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

4  Emergent strategy: advancing national interests

46.   As already discussed earlier in this report, choices about National Strategy and the direction for the country concern both objectives for economic conditions and interests, and the limitations imposed by them.[42]

47.  The fostering of a strong economic and technological base is both a sound objective and enlarges strategic options. Many of our witnesses argued that sectors of our economy should be viewed as strategic assets and that the Government should take an active role in promoting these sectors.

48.  Such actions are often described as 'picking winners'. This term was viewed by many witnesses as a misleading representation of a worthwhile policy. Professor Kay viewed the term as "a rather absurdly bad name"[43] while Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser argued that the use of the phrase was "the biggest blockage from the Treasury" which was reticent about financially supporting individual companies.[44]

49.  Professor Kay suggested that this opposition to 'picking winners' was a response to the failure of past policies when the Government "picked industries and sectors that were not winners, but we hoped that they might be—or they were losers we were trying to keep around". Instead we should be "asking what our competitive advantages are nationally in the economic sense and framing our industrial economic policies towards those is a very sensible policy. If we want to call it picking winners, so be it".[45]

50.  Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal agreed, citing the life science strategy as an example of the Government position on picking winners where "we do not pick particular companies, but we surely pick broad areas where we see that we have a competitive advantage."[46] Sir David King cited an international example of successful government support for a strategic asset: "there would have been no Silicon Valley in the United States without DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] funding. Public funding from the Defense Agency is what pulled through all of that technology in Silicon Valley".[47]

51.  The Minister addressed this point in his evidence, stressing that the Government did take an active role in supporting strategic assets, appearing to signal a departure from the concerns described by Sir David King. The Minister stated that the Government is "certainly not in the business of trying to identify which company to back" but instead is "trying to play to our strengths as a nation and to push other countries to buy our best, from our best sectors, and try to strengthen those sectors further, rather than simply spreading our limited money round all sectors as if they are all as globally competitive as each other".[48] He emphasised that members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Business Secretary "spend a much larger proportion of their time" doing this than past Governments.[49]

52.  The choice of strategic direction for the country is both determined and limited by economic conditions and interests. Government has a proven role 'incubating' new core technologies, notably through the defence, engineering and pharmaceutical industries. We view the role of Government in supporting strategic assets, without 'picking winners' in the form of individual companies or technologies, as a vital part of our strategic framework. We therefore welcomed the Minister's evidence on this point, commend the Government's commitment to sustain the science budget and endorse the support for the sectors of industry in which Britain is competitive.

53.  The first part of this report has considered the process of emergent strategy, how it is informed by public identity and national values, and the role of leadership in advancing strategy. We shall look next at the strategic capability of the Civil Service and recommend changes to the way Whitehall works to improve strategic working.

42   See paragraph 10 Back

43   Q 158 Back

44   Q 233 [Sir David King] Back

45   Q 158 Back

46   Q 233 [Lord Rees] Back

47   Q 233 [Sir David King] Back

48   Q 326 Back

49   Ibid. Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 24 April 2012