Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Andrew Griffiths (ST 10)

Summary

At present there is little concept of national strategy, and a plethora of evidence of incoherence. Where programmes do exist, these do not appear to be strongly evidence based, nor to learn from prior experience.

Debate and policy/strategy formation appears to be unduly influenced by non-democratic parties (lobbyists, special advisors, NGO’s), and policy consultations appear historically to have had limited engagement with the wider population, whose voice is not well heard, nor well represented by MPs.

A key challenge to the concept of national strategy is that if it is not cross party it is not much of a strategy, and if it is cross party then no choice is offered to voters.

In most cases of strategy formation and implementation in all sectors, good execution will easily overcome a mediocre strategy; Where government strategies do exist, they often deliver little for the considerable inputs, and this appears to me to be caused as much by poor execution as by poor strategy.

I conclude that the concept of national strategy seems overly ambitious, but much could be achieved by learning from the government’s own experience, applying the lessons, holding those responsible publicly to account, and by government trying to do less but do it better, and to facilitate in preference to “doing”.

In Response to the Specific Questions of the Consultation

1. Do we have a broad enough concept of national strategy in government?

1.1 This would presuppose that there was any concept of national strategy in government—the body of evidence suggests to me that there is no such concept, nor any coherence that might pass as an emergent national strategy.

Example 1: Engaging in repeated overseas military adventures whilst not equipping or resourcing our armed forces for these.

Example 2: Energy policy lacks that any strategic rationale, preferring tokenism focused on low carbon ambitions of the political and NGO classes, rather than focusing on real world achievability, cost and technology implications, or the significance of peak oil.

Example 3:  Immigration policy has and continues to permit a steady increase in the UK population, yet we have a public services infrastructure that is stretched by the existing population, a transport infrastructure that in barely adequate for purpose, and a housing shortage.

1.2 The nature of a good strategy is that it needs to be enduring, and thus needs to rise above party politics to avoid becoming a five year programme. There appears to be little in the way of historic examples of parties working in this way, nor realistically would we expect politicians to think beyond their current tenure. A further concern about a supra-political strategy is whether members of parliament have the insight or popular support to design such monotheistic structures, where the strategy will not change with a change of government. With a democratic deficit in more than a few areas, having a national strategy that all parties support would seem to be an opportunity to further ignore the potentially changing views of the electorate.

2. To what extent is Government strategy based on evidence?

2.1 From an external perspective, Government strategy (or rather the adhoc policies that masquerade as strategy) appears weakly based on evidence. Much direction appears to come from data gathering by Parliamentary Committees and working groups, and gives an appearance of overvaluing verbal contributions from well funded, well organised, well spoken parties with vested interests, particularly large companies, commercial lobbyists, and NGO’s. I would suggest that any topic without a vested interest component does tend to get overlooked, regardless of the electorate’s probable best interest—for example the Digital Economy bill appeared to be driven largely by the interests of copyright holding companies than (say) consumers, whereas vitally important but relatively abstract digital concepts (for example net neutrality, or internet privacy) were essentially ignored, or left to a particularly ineffective sector regulator.

2.2 A pressing concern is a failure to learn—Government is persistently associated with failed projects, or projects that deliver over cost, over-time, with reduced functionality, or fail completely: Fire Control Centres, NHS IT, DWP Customer Information System, almost every major defence project ever, etc. Then there are projects either executed by government, or mandated by government with no valid business case (a current example being HS2), or smart meters (in that case, a probable £15 billion outturn bill for no real benefit that will be inflicted on the populace through their energy bills). The strategy for UK digital radio shows similar lack of intelligence and insight: Continuing to press on with an already outdated technology that offers few benefits over FM, requires large subsidies and solves no problems.

2.3 Whilst the National Audit Office has broadly done a good job in identifying lessons on government programmes (although far too timid and consensual in many respects), it is clear that often strategy, policy and programmes are not informed by the evidence of the past. A stronger and more combative NAO would be a major step forward, but this needs to be considered in the light of the inability of politicians to accept valid criticism.

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

3.1 No response.

4. How well has the government fulfilled its own commitments in the National Security Strategy, the Strategic Defence and Security Review and its response to the PASC report “Who does UK Grand Strategy”?

4.1 Parables from ancient times have illustrated that it is not possible to please all of the people all of the time, but the approach of successive British governments does establish that you can actually please none of the people all of the time, particularly when it comes to defence. Taking the Strategic Defence & Security Review, the hardware decisions were bizarre; and the commitment on aircraft carriers serves as a fine example: Why are we buying two new carriers at all when the government evidently believe we can currently manage with none? Why build them now when we cannot afford the aircraft to operate them for another decade? The line that “these are contractual commitments of the last government” is clear nonsense, given the negotiating power of government as sole buyer of defence equipment in the UK, so in effect a Conservative/Liberal coalition has voluntarily committed around £7 billion (before the obligatory £3 billion over-spend) to buy Labour votes over the SNP in Scottish shipbuilding towns, working on military resources they don’t believe we need, and indeed won’t have operational for another decade. To design and build our own design of two carriers furthermore ignores scale economies and interoperability needs of Nato equipment (why not just buy a couple of US designed carriers with a work offset programme?), and ignores the history of MoD/BAe running wildly delayed and over-budget projects. Even the decision that we currently do not need any carriers is not supported by the nature of most of our military engagements in the past half century. Polite words fail to adequately summarise the quality of the SD&SR.

4.2 I think it fair to say that government defence strategies over the years have been some of their poorest pieces of work, and this can be seen going back many, many decades to debacles of the past (TSR-2, anybody?). One trend that defence strategy has created is the supposedly rising capability and certainly rising unit cost of defence equipment that mean we are now on glidepath to a position where the army will have one tank, the air force one bomber, and the navy one ship. This may seem ludicrous, but on the steady trends over the past twenty odd years as documented in Annual Abstract of Statistics, the Royal Navy will have one submarine and two frigates by 2022, and at around the same date the RAF will have one squadron of fast jets. I am not suggesting that the trends continue at that rate, or that the defence budget should be increased—merely stating that defence strategies have persistently assumed that fewer, more expensive assets replace more cheaper assets. In fact, botched procurement is a notable driver of increased unit costs, and the greater capability is often illusory in the field, such that our true capability is being diminished in a more uncertain world. Look at the £23 billion currently being wasted on the UK Eurofighter programme—to fight which air force? And worse, some of these Cold War air defence fighters are being refitted as embarrassingly poor ground attack aircraft, due to a lack of a replacement for 1970’s designed strike aircraft. The wars of choice that this country engages in mean that our bread and butter air “defence” needs are tactical air to ground strike (the case since the end of the Cold War two decades ago) but the one thing our forces don’t have is a competent strike aircraft. Similar comments can be made in respect of the need for and lack of attack and transport helicopters, cruise missiles, drones etc, but either way the point is that government is persistently incompetent in defence strategy and spending. The latest revelation that the MOD has spent more than half a billion pounds on consultants only further illustrates this incompetence.

5. How effectively does the Government assess the UK’s national interests and comparative advantages or assets, including industries as strategic assets; and how does the Government reach decisions to protect and promote them?

5.1 I see little evidence that any recent government has acted well in the UK’s strategic interest, nor that departments work together. A persistent trend has been for the tide of verbose, unhelpful and restrictive legislation to be blamed on the EU; there are some elements of truth in that, particularly in matters of environment and employment policy, but the ability of the British government to translate European requests into overly complex and burdensome legislation is a notable own goal. And both main parties have demonstrated a repeated ability to ignore the national interest in the UK’s own jurisdiction that cannot be overlooked—for example the 700 odd pages of the Companies Act 2006 that not a single MP appeared to understand or have read, creating yet more red tape for no tangible benefit of any kind.

5.2 Industrial policy and the concept of industries as “strategic assets” has been largely absent for many years, although given the history this is probably a good thing; there is a wide body of academic literature that illustrates that protecting and promoting particular industries harms the wider public interest, and in the longer term is correlated with the decline of the supposedly favoured firms (the history of British car makers being case in point). The very concept of governments being able to pick winners, or favouring particular commercial interests is worrisome, and the national interest would be better served by creating conditions that favour all UK based businesses. However, this is an area where much work is needed—an example being the harm that government inflicts by lack of a strategy for business is the disincentives inherent through the tax system. In particular, employers’ national insurance is a circa £60 billion tax on jobs that makes employing UK staff less attractive and exacerbates non-beneficial trends such as offshoring. Indeed, employers payroll tax appears to be the third largest source of income for the government. The lack of any sense of business employment, or tax strategy (nay, lack of common sense) is further illustrated by the fact that the UK tax code is now one of the most complex in the world: the tax manager’s bible, Tolley’s Guide, now clocks in at 11,500 pages for the main volumes—what are you people on?

5.3 The choice to fund the higher education system through probably unsustainable student fees is another example of government completely failing the national interest. The prior government’s ambition of sending half of young people into higher education was indeed a dubious goal—but that would still have had a better return on investment than the similar sum spent on overseas aid, the circa £55 billion UK net contribution to the EU, or the £24 billion spent by the UK government on largely useless “economic affairs”. A far better approach for higher education would have been to introduce tuition fees for “soft” subjects, but not for science, engineering, medicine and the like, perhaps accompanied by a programme to reshape higher education around employment rather than as full time education.

5.4 Certain industries (for example financial services) do appear to be world leading performers, despite their deep unpopularity and recent problems, but in this case I remain to be convinced that the government will really act in the UK’s interests when European leaders decide to try and advance their national interests by measures that impact on UK based financial services. In other sectors, we do have clusters of skill, such as Silicon Fen area around Cambridge—but with a single dominant company almost certainly destined to be bought by a larger foreign owned competitor, what have government done to bring on smaller growth companies in the tech sector? What have government done to help build on the skills in motorsport valley? Much talking, little action, and a persistent failure to listen and act upon the complaints of industry about excessive regulation, or to produce graduates with appropriate skills.

5.5 I perceive that the government has shown a total inability to accurately assess the UK’s national interest: the current government’s spending review and budget has been the biggest missed opportunity in probably half a century. Overlooking the need to rebalance the state from ever increasing public spending, the misallocation of public sector resources, tax code complexity, disincentives to work, to employ, or to invest, government has instead started on a range of actions and programmes with little electoral support. NHS reform; Increased overseas aid (eg funding the Indian education system despite the fact that India chooses to spend its own money on new aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, and a space programme); and tinkering around with laws of succession. Were these examples really matters of strategic priority and in the national interest?

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

6.1 In terms of policy (given the lack of strategy and strategic thinking) much of the thinking seems to me (a view from the cheap seats) to be led by un-evidenced ministerial beliefs, political expediency, career civil servants, plus pressure from essentially undemocratic NGOs and commercial lobbyists, and “special advisors” (all of these last three being particularly malign and undemocratic aspects of modern government). The primary missing influence has to be that of the electorate. The ability of politicians to accurately gauge either public opinion or what is in the best interests of the country seems quite remarkably poor (particularly compared to the press), and this gulf between population and government appears to be widening.

6.2 Any “strategic thinking” needed thus needs to be a formulation based on the views of the electorate that is recognisable by them, balanced by an informed and strategic view that government needs to take, using the input of industry and NGO’s with far more discretion than appears to be the current case. Note that is quite distinct from identifying that somebody actually formulates a strategy to be imposed on the electorate, and distinct from a strategy cobbled together by an uneasy alliance of career politicians, lobbyists and NGO’s, aided by management consultants. I suspect that this would represent a tectonic shift in thinking for many MP’s, who appear to universally regard themselves as free thinking representatives rather than delegates.

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

7.1 Leading: In the light of my view that there is no concept of national strategy, and little evidence based decision making, I don’t see that government leads strategic thinking. I do have a view that on certain issues, the political classes see public debate as being at best a vehicle to corral opinion towards a pre-conceived conclusion, and which must be suppressed or ignored if the outcome of a robust debate would not support the politician’s view (the recent European referendum debate being an excellent recent example, but many abound under the previous government).

7.2 Enabling: Government should indeed enable an informed national debate on what the issues are, leading towards a logical conclusion for all parties based on the evidence and conflicting opinions. In this respect government does half of a good job, with a huge amount of data and information on government web sites, but often in forms that do not get out to inform wider debate.

7.3 Delivering: I’m not sure that governments have successfully delivered any strategy. A particularly good example of failure to deliver a national strategy is on drug use. In the past decade hospital admissions for drug poisoning are up 58% (source NHS), and the use of class A drugs (as per BCS) has remained at a consistent level around 3% of a rising population over a similar time scale. In the real world, spending a billion quid a year without reducing class A drug use, and with rising hospital admissions would be classed as a failure.

8. What are the skills that the Civil Service need to develop to build on existing strategic capacity? What are the relevant institutional, structural, leadership, budgeting and cultural reforms that are needed to support Ministers and the Civil Service?

8.1 The civil service needs to be far less faceless, far more meritocratic, and far less tolerant of underperformance or failure. How did we get to the point where the Fire Control Centres had cost almost a billion pounds and delivered precisely nothing, yet nobody has been sacked? Given that the Prince2 method of project management, widely recognised and used successfully in the private sector is actually a UK government creation, why do so many government projects go so badly wrong?

9. What can we learn from what other countries, both in terms of what they do in strategic policy making and how they perceive the UK?

9.1 I suspect that it is an accurate summary that the greater government involvement in declaring strategies, and indeed involvement in the economy, the worse the growth rates. Soviet style central planning has been a known disaster in all implementations, and there is a clear negative correlation between state involvement in the economy and growth, even across Europe.

9.2 One of the fastest and most consistent growth stories is of course China, and the example here is that complex and ambitious government programmes (eg high speed rail) have been significantly problematic, but the great successes have been where government has facilitated simpler new infrastructure (eg export ports, road transport links, development zones) and then stood well clear whilst new industries are created. A summary might be that the Chinese government removes barriers to growth; I see an opposite scenario in the UK, that government creates or maintains barriers to growth.

9.3 Transferring this to the UK, the lesson is that with government, less is indeed more: Government is essential to create simple, robust frameworks for the economy to thrive, and to create basic civil infrastructure that is needed. However, overly ambitious investment programmes, direct market interventions and excess law making should be avoided as these often deliver mediocre or poor results.

November 2011

Prepared 20th April 2012