Who does UK National Strategy? - Public Administration Committee Contents

5  The way forward

41. The previous chapters have examined: the concept of National Strategy; the importance of having such a National Strategy; and the lack of capacity currently in the UK to generate and sustain National Strategy. This Chapter considers how the Government might restore this capacity.

Strategic Leadership

42. The importance of political leadership was a theme which emerged from the seminar we hosted. The challenge is securing coherence. Strategy making should be more than the sum of individual departmental strategies.

43. There was a view that the incoherence in strategy had been due to the absence of adequate political leadership. This view blames 'sofa-government', presidential-style foreign policy decision-making, the break-down in Cabinet government and rifts between relevant ministers, for the lack of clear strategic vision.[45] This may be too pessimistic. The previous Government did commission and published two National Security Strategies in 2008 and 2009. The previous Prime Minister also established the National Security, International Relations and Development cabinet committee (NSID), albeit it rarely met, and even more rarely under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister himself.

44. The Foreign Secretary was clear that strategic leadership had to come from the top of government and that the Prime Minister and senior colleagues were providing it. In his view, "The person at the top of the organisation has to be doing the essential thinking about the long-term, otherwise it is not possible to implement strategy".[46] He told us that the current Government was doing just that. "That is the single most important consideration here, because I feel that in the current Government [...] there is a strong sense of the need for strategic thinking".[47] Previous failures in strategy making were the consequence of political failure to lead in this way and therefore led to a failure to ask or expect officials to think strategically.[48] This is certainly true. We agree with Steven Jermy's proposition that "[...] one of the most important things in strategy is that politicians must engage early and continually".[49]

45. It is therefore essential for ministers to invest time and energy into strategy making. It is the demand from ministers for strategic appraisals which will create the "strategic appetite" within departments and Whitehall more generally for better and soundly based strategic analysis. In turn this will promote the culture of strategic thinking we have identified as necessary.

46. There is a second and equally important element about strategy: the need to ensure democratic legitimacy and to recognise the political limits of what strategy and our national interests can achieve. As Dr Niblett put it to us:

In the end, however, the Government will need the British public's support if it is to marshal the financial resources and the political legitimacy with which to pursue a bold Grand Strategy. The Government should talk frequently, openly and honestly about how the world is changing, about the challenges, opportunities and choices that this presents and the resources that the UK should be prepared to allocate to promote its future prosperity and security.[50]

47. Participants at our seminar also noted, it is elected politicians and ministers that have the democratic legitimacy for such decisions. Elected representatives are best placed to articulate an understanding of what the electorate will find acceptable.

Structure and Frameworks

48. In recent years, the creation of departmental strategy units has recognised the necessity for taking a long-term view. We do not doubt that the Civil Service has sought to grapple with the need to instil strategy making as a skill; we question whether the effort has been correctly focused. It is telling that the weakest element of the strategic "function" in the Departmental Capacity Reviews is "building common purpose".[51]

49. Answers to parliamentary questions about several departments' contribution to national strategy, show there was neither consistency nor clarity. In particular, HM Treasury refers to its "central role in the development and implementation of strategy on a national scale, on both the economy and the public finances" but makes no reference whatsoever to any other strategic priorities which it might be required to fund. [52]

Where should strategy reside?

50. The Foreign Secretary was robust in his view about the central role he envisaged for the Foreign Office in driving National Strategy "[...] with the responsibility of doing the thinking, of having creativity and producing long-term thinking [...]" to ensure that foreign affairs run through the "veins of all domestic departments".[53]

51. We understand the logic of the Foreign Secretary's aspiration, and we welcome his drive to create more coherence across government. We strongly disagree with the idea that any single department, even FCO, can drive National Strategy. For intuitive strategic thinking to flourish; for it to be effectively harnessed, and for coherent National Strategy to be made and implemented, requires the establishment of specific mechanisms with the appropriate authority.

A role for the NSC?

52. The new Government has established a National Security Council (NSC) made up of senior ministers and served by a revamped National Security Secretariat. The Secretariat is headed by the new post of National Security Adviser, Sir Peter Ricketts. The first two tasks for the NSC will be the delivery of the SDSR and the publication of a new National Security Strategy.

53. The creation of the NSC has been broadly welcomed by all those from whom we took evidence. However from the perspective of National Strategy, the NSC is only a start. Firstly its remit is restricted to matters of national security. Baroness Neville-Jones sought to give national security a wide definition and 'reach'.[54] We accept that issues like immigration, climate change and energy security can pose security as well as environmental or economic problems to the UK. However the excessive use of "security" labelling for issues can be dangerous. We accept that national security will be among the largest component of National Strategy. However, as the Foreign Secretary and Sir Peter Ricketts among others conceded, national security is merely a subset of National Strategy. As Peter Hennessy observed, the NSC "won't work, it won't rise to the level of events, unless it broadens this notion of strategy".[55]

54. Sir Peter Ricketts confirmed that "[...] the only place where [National Strategy] comes together finally is in the Cabinet".[56] However, the Cabinet is not the best forum for iterative exploration and reflection. The functioning of National Strategy requires a proper deliberative forum with access to proper analysis and assessment. As a decision-making body the Cabinet is best suited to discussing and approving options. We recommend that a senior committee, such as the NSC, should have the task of developing those options relating to strategy. The Government should expand the remit of the NSC and of the National Security Adviser to take on a central coordinating role for National Strategy.

55. Moreover, we recommend that the Foreign Secretary, with the Prime Minister, should focus his leadership of National Strategy more explicitly through the NSC rather than relying too much on his own department.

Improving cross-departmental working

56. To undertake such a role, the NSC needs to be supported by a cross-Whitehall organisation that operates coherently and as one body. The evidence to date, and especially in regard to the SDSR, is that the NSC functions more as a clearing house than as an organ of critical assessment. Sir Peter Ricketts sought to explain that he was "[...] part of the Cabinet Office and so national security is my bit, but Gus O'Donnell and the other parts of the Cabinet Secretariat and the policy unit and the strategy unit and the other bodies that are available to them are where strategic thinking would be done in preparation for decisions".[57] It appears to us that national strategic thinking is divided and uncoordinated.

57. Related to this, we are also concerned that the NSC lacks its own independent source of assessment and analysis of the strategic environment in which it should be operating. Professor Strachan posed a key question about the NSC, "It should then think about how it generates the thinking capacity. If the NSC says, 'We need a bit of work on this, or we need to understand that', how is that now done?[58] Asking for this information from departments run the risk in his view of "balkanisation", advice reflecting their particular departmental agenda.

58. The Cabinet Office described recent efforts at improving cross-departmental strategic working as being reflected in initiatives such as the Whitehall Strategy Programme (WHISPER) and the Future Intelligence and Security Outlook Network (FUSION). It claims that these groups recently brought together the strategy and the analyst communities from across government.[59]

59. We acknowledge the notion that Whitehall operates in silos may be an exaggeration. Certainly, we accept that there have been attempts to overcome the traditional barriers such as the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) and the UK's counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST). However this is insufficient for creating National Strategy which must harness the necessary capabilities and resources already existing in Whitehall.

60. Evidence to us, including the answers to Parliamentary Questions at Appendix 1, suggested that in fact cross-departmental collaboration is variable, analytical resources are underutilised, and that different departments understand and discuss strategy in different and incompatible ways. Departmental collaboration therefore falls short of what individual departments can do independently. The whole is less than the sum of the individual parts. The emerging Strategic Defence and Security Review would seem to be a case in point.

SDSR and strategy

61. It is clear that the main priority of government is deficit reduction and the Treasury is bent to that task. However, SDSR is meant to be "strategic". The Foreign Secretary told us that what he was seeking to ensure over the next few years is that the Foreign Office has the capability to do long-term thinking. "That means, for instance, that if I have to choose [] between reducing some programme expenditure now [and the] capability to do the sort of things I am just describing in the future, I will stress preserving the capability for the long-term future".[60]

62. And yet our colleagues in the Defence Select Committee have felt compelled to seek assurances that "the outcomes of the SDSR will be fully funded". Moreover given the novelty and complexities of the SDSR's pan-Departmental nature, and its coincidence in time with the CSR, they have expressed concern "that the rapidity with which the SDSR process is being undertaken is quite startling", leading them to conclude that "serious mistakes will be made".[61]

63. This seems to reflect a collision between the isolated 'strategies' of different government departments, notably with HM Treasury. It is to be hoped that the outcome of SDSR will reflect the ability of NSC and the Cabinet to resolve these differences in sympathy with a genuine National Strategy. As Sir Robert Fry observed, "[...] when you have to husband your resources and really define the ends that you want to pursue, Grand Strategy is much more important than when you are in more prosperous times".[62]

Strategic Thinking Skills

64. The Cabinet Office said "Strategic thinking is a valued skill in the Civil Service. It is one of the six core requirements in the Senior Civil Service competency framework".[63] William Nye conceded that while there was training available in the Civil Service, it was not as uniform or established as it used to be.[64]

65. The Institute for Government considered that joint working by strategy units in departments has led to an embryonic "strategy community". However, it saw current arrangements for providing training on strategy, planning and national security issues as ad hoc. There was an absence of joint training and strong cultural and skills differences between departments with relatively little movement between them.[65]

66. Professors Hennessy, Lindley-French and Prins were more dismissive of the idea of what Cabinet Office meant by strategic thinking. For Peter Hennessy "It's something much more narrow and meagre and management consultant contaminated".[66] Professor Lindley-French thought "they probably mean 'management', when they talk 'strategy'".[67] Professor Prins called for removal of "[...]the faux-commercial language of targets, contracts and 'deliverables'".[68]

67. We heard from the former CDS how he set up a strategic advisory panel for the Chiefs of Staff and a programme of education for middle-ranking officers with the aim of developing "the habit" of strategic thinking.[69] The former CDS explained that there was no real enthusiasm in Whitehall more widely:

[...] the Permanent Secretary and myself had a go at setting up something along these lines [a Whitehall wide forum for the practice of strategy] about two and a half or three years ago across Whitehall and it did not really garner much support. As a consequence, I decided that the way to do it was to start something off our own bat and make it such a success that everybody wanted to pile into it, so we hope to expand that over the next two, three or four years.[70]

68. We strongly support the efforts of the former CDS to engender the culture of strategic thinking. We commend his initiatives of setting up a strategic advisory group and a forum for the practice of strategy. It is disappointing and telling that his broader Whitehall efforts gained so little support. It has served to reveal the apathy and intellectual weakness, even antipathy, towards strategic thinking in the rest of Whitehall. We invite the new CDS to ensure that this initiative is maintained and if possible enhanced and to explain personally to us how he plans to do so. We would also exhort the rest of Whitehall to engage in the process.

69. We found a critical gap in current thinking skills required in government. Different evidence demands different types of analysis. Strategy is about dealing with uncertainty. Professor Prins pointed out that an increasing number of the current challenges are not amenable to neat 'solution' because they comprise "[...]open system issues, incompletely understood with no bounded data set, no stopping rule for research, no possibility for iterative experimentation and notorious for producing perverse, unintended consequences when governments try to act on them".[71] Without recognition of this there is a dangerous tendency to form strategy in a comfort zone, treating all problems as 'tame'.

70. The Foreign Secretary acknowledged the value of trained staff and ensuring that strategic skills are recognised. He emphasised that ministers should: demand such skills from their staff; ensure that civil servants feel they have the freedom to express their views; and recognise these skills in their evaluation of their performance.

71. The best strategists will not always be the most senior officials. However, an ability to think strategically is an essential quality of senior leadership. Such a leader will ensure that their organisation welcomes and nurtures strategic thinking at all levels. Selecting and promoting senior officials for their capacity for strategic thinking, and not just their management skills, is a crucial factor in regenerating the practice of strategy within government.

72. It is essential to recruit, train and promote a community of strategists from across Whitehall with different experiences and expertise who can work collectively. Without this, strategic thinking will be misinformed leading to a mis-appreciation of the true strategic situation, particularly when we are hit by 'strategic shocks'. Moreover, strategy is a skill that can be learned. We recommend that the Royal College of Defence Studies and the National School for Government and others should consider how best to devise a joint forum and programme of education to provide the cultural change that is necessary.

73. Strategic skills should not only be valued but properly recognised in the appraisal system. Such skills would help provide the UK with greater sense of strategic direction and national purpose.

A national strategic assessment capability?

74. The Foreign Secretary thought it was a mistake to have a separate strategy unit in his department. He wanted strategic thinking to be infused throughout the entire organisation. He considered that strategy was something best done by every official. Asked if even the ambassador in Washington should be a contributor to UK National Strategy, he was emphatic: "Absolutely, yes". When asked if this meant "strategy is better done on the hoof", he responded, "No, it is better done all the time".[72] However, we suspect that relying too much on busy line managers for strategic analysis and assessment, and too little on dedicated assessment staff, is what contributes to 'ad hocery' and 'muddling through'.

75. We strongly disagree that politicians and civil servants should do strategy on their own. The Foreign Secretary made reference to the fact that "Napoleon did not have a strategy unit. He worked it out; he made his strategy".[73] This would seem to be a mistaken parallel. Napoleon did have a cadre of officers—who he kept outside the command chain—to provide him with independent sources, so that he might evaluate strategic advice offered and form his own views.[74] Moreover, Napoleon utterly failed to turn success on the battlefield into a more sustainable political success. As the Foreign Secretary conceded, "He came a cropper in the end".[75]

76. There is a further overriding consideration affecting ministers and their senior officials. Modern politics is a world away from the relatively leisured pace of events before global communications. Ministers and key officials today are pressed in by the speed and intensity of events and 24 hour rolling news. This distracts from their ability to "pause and reflect" and to engage in strategic thinking and discussion in the way their forebears could. Moreover, the problems and challenges of international politics, economics and society are ever more complex, requiring an ever broader body of experience and technical expertise in order to form a comprehensive understanding. Ministers will always have the decisive and crucial role in National Strategy. Consequently, to make the best of the time they devote to strategy making, they must have the information, analysis and assessment available—supplied by trained staff—in order to make rational, long-term strategic judgements.

77. Our inquiry has clearly exposed the absence of means for detailed consideration about the risks and threats we may face now and may face in the future, as well as about opportunities for the UK to extend its influence and prosperity. Furthermore, the mechanisms for cross departmental working are still inadequate.

78. It is essential that the Government's currently disparate elements for strategising are harnessed in a way that will enable them to contribute to National Strategy making. Professor Hennessy proposed a capability review to examine linkages between the NSC and those providing input. The capability review should also be used to determine the effectiveness of strategic thinking in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office.

79. We therefore recommend that a capability review of National Strategy should start as soon as possible. It should report within a year. It should examine the various parts of Whitehall which should be contributing to National Strategy, as well as in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office. The capability review should determine how far the strategy functions in each department consider themselves part of a wider strategist 'profession'; to what degree there is shared training, ways of working; and ensure there is 'strategic literacy' to support National Strategy.

80. In the longer term, we would hope that enhanced Whitehall collaboration will lead to the development of a new agency to complement the existing arrangements. The new agency's Director would be a key player in Whitehall with regard to National Strategy, and whose inputs and assessments would complement the joint intelligence assessments. It would not make policy but be a resource available to the whole of government. This would avoid creating a rival power centre as feared by the Foreign Secretary. We welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary conceded to us that the idea of joint strategic assessment staff was "worthy of debate".[76]

External Input to National Strategy.

81. One notable difference between the strategist "communities" here and elsewhere, is the ease with which there is flow between the Government, think tanks and other institutions. The former CDS noted that in America:

[...] people flow between [government and outside], so the ideas and the thinking flows into and out of government and between these different organisations in a way that it does not here. The thinking goes on here, but it goes on in compartments and it is very hard to get it shifted from one field into another—from the academic to government and vice versa. [77]

82. The Institute for Government endorsed this view, "Compared to some other countries, the UK was much less porous, with less interchange between the outside world (think tanks, academia) and Whitehall".[78] The Foreign Secretary recognised this too.[79] Professor Lindley-French summarised the situation as either "ivory towers or policy bunkers; we don't have much in between".[80] However, Professor Prins documented how, within the (former) Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) real progress had been made before the break-up of that agency interrupted it. The (former) Advanced Research & Assessment Group (ARAG) at Shrivenham Defence Academy had likewise built such bridges before it was disbanded.[81]

83. The Foreign Secretary described how people from outside were invited to speak to the National Security Council during its meeting at Chequers on Afghanistan at the end of May, precisely because they favoured either withdrawal or a different strategy. We welcome the interchange and challenge which such an occasion provided but this was a one-off. There needs to be a constant refreshment of thinking, with genuinely challenging analysis and ideas. This must be regularly within reach of the Prime Minister and other ministers. There should be greater interchange between outside experts and Whitehall and career progression should involve spending time both within and outside of government as part of a wide and diverse strategy community.

84. Some of our witnesses regretted the passing of sponsorship for professorial chairs at universities. More particularly, Professor Strachan saw real pressure on strategic thinking outside Whitehall created by the current arrangement for both university funding and research assessment. This is because, within a politics department, engagement in public policy does not figure within the UK as something that counts in the research assessment exercises. "Very few academics are therefore put in a position where it is seen to be productive in terms of research assessment and research income to engage with the Government".[82] We are realistic about the prospects of providing any additional funding directly to university departments to support strategic studies. However, the Government must ensure that funding for research into National Strategy and strategy making is not squeezed out by funding for more fashionable or profitable academic programmes. The reallocation of funding required is minimal and would be in the national interest.

Accountability and scrutiny

85. We have already discussed the importance of democratic legitimacy as part of the National Strategy making process. Parliamentary scrutiny and oversight is essential. Additionally the scrutiny role will only be effective if it has recourse to analytical capacity.

86. The Joint Committee on National Security Strategy (NSS) is envisaged as the way by which Parliament will scrutinise the development and implementation of the NSS. We are extremely disappointed that it has not met. We recommended earlier that the role of the NSC should be broadened to encompass national strategy. We would invite Parliament to consider that the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy should likewise have its remit broadened to become the Joint Committee on National Strategy and Security. We would also invite the House to re-consider its membership. Contributions to National Strategy and National Security derive from a variety of departments, not least from the Cabinet Office. We suggest that membership of the Joint Committee should therefore be drawn from all appropriate departmental select committees. It would include this Committee, which oversees process at the heart of National Strategy and National Security.

87. In our view, reinvigorated strategic studies in universities and elsewhere will be essential for the Joint Committee to carry out its scrutiny and accountability role, and to give authority and support to external challenge.

88. In the meantime, in the absence of formalised scrutiny structures for National Strategy, we intend to continue to scrutinise the development of strategy making in Whitehall as part of our future work and we will return to this topic periodically.

Funding National Strategy and strategy making

89. The Cabinet Office is vague about the funding of national strategy-making. It merely states that well developed strategy and effective strategic thinking will be essential to make the most of scarce resources. The Cabinet Office argued that this can be achieved by identifying the Government's key priorities and focussing resources where they can have the most impact.

90. However in a candid admission to us, Sir Peter Ricketts noted that cross Whitehall cooperation "works up to, but not including, the point where money becomes involved, because departmental budgets and the tradition of accounting officers to this Parliament and departmental responsibility for the money can be a real obstacle to genuinely joined up work".[83]

91. Ensuring that national strategic priorities, once identified, are adequately resourced is an important corollary to strategy making. The allocation of resources must be embedded in the process of National Strategy. In this way, decision making will reflect the limitations of resources, but priorities when set, will attract the funding they require. The absence of such a process is reflected in the fears that many have expressed about the SDSR. As Sir Jock Stirrup graphically told us "Ideas that do not have the adequate resource put into them are not a strategy; they are a fantasy".[84]

92. As for strategy making itself, we are conscious in these financially constrained times of the need to recommend proposals which are affordable and practical. We would anticipate that the reorganisation and redeployment of these resources, which are already funded, should be cost neutral. There can be no excuse for the Government to neglect the necessity for, and value of, properly marshalled staff work.

93. We do not believe that National Strategy can be identified as a separate government programme. It is National Strategy, and the making of that strategy, which must be "in the veins" of every government department, including HM Treasury. We would, however, support a small, central budget allocated to National Strategy making; either under the control of the Cabinet Secretary, or the National Security Adviser in his a wider, National Strategy, role. This funding would be enable coordination of National Strategy making in each department, to ensure that departmental contributions to National Strategy are compatible, to promote common training, and to draw all those involved into a 'community' of Whitehall strategic thinkers.

45   Ev 93 Back

46   Q 65 Back

47   Q 57 Back

48   Q 113 Back

49   Q 216 Back

50   Ev 83 Back

51   Cabinet Office, Capability Reviews: An overview of progress and next steps, December 2009, pp 19-24. Back

52   Appendix 1 Back

53   Qq 56 and 63 Back

54   Q 311 Back

55   Q 8 Back

56   Q 175 Back

57   Q178 Back

58   Q 29 Back

59   Ev 65 Back

60   Q 56 Back

61   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2010-11, The Strategic Defence and Security Review, HC 345, paras 12 and 14 Back

62   Q 215 Back

63   Ev 65 Back

64   Q 334 Back

65   Ev 75 Back

66   Q 21 Back

67   Ibid Back

68   Ev 91 Back

69   Q 273 Back

70   Q 261 Back

71   Ev 88 Back

72   Qq 82 - 83 Back

73   Q 65 Back

74   Martin van Creveld, Command in war, Harvard University Press, 1985 Back

75   Q 66 Back

76   Q 90 Back

77   Q 284 Back

78   Ev 74 Back

79   Q 91 Back

80   Q 31 Back

81   Latterly named the Research and Assessment Branch (R&AB). Back

82   Q 31 Back

83   Q 164 Back

84   Q 294 Back

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