Strategic thinking in Government: without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge? - Public Administration Committee Contents

2  What do we mean by 'strategic thinking' and why is it important?

10.  What do we mean when we use the terms 'strategy', 'National (or Grand) Strategy' and 'strategic thinking'? National Strategy cannot be expressed in a deterministic plan as 'a Strategy' or 'the Strategy': an approach which would be futile in a complex and uncertain world. Instead, National Strategy must be a set of strategic aims which are subject to constant development in a context which is also changing all the time. It must acknowledge that there is no one set view of the UK's national interests or values, or of how they should be advanced. National Strategy must also address more than just foreign policy, military and security concerns. It must encompass economic and domestic factors, given the growing recent awareness about the critical importance of a solid economic base and performance and discussions about the UK's strength, prosperity, wellbeing and place in the world.

11.  Why is National Strategy so important? In our 2010 report we highlighted two prominent failures of strategic thinking:

Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are prominent examples of where our lack of consistent strategy goes a long way towards explaining why the conflicts have not gone well for the UK. This underlines the need for a coherent National Strategy.[8]

These lessons apply equally to the whole of government. It is sometimes argued that modern society and today's policy challenges are too complex and diverse to be included into a single body of strategic thought, least of all in a democratic society where so many aspects of the life of the nation are beyond the control of a government.[9] It is often also said that we are either too big or too small to have a National Strategy. [10] These approaches seek to excuse the tendency of governments to 'muddle through', but also to settle for less than voters and taxpayers are entitled to expect from their political leaders and public servants. The difficulty facing strategic thinkers in government underlines the necessity of doing so. The more complex and unpredictable the challenges, the greater the need for efficient and effective ways to analyse and assess opportunities and for clear thinking about what policies to pursue. This time of economic austerity and international uncertainty demands National Strategy to inform government action.

12.  The problems facing the Government are increasingly unpredictable and complex; in that our understanding of them is limited, but that their nature and impacts are often unlimited. For this reason, we cannot simply transfer the orthodoxy of strategic thinking as it is commonly used in business into our consideration of how Governments should undertake strategy.

13.  John Kay, Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics explained his perception of the difference between strategy-making in business and in statecraft:

You started by saying that strategy is about making the best use of your strengths. In large part, in business, that is true, but there is a difference between business and the state in this sense, because business is operating in a competitive environment technically, whereas states are, at least nationally, monopolies. Our foreign policy is not in the modern world being operated in competition with other people's foreign policy. That is a big difference between the way one should think about strategy and business and the way one should think about politics.[11]

14.  Lord Carter of Coles, who has carried out a number of reviews of Government strategy and policy, emphasised that Government faced an added complication, not present in business, of political considerations:

... you always have the political imperative coming along and changing those priorities. One of the hardest things in Government is the balance between having a strategic plan and sticking to it. Whether it is Ministers or senior civil servants, there is an issue of consistency—of actually sticking with a thing as it goes along as opposed to constantly changing it. In business you get a much more stable environment, in my experience, to do those things. [12]

When pressed further on this point, and asked "is it sensible to look to business to learn lessons that you can apply in Government?" Lord Carter responded:

No ... It is hardly an apt comparison because it is much more sophisticated and much bigger.[13]

15.  Following this advice, we have therefore sought to avoid the mistake of confusing National Strategy with questions of management and organisation, or either of these with policy-making. Policy-making, National or 'Grand' Strategy and implementation or 'operational' strategy, are the three points of a triangle of forces[14] that in a democracy are in natural, and, in fact, essential tension. Policy is 'to choose': which politicians do. Policy-making will be better if it is well and systematically informed by strategic thinking at the national or 'Grand' strategic level. That is the foundation principle of this report. Policy programmes require an implementation plan but this 'operational strategy' is quite different from National Strategy, which must be on a higher level. In a different, more technical, less geopolitical way, National or 'Grand' Strategy informs and advises operational strategy too.

16.   National Strategy must remain on a higher level, maintaining clear 'line of sight' with policy and operational strategy (or implementation) below it. National or 'Grand' Strategy must be broader than a single government department, and thus not subject to departmental silos. By its very nature, the national or 'Grand' strategic level must also be long-term. It is pre-eminently concerned with matters beyond the power of any government to control. These include geo-political realities such as social and economic trends and events, risks and threats to the national interest and also with how best the national interest is projected by all the means of national statecraft. To confuse the lower operational level with the higher level of strategy and to fail to grasp the special subject matter of National Strategy are errors which our witnesses and evidence repeatedly suggested are commonly committed by the Government.

17.  The evidence we received acknowledged the systemic, uncertain, complex and highly volatile nature of the world in which the Government is operating. Such complexity does not mean that it is impossible to think strategically. Strategy consultant David Steven told us that "it is even more important to have a strategic vision at a time of uncertainty and change; it is just that you need a different kind of strategy".[15]

18.  This kind of strategy emphasises the importance of flexibility. Changing circumstances require a feedback mechanism for strategic thinking to be challenged and refreshed.[16] Strategy cannot simply be published in an official document and remain valid: it must be a dynamic and adaptable analysis of what kind of world we are living in.[17] Professor Kay defined this position as 'obliquity': a critique of the belief that strategy is simply about determining objectives and setting out the steps by which they can be achieved.[18]

19.  The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy emphasised this need for flexibility in their March 2012 report on the National Security Strategy, which stated :

Thinking about what the future may hold, and the UK's role in it, is essential if the Government is to be prepared and to target resources effectively. This does not mean making rigid predictions, which constrain our ability to respond to the unexpected, but creating a long-term framework, within which the UK has the flexibility to respond to short-term demands.[19]

20.  The UK faces a number of complex and unpredictable challenges in a globalised world. Such challenges make the need for the capacity for flexible and resilient processes of strategic thinking more urgent, but in turn they also make this goal harder to achieve. We urge the Government to acknowledge in their response the importance of National Strategy and why it is so vital. We can see no purpose in defining national strategic aims unless they are part of a coherent National Strategy which is regarded by the whole of the Government in the same way.

Emergent strategy

21.  Following the cool reception which the Government gave our recommendations for the adoption of National Strategy, we decided to study the concept of 'emergent strategy'; that is how National Strategy emerges from the process of government.[20] National Strategy is a framework that helps Government at the highest level efficiently make strategic choices and decisions about policies with a view not just to addressing immediate problems but also understanding the UK's position in a changing context. In this way, National Strategy requires shorter-term decisions to be made within a more informed understanding of the wider context, including longer-term trends, informed by analysis and evidence, and acknowledging uncertainty and complexity where appropriate, with a clear-sighted understanding of government and UK non-state capabilities and assets including aligned financial resources. This is 'emergent strategy': it acknowledges the challenges and reflects the countervailing pressures on government, in being strategic.

22.  There are a number of factors which frame the subject area of National or 'Grand' Strategy:

a)  How the geopolitical factors shaping the UK strategic environment are identified;

b)  how policy is based on perceptions of UK national interests;

c)  how such national interests are perceived by different audiences;

d)  how public attitudes and aspirations are engaged in the formation of such perceptions; and

e)  how perceived national interests are advanced.

23.  This process is self-reinforcing. Strategy which is based on a true sense of national identity then leads into successful policies which can then reinforce national identity and values. This is set out further in the diagram below[21]:

24.  As the name implies, 'emergent strategy' emerges from the combined effect of individual actions and decisions. If it is working well, those actions and decisions will be demonstrably coherent with each other and consistent with shared longer-term objectives. It is crucial that all decision-makers are mindful of the broader implications of the options available to them, and also that a challenge mechanism exists within the decision-making structure, with responsibility for reconciling day-to-day decisions with longer-term strategic aims.

25.  That strategy emerges is an inevitable fact of life, but it can be coherent: creating a virtuous circle, as positive leadership (i.e National Strategy) leads to effective policies and positive outcomes, which reinforce the public's values and aspirations which inspired that leadership. Alternatively chaotic strategy ('muddling through') and wrong or weak leadership will result in bad policy and failure in outcomes, which undermine the values and aspirations of the public and faith in their leaders. Emergent strategy therefore requires a coherent directing mind, individual or collective, to drive the process. The driving force of emergent strategy is what will determine whether the momentum generated results in a virtuous or vicious circle.

8   Public Administration Select Committee, First Report of Session 2010-2012, Who Does UK National Strategy?, HC 435, para 95 Back

9   David Steven and Alex Evans Towards a theory of influence for twenty-first century foreign policy: public diplomacy in a globalised world Foreign & Commonwealth Office: Engagement - Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World (London, 2008) Back

10   Q 61 Back

11   Q 153 Back

12   Q 212 Back

13   Q 213 Back

14   Adapted from Ev w36 Back

15   Q 130 Back

16   Seminar with Whitehall strategists, February 2012  Back

17   Meetings with strategists in Ottawa, February 2012 Back

18   Q 166 Back

19   Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, First Report of Session 2010-2012, First review of the National Security Strategy 2010, HL Paper 265 - HC 1384, para 6 Back

20   Mintzberg, Emergent Strategy for Public Policy, Canadian Public Administration 30(2):214-229 Summer1987 Back

21   Catarina Tully (2011) Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 24 April 2012