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

3  Emergent strategy: how does the Government define the UK's national interests?

26.  It is assumed that the process of emergent strategy should set out how strategic aims are based upon an understanding of the national interest. We have reported our concern that this does not seem to happen in practice: we argued that the Coalition Agreement, in which the Government says it has set out the overall strategy for the Government could not be "a statement of Britain's enduring national strategic interests: nor could be expected to be such".[22] We therefore welcome the Cabinet Office's clarification in written evidence for this inquiry of how the Coalition Agreement sets out the Government's strategy:

The basis of the Coalition that was formed after the last general election was a shared assessment by the two parties forming the Government on where the national interest lay, particularly on the urgent need to form a strong, stable Government able to tackle the country's fiscal and economic challenges. The Programme for Government that resulted from the Coalition formation discussions therefore represents the Government's strategic assessment of the actions needed to secure the UK's national interest and our strategy for doing so.[23]

27.  The Government stated that this national interest would be promoted by the advancement of six strategic aims:

a)  a free and democratic society, properly protected from its enemies;

b)  a strong, sustainable and growing economy;

c)  a healthy, active, secure, socially cohesive, socially mobile, socially responsible and well educated population;

d)  a fair deal for those who are poor or vulnerable;

e)  a vibrant culture; and

f)  a beautiful and sustainable built and natural environment.[24]

28.  David Steven argued that the Government needed to go to the next level down from these strategic aims to consider the specific risks to prosperity and security that the UK faces.[25] Professor Kay agreed, stating that while the Government was right to set out such high level aims, "it is only useful to start from there" if you consider, as Mr Steven suggested, how these goals will be achieved and the risks which threaten the achievement of these goals.[26]

29.  The Cabinet Office argued that the existence of support for these aims across the UK political spectrum meant that they would be "likely to remain our national ambitions over a long period of time to come".[27] We put it to the Minister that the aims to which there was common assent might be seen as bland and anodyne. The Minister disagreed, emphasising his belief that this cross-party support did not indicate that six strategic aims were just universal 'values', but instead was "a very lucky feature about Britain" and "a great thing about our democracy that broadly we agree about what we are trying to achieve". [28]

30.  Instead, the Minister believed that the differences between the political parties came when deciding which policies to implement to achieve these aims. The establishment of the strategic aims then become useful, he told us, "because if you do not know what your aims are, you certainly could not have a coherent set of policies coherently for achieving them".[29] Indeed, the Minister stressed that there was a relationship between aim and policy, as

no setting of an aim determines how you will achieve it, but the setting of an aim does preclude doing some things that would not achieve that aim, and opens up the field to prioritise those things that will achieve that aim.[30]

31.   The six aims outlined by the Government in the Coalition Agreement may be well-meaning but are too meaningless to serve any useful purpose, because they provide no indication of what policies the Government might pursue as a consequence. They do not define how UK national character, assets, capabilities, interests and values are distinctive in any way whatsoever, or define the particular risks and challenges we face. Nor do they define what sort of country we aspire to be beyond the most general terms. To support National Strategy, strategic aims should be defined which identify and reinforce national identity and national capability, which includes the identities and capabilities of the UK's component parts, and give a clear indication of the overall direction of policy.

32.  In evidence, it became clear that the Government's six chosen strategic aims had not previously been published. Indeed, as the Minister made clear, they had been prepared solely for the purpose of providing evidence to our inquiry.[31] While it is gratifying that PASC's inquiry has flushed out the lack of consideration that has been given to the public expression of the Government's strategic aims, this is a matter to which we urge the Government to give more consideration.

33.  It is not advisable for a government have more than around six strategic aims. The more strategic aims which are adopted, the less strategic they will tend to be. It is not necessary to mention things which may be very important (such as anti-terrorist policy, or the control of inflation) because they are either an obvious consequence of your strategic aims or self-evidently obvious so they are unlikely to be at all contested. The criteria for selecting strategic aims should be not just that they identify high level outcomes, and that they are of overriding strategic importance, but that they provide an indication of the kind of objectives which policy must seek to achieve.

34.  We do not advocate any particular strategic aims but we do invite the Government to consider how to express its strategic aims in terms which provide an indication of the objectives which policies must achieve. The Government's inability to express coherent and relevant strategic aims is one of the factors leading to mistakes which are becoming evident in such areas as the Strategic Defence and Security Review (carrier policy), airport policy, energy (electricity generation, nuclear new-build programme and renewables) and climate change, and child poverty targets (which may not be achieved), welfare spending and economic policy (lower economic growth than forecast). This factor also militates against clear thinking about presentation, which was evident in the aftermath of the Budget and in response to the possibility of industrial action by tanker drivers.

Public opinion in defining national interests

35.  As part of this inquiry we have examined how public opinion is reflected in the process of setting strategic aims. We have considered at which level public opinion should influence strategic thinking: first at the higher level of defining national interests and then at the level of day-to-day policy making.

36.  A number of our witnesses argued that there was indeed an absence of public opinion at this higher level. Andrew Griffiths, a business strategy manager, described the views of the electorate as the "primary missing influence" on UK strategic thinking.[32] The Chirton Group (a non political forum aimed at exploring the challenges of strategy making) drew the attention to the recent use of crowd-sourcing by the government of Iceland in developing a new constitution.[33]

37.  Lord Burns, former Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, said that he did not see why Government should be different from the businesses that spend considerable time taking the views of the public. He argued that:

If the Government are going to make choices between different areas, they need to know something about the extent to which the people of a country have greater happiness or unhappiness with some aspects of the services that they receive than others.[34]

38.  We also heard of the importance of opening up a lower level of strategic thinking: the influencing of policy choices. On our visit to Canada we met with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade who told us it was important to differentiate between the use of mass public opinion, in the form of polling or focus groups to form policy, and bringing in expert opinion to the policy formulation process. We were told that broad but trusted groups of experts from outside the usual departmental silos can be formed to provide valuable input into the strategic direction of policy.[35]

39.  Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts and former Director of the Government's Strategy Unit said that governments all over the world make the error of "believing they have a monopoly of wisdom, and if only they could persuade the stupid public [then] everything would be fine".[36] Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government shared this view, telling us:

the politicians feel that they know all too well what the public think, so they narrow the debate or seek to influence the debate by having reviews that produce the results they want.

In his view, governments feared the implications of utilising public opinion:

I think the real inhibition here is being afraid of posing potentially what they regard as politically difficult options. If you look particularly at, say, tax issues, there has been a reluctance to have an open debate on strategic choices, because of some of the implications for taxation.[37]

40.  The need to limit public involvement was highlighted by Lord Carter, who stressed that "Governments do have to lead sometimes" adding that "there is always a balance in taking decisions that are sometimes difficult and do not necessarily have the most popular support at that moment but possibly in the longer term may be the right answers."[38] A further danger highlighted in a seminar with Whitehall strategists is the possibility of public opinion reflecting two contradictory opinions at the same time: such as calling for higher welfare spending, while also seeking lower taxes.[39]

41.  Some of our witnesses argued that a focus on public opinion, as part of the process of emergent strategy, diminished the importance of political leadership. Strategy consultant Simon Anholt told us that emergent strategy is "tantamount to admitting the absence of leadership in the system".[40]

42.  The process of emergent strategy demonstrates how public opinion, policies and strategic aims can work together in a 'virtuous' or 'vicious circle'. This is not to abdicate the role of leadership to public opinion, which is what tends to occur without effective National Strategy. Indeed, strong leadership is all the more vital to make rational choices when reconciling public opinion and long-term goals.

43.  The Minister told us that the Government's strategic aims had been tested by public opinion in the 2010 general election:

two parties went into an election having chosen the things that they would emphasise, and as the election produced a certain set of results, I think one can fairly say that they have been subject to a very considerable—in fact, the toughest—democratic test.[41]

44.  The challenge of National Strategy is to ensure the public is involved in its involvement. A general election provides voters with an opportunity to determine who governs, and this can define the strategic direction of the nation, but elections are only a small part of the conversation on the fundamental questions which determine the future of the country. Government, and Parliament as a whole, need a deeper understanding both of how the public perceives our national interests and of what sort of country the public aspires for the UK to be. This must take place on a much longer and continuous timescale than the once-every-five years allotted to a Parliamentary term.

45.  We have commissioned opinion polling which will help us to assess whether national aims are aligned with long term public aspirations and its sense of national identity. We will report on our findings later this year.

22   Public Administration Select Committee, Who does UK National Strategy? Further Report with the Government's Response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2010-12, Appendix 3, para 2, para 6 Back

23   Ev 72 Back

24   Ibid. Back

25   Q 172 [David Steven] Back

26   Q 172 [John Kay] Back

27   Ev 72 Back

28   Q 281 Back

29   Q 290 Back

30   Q 293 Back

31   Q 339 Back

32   Ev w26 [Note: references to 'Ev wXX' are references to written evidence published in the volume of additional written evidence published on the Committee's website.] Back

33   Ev w19 Back

34   Q 221 [Lord Burns] Back

35   Meetings with strategists in Ottawa, February 2012 Back

36   Q 16 Back

37   Q 119 [Peter Riddell] Back

38   Q 221 [Lord Carter] Back

39   Seminar with Whitehall strategists, February 2012  Back

40   Ev w63 Back

41   Q 286 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 24 April 2012