Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Chirton Group (ST 08)

This evidence is deliberately discursive in tone. It is designed to stimulate discussion rather than present a coherent and detailed prescription as to the way ahead in terms of developing strategic thinking across Whitehall. The author is happy to expand on any specific points, either in further written evidence or before the Committee. A summary of the main points of this evidence is below:

First—we lack clarity about the purpose of strategy. What are the myriad strategies produced by government actually for? This needs to be clarified because until we are clear about the utility of strategy we simply will not get any better at it.

Second, we need greater clarity about the processes by which strategy is derived, communicated, executed and evaluated. Until this is addressed there will be incoherence across Whitehall in terms of approach and no proper framework for a discussion about the relative roles of government and citizens.

Third, we need to recognise that financial decision-making shapes everything else in Whitehall. Unless and until the money is explicitly linked to the strategies they will remain so much expensive wallpaper.

Fourth, secrecy is the enemy of inclusive—and therefore effective—strategy making. Keeping doors closed and secrets hidden is precisely the opposite of what is required if strategy making is to improve.

Fifth, if you are serious about engaging the public then the challenge is to make the public the strategy makers. The implications and challenges of such an approach would need considerable unpicking—but this change in approach must be considered.

There are also specific comments on some of the questions asked in the Issues and Questions paper. Not all questions have been commented on.

What is strategy actually for? And how can we examine it?

1. The UK has traditionally had an approach characterised by plenty of policy but little strategy, based on an implicit and deeply embedded belief in the efficacy of a “pragmatic and reactive”1 approach to the business of government. In many people’s minds strategy is a purely abstract concept; it is little more than window dressing and has little direct or discernible effect on the decisions HMG makes or the way in which money is actually spent.

2. There are four areas one may look at to assess the degree of strategic capability across government. These areas are common across government and have wide application, but we can use national security as an example to illustrate the structure.

3. First, consider language. Here the situation is actually pretty good. The publication of a National Security Strategy in 2008 was huge step forward and the language of the national security community across Whitehall is now genuinely the language of strategy and not just activity. It is about what to achieve, not simply what to do—and this should be applauded.

4. But moving beyond the language is difficult. Consider the second area—structure. Here again there is real progress—the establishment of a National Security Council (NSC) to oversee the execution of the strategy is a huge step forward. The challenge going forward is to get the NSC beyond coordination and coherence and into the realm of making proper strategic choices.

5. The third area where the UK government might consider moving forward is in term is process—and financial process in particular. UK spending on national security is something that has never been clearly identified and it is no easier now than it was when William Nicholson was writing on the SDR to judge whether the UK gets anything like “value for money” for its national security spend. Again, this has parallels elsewhere.

6. There is of course a fourth area—culture and behavior. This is the most important area for development and there is much good work to build on. But until the UK has a generation of policy makers and advisors that think in terms of security and not simply the activities of departments, the UK will not achieve a genuinely strategic approach to anything. This will not require wholesale changes in personnel, but it will require a good deal of change in current approaches and mindsets that have been developed and reinforced over many years.

7. Overall, though, there is much to celebrate in the UK’s developing approach to national security strategy in particular—and therefore by extension strategy in general. That the UK has such a strategy at all is in itself a genuinely significant step forward. But the extent to which that strategy is anything more than a context setter is questionable—and this is the issue that one finds repeated across Whitehall.

8. The challenge—and opportunity—before the UK government is to give its myriad strategies a meaningful practical application, to use them as a rigorous guide to priorities and as structures that help people make tough decisions about how to spend money. Making this transition requires the UK government not simply to speak the language of strategy, but also to make real adjustments to structures, processes and behaviours. To articulate a strategy is not enough—the challenge is in doing business in a way that demonstrably allows the UK to line up its increasingly scarce resources behind it.

9. The first PASC report quite rightly found “little sustained strategic thinking” and a “culture of fire-fighting rather than long term planning”. The report was largely focused on security as a proxy for overall national strategy so the widening of scope of the second report is very welcome.

10. The UK has strategies and lots of them. But who is clear about what these documents are actually for? Where is the evidence this these strategies are being delivered in practice rather than simply articulated? To what extent is the activity—and spending—of all those departments involved really shaped by these strategies? The UK has strategies, but does it really have a strategic approach? Do these strategies just provide a different context for business as usual? Is it possible to conclude that while the wallpaper may have changed, the furniture may still be in the same place?

Some General Comments on the UK Approach to Strategy

First—we lack clarity about the purpose of strategy

11. The situation at present seems to be that strategy is regarded as context at best and wallpaper at worst. It is the backdrop for spending decisions rather than what actually drives them. There needs to be more clarity about the purpose of strategy—it is almost never defined in terms of its utility. This is dangerous because it creates an environment where strategy is an end in itself. This must be resisted—strategy must have a purpose. Articulating the purpose of strategies would be a great place to start in terms of making Whitehall better at strategic decision-making.

Second, we need greater clarity about the processes by which strategy is derived, communicated, executed and evaluated

12. If we are not clear at least in outline how this process works then how can we have a sensible discussion about the relative responsibilities in this process of politicians, officials and the public? Some common—albeit generic—approach across Whitehall would both encourage better working across government and allow a more detailed discussion about who should do what—both inside and outside government.

Third, we need to recognise that financial decision-making shapes everything else in Whitehall

13. If you want to change behaviour, then start with the money. If you want to change the way that people behave—and this is ultimately such an issue—you need to get to the heart of how they make decisions. Financial structures play a huge part in this and the best way to make people more strategic is to require that they explicitly align finds and other resources to the strategies that are supposed to guide these decisions. Formally linking strategies to money is a key intervention and would be extremely significant.

Fourth, secrecy is the enemy of inclusive—and therefore effective—strategy making

14. Strategy is less and less the business of ivory towers or locked doors. There is a fundamental shift going on toward engagement with citizens in the strategies that shape their lives—both here and abroad. If this approach is not to collapse in a puff of slogans then people need to be involved—and not just by reading about the results of other people’s decisions, but in the whole process of strategy development. This is an enormous challenge to current structures and indeed mindsets—and taken to its logical conclusion involves the last of the general points made here;

Fifth, if you are serious about engaging the public then the challenge is to make the public the strategy makers

15. Is this what emergent strategy and the “Big Society” is all about? If so, then the structures of strategy and policy making need to be fundamentally redesigned in order to focus on public engagement and mechanisms that unlock public ideas and energy. Can we envisage a future in which the public design, develop and execute strategies for themselves with the role of government as enabler rather than director? If the answer is yes, some major rethinking is needed.

16. The governing machine of the UK, used to dealing simply with policy—“the course of action on which politicians decide”—needs to be challenged to deal with questions of purpose, of “ what it’s all for”. Unless the state and its supporting bureaucracy re-evaluates its role, we may be unlikely to see any really significant changes in strategic capability.

Questions and Responses

Do we in the UK have a broad enough concept of national strategy in government?

17. The answer to this question is no, because we seem to lack the structures, both organisational and cognitive, to be truly strategic. What is lacking is people who are truly able to step back far enough to see the whole of an issue or a system, and who then have access to the necessary levers to affect change at the right level. People understand that issues are connected but seem to have no access to the mechanisms of that connection—there is a lack of ability to do anything about even those issues that are recognized. Current training and structures simply do not allow people to gain a broad enough view to see the true interconnectedness of strategic issues.

18. Regarding terminology, “national strategy” is too lofty and abstract a term—it implies a degree of coherence that can only really be achieved on the page. Just plain old “strategy” might be better—particularly if your aspiration is to involve the public more in the process.

To what extent is Government strategy based on evidence?

19. It is not obvious from outside government to what degree strategy is evidence based. It is also not obvious that this would be a good idea—policy ought to be based on evidence if possible, but strategy often cannot be guided by evidence because it is about seeking a change in the state of the world—about which there may be no prior data.

20. There are many habits and incentives that inhibit strategic thinking. The main one of these at present is the way in which money is spent. If spending is ultimately a departmental business then we will never have a government machine that is truly strategic—because anything that is cross departmental will always end up being regarded as “non-core” business. This is precisely the opposite of the way it ought to work. The cross-departmental “stuff” is the strategic stuff—when departments look at how they spend their money they ought to look outside in rather than inside out. Those things which only single departments do are almost by definition not strategic—the programmes being worked on across government are.

21. Somehow forcing departments to take this inside out view might go some way to making government more strategic. So would developing a cadre of strategists. This would be the single most useful intervention—a long term approach to selecting and developing a community of strategists across government but including contributions from private or third sector individuals.

22. Secrecy is the enemy of effective strategy, because a huge part of effectiveness of any strategy is communication and engagement. The government seems almost institutionally incapable of understanding this. For all talk of consultation and “big conversations”, the perception of the bureaucracy is that strategy making is at heart a business best left to the professionals—and done behind closed doors with the results published in glossy format. This approach is entirely wrong but the alternative is a huge challenge to a bureaucracy that seems to regard the public as simply the subject of strategies created by clever people in Whitehall. This approach is perhaps what needs to change most—and the first thing that needs to happen is to engage the public in the development of the strategies that will affect their lives. Secrecy is the exact opposite of what is needed to help this process.

Are there examples of policy-making programmes or processes that illustrate effective strategic thinking and behaviour within Whitehall?

23. A lot of progress is being made in this area already. Most departments have a number of units whose focus is explicitly strategic and an obvious step forward might be to create some sort of forum in which they can all interact and develop day to day coherence of approach across the national security community. This may require a leap of faith on all their behalfs because one can detect a suspicion that the purpose of a number of these units is less to take forward strategy across government and more to articulate a robust case for the relevant department’s existence in a competitive strategy “marketplace”. The main challenge will be to foster an environment of collaboration and cooperation between these departments’ Strategy Units as opposed to one of competition.

24. There is one current stand-alone example of effective strategy making—the Climate Change Act of 2008. It set out not only a context for energy policy in this country, but also enshrined in law a series of basic targets that are the driver for pretty much all energy and climate change policy. It also set up an effective oversight body—the Committee on Climate Change. This has enough autonomy to hold the government to account and examine its plans for the achievement of the strategy. This is not a structure that will be universally applicable—but as an example of the articulation of a strategic view and the development of a strategy that has real teeth in terms of driving activity, it surely has lessons that might apply to other areas of government.

Who is doing the strategic thinking on the UK’s role in an uncertain 21st century?

25. The challenge here is to find ways to make the public the policy makers. This is a hugely challenging and complex area, but there are a number of initiatives that might help to get a debate started on how best to involve citizens in strategy and to unlock their potential to contribute to both the development and execution of that strategy.

26. First, it would be relatively easy to set up a sort of citizens’ cabinet, a shadow body that was presented with a number of (non-security) issues using similar information to the Cabinet or some other body. Present the information and then invite them to make decisions on the relevant strategic response. The results could then be presented to the actual decision makers as an invitation for reflection on the quality of their own decision-making. This process might be difficult to facilitate but it might also throw up some absolute gems in terms of strategies rooted in the real world.

27. The other more obvious opportunity is to experiment with crowd sourcing. Iceland recently crowd sourced it’s new Constitution. It would be very interesting to conduct such an exercise with, for example, the next iteration of the National Security Strategy.

What is the role of the UK government in leading, enabling and delivering strategic thinking?

28. Arguing, as the government does in it’s response to the Committee’s first report on UK Grand Strategy, that the best way forward is within current structures, is simply not good enough. It is entirely obvious that change is needed, but the problem at present is that investment in strategic thinking and the ability to execute change is regarded as a rather esoteric luxury that won’t help to address current crises and might appear self indulgent to those outside Whitehall. If it just involved the traditional policy making community then this would be a fair criticism—but the traditional policy making community are entirely the wrong people around whom to build this new capability. We are not talking here about retraining existing senior civil servants, but about bringing into the strategy development process an entirely new cadre of people and organisations. Truly strategic initiatives will not look anything like existing structures or plans—they will not be implementable using existing departmental structures.

29. The challenge for the governmental machine is to grow a cadre of people who can think genuinely strategically and give them a space in which to interact both inside and outside government. The requirement is for people who are focused on answering the most simple questions and ensuring that departmental activity is coherent with—and aligned to—strategic priorities. They need to be able to step back far enough to see the whole of a problem or issue—and to understand that, in this regard, the best view of the problem may not be from inside an office in Whitehall.

October 2011

1 Sir John Coles, in his book, Making Foreign Policy: A Certain Idea of Britain. London, John Murray, 2000.

Prepared 20th April 2012