The obscure definition of Control in UK Cabinet Office parlance

My understanding of the history of emergency planning in the UK nuclear industry was that we adopted the management tool we call “Command and Control” after the Piper Alpha accident. In that disaster a fatal fire on a North Sea rig was prolonged while the responders sought somebody with authority to stop pumps feeding the fire with gas from neighbouring fields.

Following this lesson we ensured that our emergency arrangements unambiguously identified one role on site who would have unquestioned authority over all resources and actions on site after an emergency had been declared and another who would have similar unquestioned authority over the rest of the Company in support of the emergency response. We then gave people in these roles suitable training and a letter of authorisation promising them the full retrospective support of the Management Board for any actions they initiate when in post in response to an emergency.

An important set of components of the emergency scheme ensured that the person in this role was as fully aware of the changing situation as could be achieved and provided with the full range of technical advice that might be needed (situational awareness) and that their instructions (in terms of strategic foci) were converted to actions (orders) and every effort was made to complete the actions and report back in the time allotted. In this way the crisis is managed.

For many years I’ve worked with the Cabinet Office definitions of Command and Control.

I’ve just been reading the output of a New Zealand ministerial review Better Responses to Natural Disasters and Other Emergencies in New Zealand and I was struck by the completeness and clarity of their definitions of command and control:

  • Command (authority within an agency) is executed vertically, and includes the internal ownership, administrative responsibility, and detailed supervision of an agency’s personnel, tasks, and resources. Command cannot normally be exercised outside an agency.
  • Control (authority across agencies) is executed horizontally, and is the authority to direct tasks to another agency, and to coordinate that agency’s actions so they are integrated with the wider response. Control authority is established in legislation or in an emergency plan. This is control to task a certain agency towards a certain outcome (achieve a managed evacuation for example). It is not control over the actual resource – personnel and vehicles.
  • Coordination: bringing together agencies and resources to ensure unified, consistent, and effective response. 

    Command and control assists with coordination by defining authority between and within agencies.

These definitions can be compared to the UK Cabinet Office definitions as given in Cabinet Office Glossary

  • Command and control – The exercise of vested authority through means of communications and the management of available assets and capabilities, in order to achieve defined objectives.

Note: Command and Control are not synonymous terms – see the separate glossary entries.

  • Command – The exercise of vested authority that is associated with a role or rank within an organisation, to give direction in order to achieve defined objectives.
  • Control – The application of authority, combined with the capability to manage resources, in order to achieve defined objectives.

Further research quickly yielded the US and UK Department of Defence definitions

US Department of Defence, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms

  • Command and control — The exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of the mission.
  • Command — The authority that a commander in the armed forces lawfully exercises over subordinates by virtue of rank or assignment.
  • Control — Authority that may be less than full command exercised by a commander over part of the activities of subordinate or other organizations.

MoD, Joint Concept Note 2/17 Future of Command and Control

  • Command – The authority vested in an individual of the armed forces for the direction, coordination, and control of military forces.
  • Control – The authority exercised by a commander over part of the activities of subordinate organisations, or other organisations not normally under his command, that encompasses the responsibility for implementing orders or directives.

UK doctrine for civilian multi-agency working is based on co-operation of the Emergency Services rather than the control of all relevant resources by a Commander from a selected service (see Emergency Response and Recovery Non statutory guidance accompanying the Civil Contingencies Act 2004). This is consistent through the JESIP programme and the development of the Joint Decision Model.

I get the impression that historically our definitions of Command and Control may have been fudged so that it could be claimed that the concept is at the heart of multiagency response when, in fact, it clearly isn’t. We exercise Command and Control (or at least Command) within our own company or service structures and coordination between companies and services. Generally it seems to work in emergencies. If that is accepted then we don’t need to mangle the definition of control and “The application of authority, combined with the capability to manage resources, in order to achieve defined objectives” can be replaced with something clearer. If we feel that command and control across all the responders is more likely to achieve success than coordination (I’m certainly not in a position to judge this) then we should move in that direction. Either way better definitions of these key terms would be helpful.

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