Who does UK National Strategy - Public Administration Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Cat I M Tully

  1.  As a Strategy Project Director in the FCO Strategy Unit for the past two years until earlier this month, I have been privileged to see many of the challenges and opportunities facing the strategic development of the UK's foreign, defence and national security (FDNS) policy. Some of these are being addressed, in particular through the recent establishment of the NSC. Others remain insufficiently acknowledged or addressed. I therefore have taken the opportunity to respond to your request for responses to your inquiry on "Who does UK Grand Strategy", by laying out some personal reflections on my time in the FCO SU. I hope they will be relevant, since my role's principle objective was to drive strategic decision-making and capability in foreign policy—I am certainly happy to elaborate further on them informally.

  2.  I have structured my responses to your questions around the following headings: strategic context, definition, structure/process, and method. In summary:

    — Most countries are facing the need to be more strategic in their FDNS policy. The UK is in a good position to do so.

    — There is some good practice, but as a whole, UK FDNS policy making is not systematically strategic. There are top-down (political) as well as bottom-up (Departmental practice) drivers of existing UK FDNS policy incoherence. Following the establishment of the NSC, HMG should focus on the latter. A combination of new incentives, processes and structures will be needed to encourage closer cross-Departmental working.

    — HMG can approach this by: first, identifying lead Departments or Cabinet Office Secretariats responsible—and resourced—for leading HMG strategies (both Grand Strategy and thematic/country strategies); and second, developing a clear doctrine on what good strategy-making involves. There is a growing body of knowledge on this.

Strategic Context: strategy-making is increasingly important for FDNS policy—but is hard

  3.  Common and well-explored drivers (technological, economic, demographic) are leading to increasing complexity in the international sphere.

    — The line between domestic and foreign policy is ever-more blurred, with the increasing, non-linear impacts of vectors such as climate change, diaspora, logistical and financial flows, and extremist ideology requiring responses abroad and at home. Experts in the domestic sphere increasingly play a part in international fora and our actions abroad progressively impact the UK citizen on the street.

    — New players, with different approaches and perspectives, have more impact. Not just countries such as the BRICS, but also non-traditional actors, eg sovereign wealth funds, philanthropists, epistemic communities, criminal networks and business.

    — In addition, strong economic pressures require a more efficiently delivered and effectively prioritised FDNS policy. The increasing complexity and unpredictable nature of the international system also puts greater weight on risk management, resilience and flexibility, over traditional policy responses.

  4.  In response, many western governments—and some developing countries—are explicitly searching for a clearer articulation of their strategic interests, priorities and approach: a "Grand Strategy". They are also looking to understand the systemic nature of the interlinkages of different policy areas and tools that were previously more distinct.

  5.  The UK is in a particularly good position to be able to do this:

    — we have an excellent set of well-respected delivery arms each containing excellent technical expertise, including the Armed Forces, diplomatic service and aid agency, but also SOCA, DECC and OSCT;

    — a strong reputation and links to the wider global public and non-traditional actors, including through the BBC and British Council, leadership on global responses to challenges like climate change, and support for the value of openness and trade; and

    — HMG has state-of-the-art strategic capability in the domestic policy sphere (through the work of Departments, the Strategy Unit network and the Futures community).

  6.  However, the UK also faces external and internal challenges in developing strategic clarity in the FDNS policy realm:

    — The main external challenge is the UK's status as a global power. It has hugely complex, multiple interests, not least the maintenance of the international system and its norms. The holy grail of identifying the UK's `core national strategic interests' is therefore somewhat illusory. Prioritising among issues, countries and stakeholders is difficult for a P5 country, since both a global presence and policy position on most issues are expected. It is much easier for smaller countries (Nordics, Singapore, Canada) to be clearer about their priorities and distinct contribution.

    — Internally, the UK faces the challenge that there is little common agreed HMG understanding of the strategic context (drivers and the role of the UK) and the role of Departments in developing and delivering a UK Grand Strategy. The result is different perspectives across government on the definition, structure and processes to do with strategy, and of the value of embarking on such endeavours in the FDNS policy realm. For example, I have heard both deep scepticism and strong support for the value of: counter-factual thinking and exploring different future scenarios; working with different actors; or the extent to which different Departments should be focused on newer policy issues, eg climate change. There have been many diagnoses of this internal incoherence in government, and they tend to fall into two camps:

    — Top-down explanations locate the source of incoherence within the political leadership of the time. A common recent narrative identifies 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 and delivery.

    — Bottom-up explanations locate the source of incoherence within Departmental differences in culture, practice, history, incentives and mission. More weight is given to the role of Departments in promoting or blocking cross-government coherence.

    — Obviously, both explanations provide a partial explanation of the truth and reflect real problems that needed to be addressed. The risk I perceived at the end of my tenure in the FCO SU, however, was that the responses being implemented to address the lack of FDNS policy coherence were located in the "top-down" solution set and too little was being done to tackle the "bottom-up" challenges. In my view, the creation of the NSC has addressed many of the concerns about "top-down" drivers of policy incoherence. The key question now is how the Civil Service can mobilise its dedication and expertise to support this political statement of intent. I have therefore focused my comments on the "bottom-up" barriers to FDNS policy coherence—though recognising that there remains work to do on the political side.[19]

Definition: "strategy-making" is a process of alignment, not a piece of paper

  7.  I use the following definition to explain what strategy is: "An evidence-based, coherent and aligned view among a group about where they are, where they feasibly want to be and how to get there." A strategy requires clarity on the group's interests, objectives, assets and the context within which it operates. Strategy-making is therefore a process of alignment—not a piece of paper. This definition has the advantage of being applicable to most contexts (eg business, not-for-profit, corporate strategy as well as policy and delivery Departments, domestic as well as international policy).

  8.  Within the HMG FDNS policy realm, I distinguish three different spheres of strategy:[20]

(a) Grand Strategy, namely the UK's vision of itself in the world, its high-level interests and objectives, and how it goes about promoting them;

(b) thematic and country strategies, namely component parts or sub-sections of the UK's Grand Strategy in relation to specific themes or countries; and

    (c) Departmental corporate strategy, namely each Department's view of its strategic context, its objectives, and how it uses its assets to promote them.

  9.  The key question is how to ensure that: all three spheres are resourced, informed and developed appropriately; and they are coherent, in particular that the thematic and country strategies support the Grand Strategy, and that the Departmental corporate strategies support the delivery of both.

Structures/Processes: encouraging further cross-departmental working will need a combination of new institutions and practices—but most of all, the incentives need to be right

  10.  The incoherence in FDNS policy, as described in paragraph 6, comes from a lack of a clear focus within HMG tasked with owning—ie taking the overall UK perspective and possessing the necessary decision-making powers—the planning on (a) and (b). Instead, Grand Strategy and thematic/country strategies are often the aggregate sum of different Departmental actions within each policy area.[21] There are two major problems with this approach: it is inefficient, since Departmental objectives and levers can pull in different directions; and it means that policy areas may be over or under-resourced, because the sum of individual Departmental interest may be different to the meta-HMG interest. Three examples of this include: low FCO focus on Latin America, despite a potentially higher HMG interest due to business, economic factors and organised crime. Another example is DfID only focusing on Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in West Africa, despite the need to develop a more regional approach to address the variety of security threats to UK interests. The final example is the ongoing lack of clarity across HMG on who and how to address longer-term complex issues (like the impact of demographic changes and global resource scarcity on UK national security).

  11.  Does the NSC resolve this? Not fully. It is a major step forward since it promotes joint working through commissioning joint pieces of work, it can resolve tensions and questions about prioritisation, and is a forum for identifying issues coming up on the horizon and moving resources to new policy priorities. However, an NSC can only look at the most important of FDNS policy issues and itself needs to be serviced by an effective Whitehall machinery that itself works in a truly joint way. This does not happen at the moment.

  12.  There is good practice, of course, as anyone working in this area in government will have experienced:

    — Existing structures do promote better cross-Whitehall strategy development. The National Security Secretariat, the FDP secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the FCO Strategy Unit (now Central Policy Group), the joint DECC-FCO Energy Committee, the China Whitehall Group, the joint DFID-FCO Sudan Unit, the Stabilisation Unit do so with differing degrees of success (see next paragraph). The OSCT is an example of a cross-Whitehall structure with the resources to be able to drive a multi-agency approach to a thematic challenge.

    — Departments do respond to the changing strategic context independently, eg the recent FCO work exploring how it can better support the UK's economic recovery.

    — And many desk officers have excellent networks across Whitehall and work effectively with their counterparts in different Departments on their day-to-day work.

  13.  The challenge is that practice is ad-hoc across Whitehall, reinvents the wheel frequently and depends on the individuals involved. There are few incentives, apart from professional dedication, to working systematically with other HMG Departments. And these solutions do not always work when Departmental interests and priorities are in conflict. This means:

    — the quality of strategies are variable. "Strategies" can be a shopping list of interests, objectives and activities, rather than reflecting a common understanding of priorities and policy tensions, with feasible outcomes and effective risk-management plans. They are sometimes reactive, short-term and based on the status-quo;

    — the quality of collaboration is variable. Joint strategies led by Departments sometimes do not reflect a truly cross-Whitehall perspective, but instead a partial perspective. The "strategies" pulled together at the centre can sometimes be an amalgamation of different Departmental inputs. As discussed in paragraph 7, strategy-making instead requires a process of alignment between the parties involved. The fora and process for facilitating these discussions do not always occur. The FCO recently examined a series of country strategies and identified huge variation in process and cross-Whitehall buy-in;

    — existing excellent HMG analytical resources (eg MOD and DFID analysts, the FCO's Research Analysts) are under-utilised in strategy-making. The sum of expertise on different themes and countries across government is vast—and insufficiently influence policy across Departmental boundaries; and

    — cross-Whitehall horizon scanning and risk-management falls short of what individual Departments do separately, compounded by the fact that FDNS and development Departments have different time horizons.

  14.  The two-pronged response is to define ownership and develop a common cross-Whitehall process. Or, in MOD-speak, "Command and Control" and "Doctrine". A possible response is that on Grand Strategy, key strategic countries and themes, the NSS should take the lead with a clear mandate to do the following: collect evidence; incorporate external expert views; hold an overview of the UK's full assets, interests and objectives; horizon scan; and make proposals to ministers about resolving strategic tensions or different options. There are obviously existing bodies, eg OSCT, that should take a similar role for their policy areas. The FCO should then have the lead on most remaining country and thematic strategies. This is only a suggestion—what is important is a clear cross-Whitehall lead who takes the overall HMG perspective and can propose unpopular resourcing or prioritisation decisions. For this to have legitimacy and credibility, however, there needs to be an agreed set of consultation and analytical processes. Namely, common practice that ensures all Departmental views and information are incorporated—and to address the shortcomings identified in paragraph 13.
Possible solutions[22] Structures and institutionsProcesses
(a)  Grand strategy—  Expanded National Security Secretariat to service NSC with seconded staff from different Departments, or a joint FCO-Cabinet Office NSS
—  Specific sessions of the NSC to discuss horizon-scanning
—  Clearly defined process for developing Grand Strategy, with the thinking done at the centre, rather than commissioned out in bite-sized bits
—  FDNS Strategy Units to become centre of excellence on strategy-making
—  Fora for FDNS Department senior leaders/policy DGs to meet and discuss common issues and align strategic vision
—  A joint FCO, DFID, MOD Strategy Unit, commissioned by NSC and FDNS Department senior leaders

(b)  Thematic and country strategies
—  Clear departmental leads for each thematic and country strategy
—  A joint FCO, DFID, MOD Strategy Unit, commissioned by NSC and DGs
—  Joint Units and budgets
—  Clearly defined process and methodology for developing thematic and country strategies
—  Joint training on strategy-making
—  Joint analytical units or establish analytical communities of interest around country or thematic topics
—  A joint professional cadre that work across FDNS Departments
—  All SMS/SCS policy posts are open to external recruitment and are fixed-term posts

(c)  Corporate Departmental strategies
—  HMT to assess alternative ways to resourcing FDNS than only Departmental budgets. Separate the policy-making part of the Departmental budget from the delivery side, and encourage Departments to bid jointly —  Coordinated Departmental business planning processes
—  Include incentives for working on cross-government strategies
—  Hard incentives for all SMS/SCS to work in different Departments (and externally)

  15.  More radical solutions have been proposed elsewhere, including in studies from previous decades. One suggestion is to separate the delivery arms of the defence, diplomatic (and development) departments and unite their respective policy roles into one central "global issues" policy department. This is a "nuclear" option—and risks absorbing resource internally at the expense of a focus on delivery, but it should be explored at least.

  16.  In summary, the solutions to the coherence challenge is as much about process and incentives as about structure and institutions. How does HMG resource these ideas? Most do not require extra resources. However, they do require time, changes to Departmental culture and reprioritisation of existing resources. Most important, senior leaders in Departments need to believe that there is value in investing their resources into this objective—that there will be tangible outcomes from introducing a more systematic approach to strategy-making versus the status quo. From my personal experience, some people get the need to enhance cross-Whitehall working—and some do not. The case needs to be made powerfully, because those who do not buy into it can create profound barriers despite strong ministerial and significant senior leadership support. So the most important step is for FDNS Department senior leaders to agree the problem and the potential prize. Then a cross-FDNS Departmental group could be pulled together from existing analytical, strategy, futures (and possibly HR and finance) units to develop a realistic proposal for implementation.

Method: good strategic thinking on FDNS issues is a complex undertaking, but a toolkit can be developed to propagate it—similar to that by the PMSU on domestic policy[23]

  17.  Having come to the FCO from the domestic policy-focused Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, a few things struck me about the nature of strategic thinking in foreign policy (not all applicable to Defence, National Security (or Development) policy):

    — The nature of research and evidence is different. There is little quantitative analysis available, and policy discussions on issues tend to be influenced by well-respected individuals ("talking heads") rather than a well-established body of research. Group-think, narratives and metaphors proliferate, a useful heuristic for speedy decision-making but that militates against fresh thinking. The role of evidence in policy-making is comparatively minor and undervalued.

    — There are a variety of pressures for foreign policy decisions to be made quickly, including genuine reasons beyond the gift of HMG (world events change daily), as well as ones that could be internally addressed (eg under-resourcing, a culture of accepting strategic rethinks done by one person in a week).

    — In comparison to domestic policy, the FDNS policy process within government is more complex, since with very few exceptions it involves at least two and often many more Departments.

    — The domestic strategy toolkit therefore needs to be adapted to reflect these differences. For example, it needs to show its value in responding to unexpected events, use the excellent diplomatic network as a more regular source of data, provide systematic challenge to group think and establish clear processes for coordination between Departments. It also needs to strengthen skills that are used more regularly in FDNS policy, for example:

    — The ability to systematically analyse different future scenarios—because of high external uncertainty, relatively low impact of HMG levers on foreign policy issues, and the necessity therefore to prepare for different eventualities and stress-test HMG's proposed objectives and policy.

    — The ability to systematically analyse and engage with all types of stakeholders—since influencing is the key foreign policy lever (as opposed to the wider set of domestic legislative, tax and exhortative levers). Stakeholders tend to be greater in number, diversity and complexity in foreign policy issues, including the internal Whitehall stakeholders that are an integral part of developing and implementing effective policy.

September 2010

19   Eg one key area of FDNS policy needing continuing political leadership is around promoting and shaping a public debate about the role of the UK in the world, both taking into account what UK citizens think and making the case for particular policies if necessary. Back

20   There may be a case for cross-Whitehall strategies on engaging key non-state actors (eg International Organisations, business, civil society groups) but this is a second order question and shelved here. Back

21   The current SDSR, managed from the Cabinet Office, has made a brave attempt to take on the task of pulling together the collective view, but suffers from many of the challenges outlined in paragraph 13. Back

22   There are additional ideas in the informal note "A conversation on National Security convened by Libra Advisory Group and Institute for Government on National security 2010 and Alex Evans and David Stevens report for Chatham House on Organising for influence: UK foreign policy in an age of uncertainty". Back

23   The FCO has been developing a useful systematic approach to international policy-making. This could be combined with other FDNS departments' approaches to form the basis of a FDNS toolkit. Back

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