Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Nusbacher Associates (ST 06)

Summary Points

UK Government does not currently work strategically and is unlikely to do so in the near future.

The government’s role must therefore be to create, conduct, clearly communicate and discuss policy; and enable strategic thinking to find ways to optimally fulfil policy aims.

1. The questions in the discussion document show wishful thinking. They beg the question by assuming that someone is doing strategic thinking in UK government. The reality is that apart from a few bright spots of strategy and training for strategy UK government departments are no more strategic than the least strategic person in that department.

2. The least strategic person in any given department is likely to be the Secretary of State.

3. In general, strategic thinking is not highly prized in UK. This stems from our culture: we privilege empirical evidence and empiricism in the philosophical underpinnings of decision making. This has worked for us in many ways for a long time but this clearly is inadequate in a world where the interconnections, influences and politics of other countries are so very strong. The UK thus must develop the capability to think and act strategically from the top of the Executive down through Parliament, media, academia, civil society, schools, pressure groups, industry bodies and individuals.

4. Ministers do not appear to work strategically. They respond to events thus sabotaging any strategic ideas they might have. This is not a party-political issue as the example of air transport strategy over last 60 years shows (see Michael Skapinker, Financial Times 19.10.2011 http://is.gd/jND8kv).

5. There is no single place for public or business to ascertain UK Government strategic positions, should they exist. The government nowhere meaningfully articulates what kind of country we are today nor what kind of country we aspire to be. When things important to the British population, like the form of the NHS or cuts to defence, are discussed these strategic ideas should be at the heart of policy tests. We the people also need to understand our nation’s strategy to assess how consequential are the actions of our Government, local authorities and other public services in all we do in the country and abroad. Strategy needs to be made clear to everyone.

6. A look at the Cabinet Office website for the Strategy Unit http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/content/strategy-unit is instructive. This would be the most natural place for UK citizens to seek information about national strategy, yet today they would find absolutely no indication about UK Strategy there. The National Security Strategy is not there, nor is the UK Cyber Strategy. Similarly, it is unclear whether any government department has a clear strategy as there are far too many documents purporting to describe strategy. For a strategy to have real impact it needs to be accessible. Apart from availability over the Internet statements of strategy need to be written in plain language in a style that makes them easy to read, understand and recall.

7. The UK Cyber Strategy, published by the previous Government and laudably continued by the present administration, is an unsung success: the brevity and clarity of this strategy languishes almost forgotten three years later. Page three lays out a clear strategic vision. Page four lays out actions for government. Where has the government published its successes or partial successes in completing these actions? Where is the layout of the next steps for investment in digital infrastructure?

Q6. Who is doing the strategic thinking in the UK’s role in an uncertain 21st Century?

8. The 21st Century is full of uncertainty, but not necessarily more than the 14th or the 20th. Phrases like “our rapidly changing world” and “an uncertain 21st Century” are excuses for intellectually living hand-to-mouth. Those who think from crisis to crisis find the world around them uncertain because they have no strategy to guide them.

9. Strategy is, in classical theory, the means to achieving a policy aim. It is a path to get from where we are to where, according to policy, we want or need to be. This structured approach enables systematic strategic thinking and planning.

10. In UK Government strategy occupies an uncertain place with respect to policy. The policy profession within the civil service deems policy to be subordinate to strategy, a reversal of the classical concept of strategy. In the hurly-burly of public administration where strategy is often absent policy serves a notional strategy.

11. The habit of strategic thinking is the habit of asking, “in order to do what?” That is, cultivating the active expectation that any action is meant to achieve a higher-order aim with clearly articulated policy the highest-order set of aims.

12. Sound strategic thinking involves examining plans to ask not only what the aim is, but moreover whether a given action will indeed achieve the aim and whether a given action is the most economical of effort in doing so.

13. In the absence of habits of strategic thinking, the phenomenon labelled strategy is no more than expediency. Strategy is purely instrumental to the perceived needs of the day.

14. “Day” is no exaggeration: ministers respond to the demands of a 24-hour news cycle. Looking as far forward as the next election is rare. Looking more than five years forward is unheard-of. The effect of this can be seen in the UK’s lack of national infrastructure strategy, national industrial strategy or national energy strategy. Years ago a previous government suggested that government operate in a “joined-up” fashion. This is a good idea, but joined-up operating is just part of joined-up thinking.

How do developments in cyber, technology and social media affect all these discussions?

15. Lack of strategic thinking and working exposes the UK to costs. For instance, the lack of a strong national narrative on cyber threat means that the country blithely accepts swingeing losses to cyber crime. The latest FCO sources give the following figures related to cyber:

(a)UK web-based industry = £100 billion (8% of UK GDP);

(b)global e-commerce = $8 trillion; and

(c)cyber-crime costs $1 trillion per year = 12.5% of global e-commerce. (see Rt Hon William Hague MP article in Der Spiegel, 18 October 2011 http://is.gd/epPVE6).

To get the scale of cyber crime alone it is enough to note that it is three times as large as the Eurozone’s temporary €440 billion rescue fund (see Financial Times, 20 October 2011 http://is.gd/F0IOqB).

16. One of the challenges and opportunities of strategic thinking is ensuring that policy suits the wants and needs of the country rather than wants and needs constructed for the country. Social media, in breaking away from mediation, empowering the individual and creating virtual communities, provides an opportunity for two-way communication between government and the publics that make up the United Kingdom.

Q7. What is the role of the UK Government in leading, enabling and delivering strategic thinking?

17. For UK government to lead in strategic thinking it must provide an example. We have noted above in paragraph 4 that ministers do not work strategically, their departments do not work strategically; moreover there seems to be little sign that this will change. Should government take upon itself the mantle of leadership and excellence in strategic thinking, it will very likely become one more apparent dishonesty on the part of politicians or one more apparent mendacity on the part of civil servants. Because UK government is unlikely to take a leadership position, someone other than government must lead and deliver strategic thinking.

18. What remains, then, is the government’s role: to enable strategic thinking and to support it with the public and in Parliament.

Are there roles that need to be done by UK Government alone?

19. Government must impose democratic and expert scoping and direction by creating policy: the aims which will be achieved by strategy.

20. It is government’s part to voice aspirations for the country and its people, setting out visions of where the UK will need to be in years to come. Political party manifestos, think tanks and pressure groups will contribute visions and aspirations which are absorbed into government policy by democratic means. Government must communicate rationale and meaning for aspirations, and continuously discuss and test these issues with the public.

21. Only government can reconcile wants and needs in making decisions on allocation of resources.

22. Only government can demand that strategy must be woven into whatever the public sector does by seeking to embed strategic thinking in the ordinary working of government.

23. Government, as a collector of information, must be open to ensure that citizens’ responsibilities are supported with relevant data.

Should the Government enable … businesses and civil society … to play a greater role in making, shaping and delivering policies?

24. This question asks, in essence, should there be politics outside the closed corridors of political parties and central government ministries, and the answer is “yes”.

October 2011

Prepared 20th April 2012