Who does UK National Strategy? - Public Administration Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  In a lecture delivered last December, the then Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), Sir Jock Stirrup, drew particular attention to the fact that, in his view, the UK has "lost an institutionalised capacity for, and culture of, strategic thought" (Paragraph 6)

2.  The implications of the CDS's judgement should be worrying for the whole of government and his concern is one of the main reasons for our inquiry. (Paragraph 7)

Defining Strategy

3.  Strategy is about dealing with uncertainty, complexity and the dynamic. It is not a plan or a paper. In modern politics it is about ensuring that the whole of government identifies and acts effectively upon the national interest. (Paragraph 11)

4.  Strategy is not policy, but is the means of effecting it. (Paragraph 12)

5.  The historical connotations of 'Grand Strategy' could prove to be a hindrance because the term is associated with Empire and in some quarters is seen as hubristic. Nonetheless the term has proved to be a useful means by which this inquiry has been able to explore the concept of an overarching process; a concept intrinsic to good governance. This process today can better be described as 'National Strategy' and we have therefore adopted this term as the title for our report. (Paragraph 16)

Do we need a National Strategy?

6.  We recognise many of the factors for change that the Foreign Secretary outlined in his speech but the ways and means by which these could be met remain unclear. (Paragraph 19)

7.  Plotting the UK's path through these uncertain times needs clear, deep and sustained strategic thinking which adapts to changes in our strategic environment. It needs to be articulated constantly and updated regularly. If the UK is to navigate its way successfully through the networked world, and to "lift its eyes to the wider strategic needs of this country", we need a National Strategy. It must be well founded, coherent and responsive to events as they occur as well also capable of anticipating opportunities. As things stand there is little idea of what the UK's national interest is, and therefore what our strategic purpose should be. (Paragraph 30)

Capacity to make strategy

8.  The overwhelming view from our witnesses was that the UK is not good at making National Strategy and there is little sense of a national direction or purpose. (Paragraph 32)

9.  The new Government's aspiration to think strategically is most welcome, but we have yet to see how this marks any significant improvement in qualitative strategic thinking from its immediate predecessors. Apart from the creation of the NSC, which we go on to discuss below, we have found little evidence of sustained strategic thinking or a clear mechanism for analysis and assessment. This leads to a culture of fire-fighting rather than long-term planning. (Paragraph 39)

10.  This leads us to the profoundly disturbing conclusion that an understanding of National Strategy and an appreciation of why it is important has indeed largely been lost. As a consequence, strategic thinking has atrophied. We have failed to maintain the education of strategic thinkers, both in academia and in governmental institutions. The UK lacks a body of knowledge on strategy. Our processes for making strategy have become weakened and the ability of the military and the Civil Service to identify those people who are able to operate and think at the strategic level is poor. (Paragraph 40)

Strategic leadership

11.  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. (Paragraph 45)

12.  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. (Paragraph 46)

13.  Elected representatives are best placed to articulate an understanding of what the electorate will find acceptable. (Paragraph 47)

Where should strategy reside

14.  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 the 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. (Paragraph 51)

A role for the NSC

15.  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. (Paragraph 53)

16.  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. (Paragraph 54)

17.  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. (Paragraph 55)

Improving cross-departmental working

18.  Evidence to us 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. (Paragraph 60)

19.  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. (Paragraph 68)

Strategic thinking skills

20.  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. (Paragraph 72)

21.  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. (Paragraph 73)

A national strategic assessment capability

22.  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. (Paragraph 76)

23.  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. (Paragraph 79)

24.  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. (Paragraph 80)

External input to National Strategy

25.  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. (Paragraph 83)

26.  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. (Paragraph 84)

Accountability and scrutiny

27.  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. (Paragraph 86)

28.  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. (Paragraph 87)

29.  In the meantime, in the absence of the 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. (Paragraph 88)

Funding National Strategy and strategy-making

30.  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. (Paragraph 91)

31.  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. (Paragraph 92)

32.  We would 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 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. (Paragraph 93)

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Prepared 18 October 2010