Power and Accountability: The psychological contract & responding to catastrophic event

Based on my own experience after the Grenfell Tower fire, I argue that leading politicians should accept accountability for the psychological contract with citizens, and that this would improve the quality and impact of responses to catastrophic events.

Gill Kernick, policy lessons from catastrophic events, bennett institute for public policy, cambridge university, 2020

First published in Policy Lessons from Catastrophic Events (Cambridge University; Bennett Institute for Public Policy), this article focuses on power and accountability after a catastrophic event.

If we were as obsessed with accountability before a disaster happened, we’d prevent more of them. What was the process of accountability for stockpiling PPE as recommended in the 2019 National Security Risk Assessment? What was the process of accountability for ensuring that known issues with building regulations were addressed prior to Grenfell?

Accountability should not be threatening.  It is best used proactively to ensure those in positions of power think hard about decisions and their consequences and consider the range of decisions available, and the fairness, appropriateness and proportionality of each possibility.  Concepts such as exploratory thought and chronic unease emphasise the importance of understanding multiple viewpoints, ensuring cognitive diversity and considering potential unintended consequences.

The Institute for Government expressed concern about current failures to address ‘fundamental gaps in accountability’ and ensure it keeps ‘pace with the increasing complexity of modern government’ so that accountability has become a reactive blame game, rather than a proactive means of ensuring good governance. The rest of this article accordingly focuses on the effectiveness (or otherwise) of accountability after a catastrophic event.

Current responses tend to fall short in the public’s eye. Based on my own experience after the Grenfell Tower fire, I argue that leading politicians should accept accountability for the psychological contract with citizens, and that this would improve the quality and impact of responses to catastrophic events.

I consider the psychological contract, its key elements, and the barriers to accepting accountability for it


We have a ‘psychological contract’ with those in power. Typically applied in employment relationships, although intangible, such contracts can be more influential than formal rules.

We expect that the police will treat the dead and bereaved with respect, that councils will listen to tenants about safety concerns, that both the regulators and supply chains involved in refurbishing a tower block will put the safety of residents above profit, and that the government will ensure that key workers at the front line of a pandemic will have enough PPE.

After a catastrophic event those in positions of power have an accountability to attend to and restore this psychological contract.  

And yet, many leaders’ response is sadly lacking.  Examples include Theresa May’s private visit to Grenfell the day after the fire, when she failed to meet Grenfell survivors or bereaved; or Robert Black, Chief Executive of the company that managed Grenfell who, while watching the tower burn, wrote a memo to colleagues saying, “We need to pull some of this together pretty fast in terms of health and safety compliance,” or Health Minister Matt Hancock’s warning to the NHS to not overuse PPE.

By contrast, leaders who understand that they are accountable for this psychological contract with citizens respond to crises in a way that builds trust. The outstanding example is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, both in her response to COVID and the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack.

I recently re-read the ‘The patronising disposition of unaccountable power’ (page 6, para 4 and 5), a report   commissioned by Teresa May when she was home secretary to ensure the perspective of the Hillsborough families is not lost.  It highlights how reputation is prioritised over ‘The citizen’s right to expect people to be held to account for their actions’’ and concludes that it is a cultural condition and ‘a change in attitude, culture, heart and mind” is needed.

Accepting accountability for tending to and restoring the psychological contract with citizens after a catastrophic event would go a long way to shifting this patronising disposition and would require:

  • transparency
  • immediate acceptance of responsibility
  • swift correction of issues
  • appropriately borne consequences and
  • timely and effective learning


Whilst viewing accountability in this way may fly in the face of how career politicians view their job, it could change how we respond to and learn from tragedies. It would require a fundamental shift in the role of politicians in responding to catastrophic events.


Attempts to spin the narrative do little more than inflate already heightened emotions and increase distrust.  It might seem counterintuitive, but practicing radical transparency is what is required.

The governments’ reporting of COVID19 deaths is a good example.  There was little transparency that initial figures only included those who died in hospital after testing positive, and that deaths in care homes or in the community were not included. Likewise, the government spending time and energy during the pandemic to defend itself against criticism in a Sunday Times article, and the lack of transparency in what counted as a ‘test’ have done little to build trust.

While bold promises may make sense, when these are ungrounded, they damage trust.  This was clearly illustrated by Teresa May’s promise that those left homeless by Grenfell would be rehoused in three weeks.Nearly 3 years after the fire not everyone has  been re-housed.

Being transparent no matter how bad the news is, is critical to the psychological contract.

Immediate Acceptance of Responsibility

After a catastrophic event, there are inherent tensions between the desire by those most impacted for ‘heads to roll’, the time formal processes take to reach conclusions and the need to ensure systemic versus individual failings are identified. A willingness by both politicians and heads of key organisations to accept responsibility because ‘this happened on my watch’ versus ‘is my fault’ would go some way to easing these tensions.

Those most impacted by a catastrophic event understandably want there to be consequences for those in power.  Justice, at an emotional level, is often equated with ‘heads rolling’.  But, formal processes (such as Public Inquiries and civil and criminal investigations) can take years to play out and the outcomes are not guaranteed to equate to justice in the eyes of those most impacted.

A focus on blaming individuals is also problematic and it hides deeper systemic issues and does not lead to significant change or learning.   

Doing nothing whilst waiting for formal processes to reach conclusions further damages the psychological contract. Watching those in power continue as usual is untenable and contributes to both suffering and increasing calls for retribution.

Accepting responsibility, because it happened on my watch, and implementing actions consistent with this, gives those in power access to restoring the psychological contract. There is a perfectly correlated dance of the symbolic resonance or dissonance of actions with either restoring or further damaging the psychological contract.

For example, Benita Mehra’s appointment to the Grenfell Inquiry Panel when she had run an organisation that received a grant from the charitable arm of Arconic, the manufacturer of the ACM panels used on Grenfell, was a symbolically dissonant action.  Her subsequent resignation was resonant.

Or, former Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell’s appointment to the board of the country’s largest housing association, Clarion.  Barwell, the Housing minister in 2016 and 2017 failed to act on seven letters from a group of MPs responsible for scrutinising fire safety rules.  Warning of the risk of a deadly fire they called for the promised review of building regulations to be carried out.  He is expected to appear as a witness in Phase II of the Inquiry. The issue is not whether he is guilty or not but about the symbolic dissonance of this action and how it impacts the psychological contract.

Swift Correction

Grenfell revealed systemic issues with the UK’s building stock.

Hundreds of high-rise residential buildings have ACM cladding similar to that on Grenfell. Thousands are clad in other flammable facades.  Post-Grenfell fire safety inspections revealed systemic issues such as non-compliant fire doors and missing or incorrectly fitted cavity barriers which can compromise compartmentation. Social housing landlords estimate that the cost of making their buildings safe will exceed 10 billion pounds.

The MHCLG has said all high-rise residential buildings with ACM cladding similar to Grenfell must be remediated. It released funding for this for public (in October 2018) and private (in May 2019) sector buildings.  As of March 2020, 144 (32%) of the 457 buildings had completed remediation. 150 (33%) had not started work.[

The construction industry itself has so far shown little ability to correct the faulty building practices that contributed to the Grenfell disaster. Eighteen months after conducting an Independent Review of Building regulations, its author Judith Hackitt criticised the slow pace of change saying the industry lacked the leadership to make the necessary changes to make itself safe and describing common practices as “jaw dropping.”

Failing to make buildings safe promptly is a gross violation of the psychological contract that citizens should be safe in their homes.

Appropriately borne consequences

Linked to the issue of correction is where consequences are borne.  

This cannot be more tragically evidenced than the consequences for government failings to stock appropriate PPE in preparation for a pandemic being borne by those at the front line of care.

Redressing such imbalances in consequences is key to restoring the psychological contract.  This is not a legal argument, but a moral one.

In the wake of Grenfell, thousands of leaseholders, who bought apartments in good faith, are being asked to pay to make their buildings safe. Estimates are that 500,000 people are caught in flats that are unsellable while work is carried out to identify cladding and other fire safety issues.

The government could have worked with industry to create a fund for making buildings safe.  They could have diverted money away from the law courts and toward ensuring people are safe in their homes.   

When there is a divide between who caused and who bears the consequences for events, the psychological contract gets further broken. It leads to those most impacted having to campaign tirelessly to ‘fight for justice’.  Nearly three years after Grenfell, the government in its 2020 budget assigned £1bn to the removal of cladding, taking to £1.6bn what it had allocated to the removal of cladding. In the same budget £2.5bn was allocated to fixing potholes.

28 years after Hillsborough when the ruling of ‘accidental death’ was changed to ‘unlawful killing by gross negligence’ one mother said… Grief is just beginning as we have been fighting to get to the truth’ (p2).

Timely and Effective Learning

The ineffectiveness of current systems for learning, such as public inquiries, have long been identified. There is no process for ensuring that recommendations from public inquiries are either implemented or effective.

As much as they want some form of justice, those closely impacted by catastrophic events want to prevent similar tragedies.  They want to prevent others from experiencing the loss and grief they have endured.

Until those in power take learning from previous events seriously, they will fail to restore the psychological contract with citizens.  Justifying inaction until the ‘Inquiry is over’ creates a narrative that these formal systems are designed to effectively sustain the status quo.

Until those in power accept accountability for ensuring lessons from catastrophic events are identified, implemented and effective in a timely manner, the psychological contract with citizens can’t be fully restored.


Behaviour is context dependent. To understand systemic issues rather than look for what people did wrong or ascribe failings to a few bad apples we need to understand why decisions made sense.

Politicians and others in power are navigating complex trade-offs between irreconcilable goals. 1   Four barriers to those in power accepting accountability for the psychological contract are:

  • Blame versus learning
  • Power versus transparency
  • High probability versus low probability, and
  • Blunt versus sharp end voice

Whilst presented as dichotomies, they present a network of tensions that frame the context inside which decisions get made and actions taken.

Critically, we collectively create this and it is incumbent on us all to create a context that pulls for those in power to be accountable for our psychological contract.

Blame versus learning 2

As a society we are fixated on blame.  We seek out bad apples and call for their blood.  This does not equate to learning.

We operate from an old view that complex systems are inherently safe, and failures result from human error. You make things safer by controlling human behaviour through tighter procedures, automation and supervision.   When something goes wrong, find and remove the bad apple.  

A culture of blame can develop because it is often easier, cheaper, and more emotionally satisfying to hold an individual responsible for an accident than to acknowledge more fundamental problems… A culture of blame prevents the identification of other underlying causes.3

The new view of failure suggests rather than look for what people did wrong you need to understand the context inside of which they acted.  People, rather than being the problem, are needed to create safety by navigating complex trade-offs between irreconcilable goals.

We can either have blame or learning.  Not both.

Power versus transparency

At the heart of learning is the willingness to admit mistakes and errors. To learn, you must be willing to be transparent about failures.  At the heart of politics, whether at an international, national, local or organisational level, is gaining and holding onto power. 

There is an inherent tension when faced with something that could diminish this power.  Whilst truth and transparency are laudable, when the potential consequences are loss of power, choices will be less clear cut.

In an adversarial political context, where honour and value driven leadership are notably lacking, and the media is obsessed with blame, being transparent about mistakes and failures would take both enormous courage and a willingness to lose power.

High probability versus Low probability

In a world of limited resources and short term, siloed thinking, it is easy to justify ignoring lower probability risks.  

In the context of COVID-19, its easy in hindsight to judge poor decisions about the failures.  Resilience to catastrophic events requires an in-built adaptive capacity which is at odds with demands for efficiencies and savings.  To be prepared for a low probability, high impact event you must be willing to stand accused of over-reacting. 

Until politicians, key stakeholders, the public and the media are educated about and supportive of investing in mitigating low probability events, we will continue to be unprepared. Until we are willing to work collaboratively and invest sufficient resource in understanding, preventing and responding to such events we must be willing to accept the political, economic, social and human cost of them.

Blunt versus sharp end voices

History tells us that the interplay between those at the top and bottom of the power ladder is critical to both learning and prevention. Whether it be failing to listen to residents’ safety concerns in the lead up to Grenfell; train drivers’ reports of the difficulty in seeing signals in the lead up to the Ladbroke Grove Train crash; or frontline health workers’ concerns about PPE in the current Covid-19 crisis.

The tacit knowledge of those at the sharp end is critical to preventing catastrophic events. Rules, regulations and experts will not guarantee good outcomes. Old notions of elitist power where the few dictate the rules for the many to follow are not only outdated, they fail to take into account that the knowledge of the ‘many’ is critical in increasingly complex environments. 

We need to create a context in which there is equality of life and equality of voice.  All lives matter and all voices count.  The job of those in power is to ensure the voices of those with less power are both heard and count. The job of those with less power is to keep speaking until we are heard.


1 Dekker, Sydney, 2006, reprint 2011, The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error, Ashgate, page xi

2 Dekker, Sydney, 2006, reprint 2011, The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error, Ashgate, page 1

3 Reason, James; 1990; Human Error, Cambridge University Press.

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  1. So what is the key to changing the response of those in power to catastrophic events? If a primary cause is the possibility of losing power, surely the key involves at least convincing those in power that such a loss in not inevitable, but more likely, the reverse; it could, and can be, an increase in respect, trust and therefore power by being vulnerable in the transparency of their initial (and arguably ongoing) behaviour. and it’s related consequences. By being effectively, counter-cultural (politically – in the context of the UK), can politicians be convinced that transparency, whilst uncomfortable in the short-term, actually has significant immediate and longer-term benefits? How do we coach them not to react through the primordial instinct of protection sprung primarily by fear, but rather, in the knowledge of the assuredness of increased power despite the seemingly uncomfortable; to learn to accept and even glory in the uncomfortable, because it leads to distinct and healthy rewards – for all parties. In other words, the value of humility – versus the age-old adversary of pride. The public on the other side of the psychological contract, sees through displays of pride, but on the other side of the same coin, values obvious demonstrated humility. So perhaps the key is to coax politicians to see through the wider public’s eyes; to learn to change their own perspective, so that introspection doesn’t remain the driver of their behaviour, but extrospection becomes the saviour, and indeed an enhancer. of their status, influence and power. One of the necessary constructs for all politicians in developing this new behaviour, is the acceptance of the adage, that the general public are not fools, but potential participants in the politician’s personal success, which if responded to correctly can become, collective, and shared, community success.
    [“The first shall be last, and the last shall be first…” [Holy Bible, Matthew 20:16].

    • Hi Martin, I agree that would be ideal. However, in my experience there is no imperitive for Government to change. The politics of blame and power work against the type of self-reflection and mindset shifts you are talking about. Hence the lack of meaningful progress on the biggest challenges such as housing, climate and social care.
      A cynical response I know… but the conclusion I have reached is hope lies in citizens and communities campainging for change and not with politicians. Unless something radical shifts, relying on them for change is a flawed strategy.

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