Prevention versus preparedness, or what public services could learn from the Terminator franchise

Note: this is a light-hearted critique of prevention meant to stimulate a bit of debate. It’s not an in depth analysis of either prevention, or Terminator movies!

I was watching the trailer for the new film Terminator Genisys (sic) film and a thought crossed my mind “why do thy bother?” Not the filmmakers – I know why they bother, the films keep making money! No, I was wondering about both the protagonists (humans) and antagonists (machines) in these films, and why they continue to persist with a plan that has largely failed them both over soon to be five films.

For those who’ve not seen them, the Terminator films are based on the premise that in the future mankind is at war with sentient machines and as a pre-emptive strike the machines send a “terminator” back in time to kill the mother of the leader of the human resistance, erasing his existence and thereby ending the war. Humanity sends back a warrior to stop this happening (spoilers: they succeed) and what ensues is a tit of tat narrative where both sides try and pre-win the war by stopping the other side existing in the first place.

In spite of all their efforts, neither side ever succeeds in this goal. The war always starts.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I see parallels with a lot of public service expenditure. Essentially the different sides in the Terminator series are investing in preventative measures, and the rationale is sound – if you’ve identified what causes a crisis, focusing on stopping that crisis happening will save you cost (economic/social/environmental) in the future. This is exactly the same rationale we use when we commission or deliver preventative services to stop individuals falling into crisis.

And as with those in the Terminator films, too often we find that our efforts are thwarted, or at the very least the “prevention debate” rages on – the theory is sound but too little evidence to demonstrate that the practice consistently works.

I’m not entirely sure why this is, but if I were to hazard a guess, if you’re trying to prevent a complex challenge from happening, it’s naïve to think that one targeted act of prevention could stop this. I’d even argue that it’s naïve to think that a suite of preventative activity could stop this from happening, largely because there are so many variables at stake. In the Terminator films, actions at best delay the war from happening. In real life, much can be said for a lot of public service prevention investment.

But what if the films had taken a different approach? What if it had been one less about prevention and more about preparedness and resilience? What if they had accepted that a war was inevitable, but the real issue was that their side wasn’t prepared to cope with that eventuality? Instead, when sending people back in time they didn’t try to stop the war, but made their side as ready as possible to win it when it arrived.

Now apply this to public services and what one might call social challenges – it’s an uncomfortable situation but what if instead of trying to prevent certain challenges, we made it explicit to people that something bad was almost inevitably going to happen, but that when it does, they will have the tools to deal with this on their own terms. When I think about resilience, this is usually what’s in my mind – people have the individual and community strengths to respond to the inevitable challenges that come from living, rather than believing one can control a situation to such an extent as to stop bad things happening.

After all, the one inevitable bad thing that happens to all of us is death. We can’t prevent that, but we can be much better prepared for it.

So maybe humans, machines and public servants should stop trying to solve people’s problems before they happen, and spend more time building their capacity to respond when they arrive. That might even make a better movie somewhere along the line….

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