have a screen for that) especially for dialling in the devolved administrations, or perhaps relevant Strategic Commanders from affected areas or wider experts (SAGE?).
  • 7  I’d use this to display the CRIP, the document produced as a single source of briefing information.

Lord Singer, the judge who has gotten himself into some hot water, is offered police protection given stated threats against him from fascists. He’s not keen and would prefer to jet off to Cyprus. There are also veiled threats to the Home Secretary, Prime Minister and his wife.

Oh dear, the irradiated body is a US citizen, and a scientist involved in classified research. That’s probably not great for diplomatic relations and probably means that we’re going to hear more from the truly awful Foreign Secretary (played brilliantly by David Haig).

A radicalised young man is seen readying some weapons. The last few episodes of COBRA season two were initially pulled from broadcast in the wake of the “no duff” murder of David Amess. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this part of the episode is heading. Yep.

The murder is also generating conspiracy theories and counter conspiracies; which feels pretty accurate. The Prime Minister has given the security services a clear direction to ‘deal with’ a problematic journalist. So we can also guess how that’s going to play out too.

The journalist in question is seen in a cafe speaking with an opposition politician. There is a lingering shot on a coffee cup with a mysterious logo on it. Has he also been poisoned? There are no immediate signs, but maybe something slower acting? More Polonium?

Fraser, the Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, is at a warehouse where the forensic investigation of the exploded ship is taking place. The voyage data recorder (VDR) is a bit like a black box from a plane and has been recovered. The data shows something unusual, a low frequency but high decibel noise 3.7 seconds before the explosion.

Back to Manchester where our journalist has received some encrypted files from an anonymous source, which seem to implicate the American Government in something, which looks like it could be related to the ship explosion as it briefly mentions sub-aquatic research. The computer the journalist is using has been hacked, as has the rest of his office. Spooks are waiting outside however before they can get to him he is bundled into a black Range Rover by unknown men.

Separately, armed officers are assembling to raid the home of the suspected cyber hacker.

We’ve got discordant strings. Tension is mounting!

And…they’ve raided the home of an old frail lady. Great! Luckily upstairs the hacker is found. So that’s one of the problems resolved.

Some shocking radio protocol from the Counter Terrorism Specialist Firearms Officers though.

We see the journalist beaten and shot, and then in the culmination of the episode Francine, the opposition politician causing waves, sees that the offices of the journalist have been firebombed. She’s allowed to get quite close to the building and there’s no evidence of safety cordons being in place.

That’s it for this week. Two more episodes to go!!

 

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E3 Walkthrough

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E3 Walkthrough

Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

Can you believe a whole week has passed and we’re back for another exciting instalment of Sky’s ’emergency management’ show COBRA!

Here’s the blub for the episode: COBRA is assembled when fresh disaster strikes, as a breach in Dover suggests an insidious threat. The PM’s strategy is tested. 

The episode opens back in Kent, this time at the Port of Dover. Border Force security guards are discussing a vehicle which they expect to test positive for radiation because it’s carrying declared radioactive cargo. When it doesn’t it alerts them that the radiation scanning system is non-operational.

We cut to Whitehall where an emergency briefing has been convened and GCHQ representatives announce that the Cyclamen scanners are offline, “the only defence to protect against terrorists driving a dirty bomb into the country”. This could, or could not be connected to the other instances of cyber hacking that the team have responded to in the previous episodes.

Programme Cyclamen is a collaboration since 2003 between the Border Force and the Home Office to detect the transport of illicit radioactive or nuclear material moving through British ports of entry. It covers air, rail and seaports, and scans vehicles, cargo and passengers. You may have seen some of these scanners depending on how much attention you pay when travelling.

The decision is taken that all port operations at Dover, the only port affected, should cease. This is probably a very wise decision. It’s not clear how long this has been an issue, but taking this action ensures that from that point any radioactive substances being brought into the country are contained to a small geographic area. However, as the team discuss, the implications of closing a port are significant, with impacts to supply chains being the primary issue.

Fraser, who is the Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, remarks that ‘contingencies’ for the continued supply of fresh produce have already been put in place. There’s no further detail given on this, and I suspect that it’s too soon into the incident for that to be anything more meaningful than the port operators implementing their surge capacity plans, to manage the backlog of arriving freight ships.

The Prime Minister is concerned about the public reaction to this news, and in the shadow of the recent real-life issues experienced with petrol and diesel, makes a very astute observation that even if there is no supply issue, there could be panic buying, going as far as to say “I want that port open again before there are riots in Tesco”.

Sidebar: colleague Chris Cocking wrote a brilliant blog post in 2020 which covered the ‘panic buying’ behaviour in the first COVID lockdown which I recommend reading.

In five hours 1,027 vehicles passed through the port without an effective scan. That’s actually pretty good quality information, it’s timely and likely to be accurate, so although it’s a lot of vehicles that need to be located, at least they have some idea of the scale of the problem.

A CCS official (the same one who was last seen floating presumed dead in the North Sea) has already been getting to grips with the data and has issued information to regional police services. It seems unlikely that this would be a CCS task, but maybe this is what the National Situation Centre will be getting up to behind their new curtains. Either way, one vehicle originating in Ukraine has been identified as being a particular risk and quicker than you can say CBRN, there is a fully equipped team (complete with armoured vehicles) intercepting the truck.

Inside are radioactive blueberries! This sounds a bit far fetched, but this is likely based on a real incident in 2016 where berries grown near Chernobyl were exported. The COBRA attendees are concerned that this could affect public confidence both about the Government’s handling of the situation as well as on healthy eating.

In response to this communications concern, a suggestion of ‘slapping a D Notice‘ on the media is suggested only to be immediately shot down.

We’re a good while into this week’s episode before they bring in the political drama, which is refreshing because the last episode was a bit heavy on that.

Our friendly analyst has discovered a problem with one of the missing trucks. Nothing more at the moment, but I suspect this isn’t the last we’ve heard about it.

An online activist is beginning to post information about the ‘nuclear berries’ which causes the Government to get twitchy, but the Prime Minister is probably right to wait for confirmation of all testing rather than speculate. In the absence of Government communications, there are instances of empty supermarket shelves, an increase in people drinking detergent and ‘mobs’ gathering and causing disruption at other ports.

The missing truck hasn’t been identified beneath Waterloo Station and ‘it doesn’t look good’. A Military CBRN team go in to investigate and identify an ‘off the scale’ level of radiation emanating from the truck. Based on this the advice to the PM, which is accepted is to seal off Central London.

My own view is that I think that is a bit of an overreaction based on what they know at this stage. If they had information also suggesting the presence of explosives then I think some limited safety cordon would be appropriate, as well as stopping train movements in and out of the station. My other issue is that so much of this would be operational information that the COBR team wouldn’t have in real-time. In reality, this response would be led by the Military and Police, briefing upwards to COBR via their ministers, but that takes time.

On further investigation, it turns out that the high levels of radiation are coming from a dead body inside the otherwise empty truck. Who is it? How did it get there? Who is responsible? These are all questions the PM has just at the episode ends, with more to follow in future weeks.

I’m not sure if Episode 4 is now available again. After the murder of an MP recently, Sky decided to pull some episodes of the series from broadcast out of respect (which perhaps is an indication of what is still to come). Stay tuned!

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E2 Walkthrough

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E2 Walkthrough

Reading Time: 3 minutes

 

How Sky described the episode: As the cyberattack jams communications, the Prime Minister convenes an emergency COBRA meeting following the devastation in Kent.

It’s a weird description because there seemed to be at least two COBR meetings in the first episode. But imagine. A Prime Minister that is quick to convene COBR.

Recently the UK Government published Coronavirus: lessons learned to date. This report notes that “during the pandemic, COBR was not functioning as effectively as it should have been” and heard evidence from Dominic Cummings that the meetings were “not conducive”. Something else that’s not that especially conducive is when the Prime Minister doesn’t turn up for five meetings.

The national crisis response machinery cannot be dependant on one individual and incident response shouldn’t hinge on national response arrangements. However, those arrangements are a vital part of demonstrating leadership, so seeing Robert Carlysle’s get an early grip is encouraging.

The COBR meeting starts with a situation update. That’s a helpful way to start this kind of meeting, to ensure everyone is operating from the same information. This is known, as the Commonly Recognised Information Picture or the ‘CRIP’. Although, I must tell you that, in my experience, the Cabinet Office are very protective over that terminology – just take a look at what their own Emergency Planning College website has to say.

What strikes me as a bit odd is that in the show the COBR facility has some really lovely display screens, which are just used to show the government crest, rather than anything useful.

We get a bit more about the cyberattack, that the hackers have found a zero-day vulnerability. This essentially means hackers take advantage of software using a flaw that is not known to developers, so they have no prior knowledge of the risk or available patches. This means it can take a bit longer to resolve.

Some cracks are beginning to show in the Cabinet team. Like in Season 1, I do like that they are showing these characters as complex people with their own baggage.

The action switches over to Kent, and to the Strategic ‘Command’ Centre. This is shown as being in a hangar in an airfield. Whilst it’s not impossible that would happen, but it is very, very unlikely. Oh, and ‘command’ in this sense is incorrect. The proper terminology is a Strategic Coordination Centre. This reflects that whilst organisations may have ‘primacy’ for different functions, there is no one organisation with ultimate ‘command’.

Typically TV dramas choose locations that have little bearing to reality, so it’s impressive attention to detail to see an exterior of Victoria Street just before they cut to a scene set at the Labour Party HQ.

Incidentally, there are a lot of side-eyes being thrown in this episode. It’s building up to something. I can sense it.

There are so many thanks going wrong at the moment it’s hard to keep up. That’s also a factor in real-life emergencies. They are incredibly dynamic and ascertaining a good overview of what has happened can take some time.

The disruption to communications is a key concern. We’ve had a bit of information about phones and emails, but there hasn’t been much said about data. There are some contingencies available, such as RAYNET, although these fallback systems often don’t have the capability of other systems have and generally don’t have high levels of familiarity. So it’s not a perfect solution.

There is a ‘missing people’ board in the SCC. That also seems a bit misplaced and would be more likely to be seen as spontaneous posters and flyers attached to relevant local buildings, rather than in the ‘command’ room.

And finally, the line of the episode, massively understates just how complex and time consuming the period after the emergency response can be. I doubt we’re out of the woods just yet.

There was a lot of plot happening in this episode, and not much emergency management to pick out. Hopefully, we’ll have a bit more to say after episode 3.