Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by RAND Europe (ST 17)


The capacity for strategic thinking in Whitehall has grown enormously over the past decade. However, there remains a significant gap between the skills and experience of individuals and the organizational culture and practice of Whitehall.

Gathering and using evidence is not a discrete phase in strategy making. Evidence is fundamental to the formulation, development and evaluation of strategy. Departments and agencies still do not invest enough time, effort and resources in developing evidence.

Given the complexity of policy issues, and the uncertainty of the future it is more important than ever for government departments to invest in imaginative ways of policy making and strategic thinking.


1. The central argument in the Public Administration Select Committee’s (PASC) first report Who does UK National Strategy? is that the UK does not have a “grand strategy” and this is for a number of reasons not least, the lack of capacity for strategic thinking in Government. This belief is predicated on a series of statements given by witnesses, the majority of whom come from the defence community or are academics who have studied grand strategy.

2. On balance the capacity for strategic thinking in Whitehall has grown enormously in the past decade. Officials are now better prepared to manage complex issues, more likely to have had the opportunity to have had a posting in one of the many Strategy Units located in Whitehall Departments and developed their own abilities through learning and development courses run by the public and private sector.

3. The complexity of issues have also forced policymakers to look outside of Whitehall for answers, while the implementation of most strategies has required the public, private and voluntary sectors to work in unison.

4. The disconnect between policy and strategy,1 it is suggested, remains two-fold. The first is the tension between the short term political agenda of Westminster and the belief by Whitehall that policy should be allowed to develop in the long-term. The second is the need for governments to be agile in the face of a changing environment but provide long term stability.

5. This argument owes more to various myths about strategy circulating in the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster than real analysis. Three of these myths are central to the current disquiet surrounding UK National Strategy:

There must be broad consensus for a strategy to exist. Peter Feaver2 neatly sums up the confusion surrounding debates about grand or national strategies today by arguing that most major strategies play host to numerous sub-strategic debates. We exaggerate the strategic consensus from the past and the wider strategic disagreements of today. This is true of many governments and organizations which have been inclined to describe their own age as uncertain and turbulent, and dismiss the previous one as stable (the same one their predecessors found uncertain and turbulent).3

A strategy is only about the future strategic environment. Most strategies tend to focus on past events and how best to avoid them from happening again. So while a strategy will set out an aim and a future direction of travel the starting point for most grand strategy is backwards-looking. This can be seen in most of the Government’s current strategies which describes the “previous” security environment and therefore what the Government is trying to avoid. The Strategic Defence Review (SDR) is an excellent example of this—only hinting at the security priorities of the future while focusing mainly on what the end of the Cold War meant for UK Defence.

Only major shifts in strategy matter. There is more continuity that change between the Coalition Government and its predecessors. As Feaver suggests, “As you move up the ladder…the higher the level, the more this is true. But over-time the small changes can be significant, like a 1-degree shift in the vector of an aircraft carrier over a 1000 mile voyage”.4

6. This discussion paper presents some views on Government policy and the capacity for strategic thinking in Whitehall. It is not intended to be comprehensive, rather, it seeks to respond to three issues which have so far been understudied and have not been the subject of much discussion: uncertainty and the quest for control; evidence-based strategy making; and changes to the Whitehall system. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and should not be held to represent those of RAND Europe.

Uncertainty, Complexity and Control

7. The overriding aim of the United Kingdom’s National Security Strategy (UK NSS) is to create “A strong Britain in an age of uncertainty”. In the foreword to the NSS, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister argue that:

Our predecessors grappled with the brutal certainties of the Cold War—with an existential danger that was clear and present, with Soviet armies arrayed across half of Europe and the constant threat of nuclear confrontation between the superpowers. Today, Britain faces a different and more complex range of threats from a myriad of sources…All of this calls for a radical transformation in the way we think about national security and organize ourselves to protect it. We are entering an age of uncertainty.5

8. As Henry Mintzberg, the management guru, explains: to claim that we are experiencing more turbulence would dissolve every bureaucracy and render every strategy useless. The environment is always changing in some dimension and remaining stable in others, rarely do they change all at once, let alone continuously.6 In order to understand change and its implications for government strategy and the process of strategic thinking is crucial in helping policymakers and planners make choices.

9. Without a strategy change (in whatever form) can be destabilizing—not least because public and private sector organizations are exposed to a range of different variables requiring immediate attention as well as discussion about future opportunities and risks. The lack of a strategy—and indeed a process for thinking strategically—can lead to a sense of uncertainty.

10. This is particularly important when it comes to “wicked issues”, issues that are unbounded by time, scope, and resources and enjoy no clear solution.7 Most of the issues facing government today are no longer the responsibility of a single department. Rather they require a multitude of public, private and voluntary actors all of whom must agree to the overall approach, the strategy to implement the objectives and the will to succeed.

11. Tackling wicked issues demands a different approach to the traditional policymaking toolkit. Various models have been designed that move beyond simple risks assessments and instead allow for situations where decision makers have varying or incomplete knowledge of either potential futures or their probabilities, as well as those contexts in which policymakers operate from a position of deep ignorance—Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns—where neither is attainable.8 Stirling’s matrix emphasizes the importance of adaptability in the face of a lack of knowledge and advocates particular routes for strategy-making based on the context. One of these routes is scenario-planning.

12. Scenario planning examines the full range of possible futures and prepares for all likely eventualities. As the technologist Stewart Brand argues: “Scenario planning ensures that you are not always right about the future, but that you are almost never wrong”.9 It is best suited to situations in which we understand the possibilities, but not their likelihood of coming to pass. While there is limited evidence that “futures methods” lead to more robust strategic policy decisions, their merit lies in agenda setting, understanding uncertainty and stakeholder engagement.10

13. Futures research can be used directly and indirectly to support decision making. The various direct and indirect forms of decision support can be roughly grouped into six forms:

stimulating wider debate about possible futures (indirect);

getting stakeholder buy-in or engagement (indirect);

triggering cultural change within the organisation (indirect);

clarifying the importance of an issue and framing a decision making agenda (direct);

generating options for future action (direct); and

appraising robustness of options for future action (direct).11

The Use of Evidence

14. The PASC inquiry on “Governing the Future” in 2007 mentions the use of evidence in strategic thinking, suggesting: strategies should be kept under review so that they take account of new information and developments in research. Willingness to adjust policy in light of new evidence or changing circumstances should be seen as a sign of strength, not of weakness.12 Evidence can take many forms. It can be based on the latest scientific enquiry or drawn from the very broadest sources with different methodologies and techniques being used at different stages. What is meant by “evidence-based” is complicated further by the fact that the impact of programmes and policies can be transient, changing over time, situation and context”.13

15. For example the campaign assessment for NATO operations in Bosnia in the late 1990s incorporated grassroots indicators on the prices of major goods. They consisted of the number of television aerials in villages and the reduction in the price of women’s underwear. The indicators were set by operational analysts supporting senior commanders in the field, who assessed them for relevance and appropriateness.14

16. Gathering and using evidence is not a discrete phase in strategy making. Rather it is a continuous process that informs every stage of the strategy making model. Evidence is fundamental to the formulation, development and evaluation of strategy. An example of the importance of an evidence base to help conceptualise an approach can be seen in the British Government’s Building Stability Overseas Strategy. The strategy states that while some progress has been made, “the overall evidence base and conceptual foundations for engagement in fragile states remain patchy, underdeveloped and, in some areas, contested.”15

17. Evidence is also a crucial part of the evaluation process. As the recent Prevent Strategy makes clear: “the monitoring and evaluation of Prevent projects has not been robust enough to justify the sums of public money spent on them. We will make sure that they are improved, and unless there is evidence that they are effective and of value for money, projects will lose their funding.”16

18. Analysed correctly, evidence can: demonstrate what work’s and just as importantly what doesn’t; help avoid repeating predictable mistakes and can enable [individuals and organizations] to seize important opportunities to raise the quality of planning and implementation; and significantly it can reduce the current areas of risk, and help to anticipate and tackle potential failures or under-achievements more effectively.17

19. The enormity of the task should not be underestimated however. Most experts believe that the ability of policymakers to acquire all the relevant knowledge, understand their implications and the effects of existing programmes with confidence and perform both a comprehensive analysis of the issue and an evaluation given time constraints is simply not possible. As Ruttick suggests; “thus the choice set faced by managers is limited to incremental adjustments in current policy and practice and the most important factor in policy choice is usually reaching consensus on a particular alternative.”18 This approach was characterized by Charles Lindbolm in 1959 as “successive limited comparisons” or what has become known as “muddling through”.

20. Furthermore policymaking and policy implementation takes place within the context of finite (and, in some policy areas, declining) resources—a reality facing most governments today. This means that policy making is not just a matter of “what works”, but what works at what cost and with what outcomes (both positive and negative). This requires sound evidence not only of the cost of policies, programmes or projects, but also the cost-effectiveness, cost-benefit, and cost-utility of different courses of action.19 While reports demonstrate that evidence-based policymaking in Whitehall have improved over the past decade the use of evidence in the national security domain remains mixed.20 There are three main reasons for this.

21. First, a culture of secrecy has often prevented departments and agencies from commissioning research and analysis. This reluctance to develop an evidence base has had an impact on the ability of departments and agencies to develop long term, sustainable strategies. This has, over the past decade, changed as governments have become more open and transparent. Complex issues, as discussed earlier, involve a greater number of stakeholders in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of strategy and policymaking.

22. Second, so-called domestic government department have been more likely to collaborate with the private and voluntary sectors on a range of activities. This includes: policy analysis, research and development, policy and programme implementation and project evaluation. Collaboration of this kind has had a major impact on evidence-based policy. Much of this has been driven by greater transparency inside government as well as externally. Only in the last few years has Whitehall begun to collaborate on a systematic basis on national security issues—and much of this has been driven by the requirement for social sciences research and technology development in counter-terrorism.

23. Third, there has been at least the beginning of a major drive in Whitehall to evaluate policies and programmes and this has become more relevant with the global recession as programmes and projects have been cut in a bid to manage budgets.

24. Evaluation requires evidence: The primary purpose of Evaluation and Performance Management (EPM) is to strengthen accountability by making evidence available to allow citizens to understand what has been done in their name and with what consequences. The second, equally important purpose is to facilitate reflection and learning so that future public services might be better run and public activities focused more intelligently on public benefit.21

25. Given the complexity of policy issues, and the perceived uncertainty of the future it is more important than ever for government departments to invest in developing a comprehensive evidence base.

Progress in Policymaking and Effective Strategic Thinking

26. There are numerous examples of effective strategic thinking and behaviour in Whitehall. Departments have a range of networks, organisations and committees at their disposal. Whether departments use these networks and organisations effectively is beyond the scope of the paper. There are however some examples of effective strategic thinking and behaviour worth considering.

27. The Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) was created in 2007. OSCT is unique in Whitehall because it exists to manage a pan-government strategy. While based in the Home Office, a large percentage of OSCT’s staff are from Other Government Departments (OGDs), law enforcement and the intelligence agencies.

28. At the centre of OSCT’s governance structure are the four Boards (Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare). These Boards bring together the relevant departments and agencies together. Each Department and agency is, in theory, accountable to a Director (for example the Director of Protect) who oversees a set of objectives outlined in the CONTEST strategy.

29. The CONTEST strategy involves sixteen Departments of State, the three security and intelligence agencies, the Police Counter Terrorism Network and police forces across the UK. It also depends on the close collaboration with the Devolved Administrations.22 Each Department of State sets out their CONTEST commitments in their business plans, while each of the four workstreams has a set of priority deliverables which are monitored on a monthly basis. No other Government in the last fifteen years has attempted to create a similar organization to tackle as complex an issue. The model should be replicated across Whitehall to tackle other complex issues which require a comprehensive response from the Government.

30. The second example is the introduction of the National Security Council (NSC). This has had an effect on the process of policymaking in Government. For a start departments are now bound into a process of weekly meetings on national security at Ministerial and senior official level. Discussions at NSC are short requiring clear and concise briefing and choices to be made. This has had a positive effect on strategic thinking in Whitehall, not least, because it requires departments to take a more systematic approach to working across departments and issues.

31. The main difference between the NSC system today and previous Cabinet Committees is that the creation of the NSC has locked Departments and Agencies into a formal process which requires Departments to shift its gaze towards the centre of government rather than simply focusing on its own affairs. This may seem insignificant but it has forced departments to respond by developing their own structures and processes internally to support the NSC. On one level this means the NSC sets the agenda, and departments must play to a central tune, ensuring (at least in theory) a more joined up approach to policymaking. In reality not all relevant Ministers attend the NSC on a regular basis, and many of the ad hoc committees reflect previous incarnations.

32. The NSC is a valuable addition to the Whitehall system of governance but for it to be a real success it must now assert its authority, through the National Security Adviser on departments. Instead of duplicating existing work in Whitehall Departments (a feature of the need to regularly brief No.10) it should focus more on where Departments are failing to grip issues, either because they do not have a clear owner, or there is no shared agreement on the appropriate course of action.

Conclusion and Implications

33. The capacity for strategic thinking in Whitehall has grown enormously over the past decade. However, there remains a significant gap between the skills and experience of individuals and the organizational culture and practice of Whitehall. An essential ingredient of any strategy is evidence. However Departments and agencies still do not invest enough time, effort and resources in developing evidence. Given the complexity of policy issues, and the uncertainty of the future it is more important than ever for government departments to invest imaginative ways of policy making and strategic thinking.

34. Three questions are worth exploring further:

Is strategy a discipline in government (like communications) or a key skill?

Given the complexity of issues facing the Government should Whitehall Departments consider creating joint boards with the private and voluntary sectors?

How can strategic thinking be aligned between different cultures inside government and with other stakeholders?

December 2011

1 While there is no single, clear definition of strategy, for the purposes of this paper we take “strategy” to describe the art of choosing between a set of priorities that are (a) time sensitive (b) based on incomplete information (c) require the management of limited resources to achieve a stated aim and (d) a theory of success.

2 Feaver. P, 8 Myths about American Grand Strategy, Shadow Government Blog, Foreign Policy

3 Mintzberg.H, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Prentice Hall Europe, 1994.

4 Ibid.

5 National Security Strategy, HM Government, October 2010, p 3.

6 Mintzberg.H, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Prentice Hall Europe, 1994.

7 For further work on wicked issues see Chapman et al, Connecting the Dots, Demos, April 2009.

8 Stirling, A. “Keep it complex”, Nature Vol. 468. December 2010, 1029-1031.

9 Schwartz. P, The Art of the Long View: paths to strategic insight for yourself and your company, Currency Doubleday, 1996.

10 Ling.T, Villalba van Dijk.L, (Eds) Performance Audit Handbook: Routes to effective evaluation, RAND Corporation, 2009.

11 Ibid.

12 Governing the future, Vol 1, Public Administration Select Committee, 22 February 2007.

13 Puttick,. R, Ten Steps to Transform the Use of Evidence, NESTA, October 2011,

14 Van Stolk,C et al, Monitoring and evaluation in stabilisation interventions, RAND Corporation, 2011.

15 Building Stability Overseas Strategy, HM Government, TSO, July 2011.

16 Prevent Strategy, HM Government, TSO, June 2011.

17 Clutterbuck et al, Setting the Agenda for an Evidence-based Olympics, RAND Corporation, 2007

18 Puttick,. R, Ten Steps to Transform the Use of Evidence, NESTA, October 2011,

19 Davis.P, Is Evidence-Based Government Possible? 4th Annual Campbell Collaboration Colloquium, Washington DC, 19 February 2004

20 For example see the Capability Review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Cabinet Office, March 2007.

21 Ling. T, & Villalba-van-Dijk. L, Performance Audit Handbook: Routes to effective evaluation, RAND, 2009.

22 CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s strategy for Countering Terrorism, HM Government, TSO, July 2011.

Prepared 20th April 2012