Public Administration CommitteeAdditional written evidence submitted by Cabinet Office (ST11)

Strategic Thinking in Government

The basis of the coalition that was formed after the last general election was a shared assessment by the two parties forming the Government on where the national interest lay, particularly on the urgent need to form a strong, stable Government able to tackle the country’s fiscal and economic challenges. The Programme for Government that resulted from the Coalition formation discussions therefore represents the Government’s strategic assessment of the actions needed to secure the UK’s national interest and our strategy for doing so.

The Public Administration Select Committee is raising a large number of difficult and complicated issues. But these issues ultimately resolve into two fundamental questions for government:

what does the Government see as the UK’s long-term national interest? and

how does the Government believe that the national interest can best be advanced?

As indicated in the Programme for Government, we believe that our national interest lies in promoting the welfare of our citizens, through the advancement of six strategic aims:

a free and democratic society, properly protected from its enemies;

a strong, sustainable and growing economy;

a healthy, active, secure, socially cohesive, socially mobile, socially responsible and well educated population;

a fair deal for those who are poor or vulnerable;

a vibrant culture; and

a beautiful and sustainable built and natural environment.

We believe that these six strategic aims are very widely shared across the UK political spectrum—and that they are therefore likely to remain our national ambitions over a long period of time to come.

Despite the many internal and external challenges—economic, geo-political, social and environmental—that pose threats to the fulfilment of these strategic aims, Britain is a lucky country. Our predecessors have, over a long history, secured our well-being to an extent that few other countries can match. Accordingly, the task of government today is to find the best means of:

preserving our very substantiated legacy of national advantages, while also;

ensuring that we make further advances in fulfilling each of our six strategic aims.

To a very considerable extent, the different strategic aims are mutually reinforcing: a free society underpins a vibrant free market economy; a vibrant economy enables us to provide for our national security, for public services that improve the lives of our citizens, for transfers of income that support the poor and vulnerable, for the leisure that creates the basis of culture and for the investment that sustains our environment; the advancement of these social and environmental ambitions in turn reinforces not only the political stability that underpins a free society but also the vibrancy and sustainability of our economy. But there are, of course, times when two or more of our strategic aims are to some degree in tension with one another. Under such circumstances, government (at the highest level, through Cabinet and its committees) needs to adjudicate on the balance between competing strategic aims. This is the first sense in which government needs to engage in strategic thinking.

Beyond the need to balance competing strategic aims, government requires the capacity to think through the actions needed to promote each of the strategic goals. The present Government does this through a series of devices, which are related to one another:

the Coalition Programme for Government, which describes the basic steps that we believe need to be taken at this moment in our history to secure the well-being of our citizens;

a series of foundational documents (including the budgets, the spending plans, the Growth Reviews, the National Security Strategy, and a range of White Papers such as the Open Public Services White Paper, the various health, education and welfare White Papers, the other public service White Papers, and the natural environment White Paper);

the departmental Business Plans that set out the actions being taken by each Department to make a reality of the commitments in the Programme for Government; and

legislation enacting, as necessary, the policies contained within the foundation documents and Business Plans.

In other words, this is a Government that has not “sub-contracted” strategic thinking to some groups of officials or others, whether at the centre or dispersed through Whitehall. On the contrary, it is a Government with a clearly articulated and documented set of plans for promoting each of the forms of well-being which it is our strategic goal to promote. These are plans developed by Ministers through collective, inter-Ministerial, Cabinet discussion. In this administration, Ministers attending Cabinet are themselves the people who have in various forums debated, agreed and authorised the plans that govern our strategic action.

One last, general observation: we do not believe that the achievement of our strategic goals is something that can be brought about by mechanistically “pulling levers”. Whether in the sphere of international relations (economic, commercial or diplomatic) or in the sphere of domestic policy (economic, social or environmental), we believe that government needs to have a proper sense not only of its own power but also of its own limitations. Our policy is accordingly driven not only by a clear sense of the forms of well-being for our citizens that it is our strategic aim to achieve, but also by an acknowledgement that in the international sphere we require flexibility and adaptability to respond to continuously changing circumstances, and that in the domestic sphere we require frameworks within which participants in our economy and society are given the right long-term incentives rather than being subjected to a series of sporadic bureaucratic interventions. It is these two, fundamental attitudes to the relationship we have with the wider world and with our own citizens that inform, respectively, our global agenda and our domestic reform agenda.

Clarity about strategic goals does not—and, in our view, should not—imply a narrow, mechanistic approach to achieving these goals.

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

The UK’s national strategy is set out in the Coalition’s Programme for Government, which captures the six strategic aims to promote the welfare of our citizens. For instance, Coalition commitments on civil liberties, defence, equalities, crime and policing and national security are designed to deliver a free and democratic society, protected from its enemies; those on banking, business, jobs, deficit reduction and taxation are designed to deliver a strong, sustainable and growing economy; commitments on welfare, social care and disability, pensions and older people aim to achieve a fair deal for those who are poor or vulnerable.

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

The six strategic aims to promote the national interest are based on judgement and choice, rather than evidence. The policy approaches to advance the achievement of our strategic aims, however, do of course draw on evidence—both in the domestic and in the international spheres. During the policy development process, departments are expected to use the full range of available evidence when developing any given policy. In global security and defence policy, full account is taken by the NSC and relevant departments of information from external and agency sources. In domestic policy, the Government recently revised the Green Book to stress that policymakers should consider the full range of factors when developing policy, not just those that are easy to measure. In addition, the Regulatory Policy Committee, established in 2009, is tasked with providing independent scrutiny of proposed regulatory measures put forward by Government. Its role is to challenge where proposals are not supported by robust evidence and analysis.

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

The Cabinet and Cabinet Committee process ensures strategic continuity in policy-making, resolving any tensions between policy areas. The Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office and Treasury regularly monitor and review progress against implementation plans. Departments are held to account through a regular progress report published on the No10 website.

In addition, civil servants in departmental strategy units and other groups such as the Behavioural Insights Unit are tasked with taking a cross-cutting view of the Government’s work. On public services delivery, new processes introduced by this Government include for example payment by results—providers are given flexibility and freedom to achieve outcomes, promoting innovation and productivity. This approach is illustrated by the Department for Work and Pensions’ payment by results of welfare-to-work providers.

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?”

The Government will publish a public statement on overall progress in implementing the commitments in each of the priority policy areas set out in the NSS and SDSR later this Autumn. Since October 2010 we have made significant progress. Some of the key developments include: the beginning of major work on the defence programme, including the difficult task of bring the defence budget back into balance: the Three Month Exercise, Lord Levene’s Defence Reform review and the Future Reserves Review, reflect the high priority we continue to place on bringing commitments and resources into line, while our Armed Forces are engaged in Afghanistan and Libya.

In counter terrorism we have revised the UK’s Counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST, and reviewed some of the most controversial counter-terrorism and security powers, making significant changes. We have also taken steps to protect our cyber security, to preserve our ability to obtain communication data and to intercept communications. Work is currently in hand to create a National Crime Agency and improve border security by increasing the scope and capability of e-borders, and developing a new Border Policing Command.

We will refresh the SDSR every parliament and commit to a biennial review of the National Security Risk Assessment to ensure that the fundamental judgements remain right and that the changes it sets out are affordable and that we have the right capabilities in place.

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?

Protecting and promoting our national interest is at the heart of the National Security Strategy. Part 2 of the NSS focuses on the opportunities offered by Britain’s distinctive role in the world and discusses the particular skills and strengths that we can bring to bear through our comparative advantage as a central player in many global networks including economic, diplomatic and technological. Our openness offers a unique set of opportunities and the strategy rightly sets out our ambitions for our country in the decades to come—Britain will continue to play an active and engaged role in shaping global change. We will maintain our global presence and the ability to project our power and values around the world.

The NSC facilitates effective Cabinet Government across the foreign and domestic security policy agendas. It is the central forum for collective discussion of the Government’s objectives for national security and their effective delivery in the current financial climate. The discipline of systematic, weekly consideration of national security priorities in a Ministerial forum chaired by the Prime Minister ensures Ministers consider national security in the round not as separate blocs. The NSC is supported by the National Security Adviser (NSA) who is responsible for the coordination of advice and the implementation of decisions reached by the Council.

The NSS and SDSR shaped the contribution to the Spending Review of key Departments For the first time we have a national security strategy which provides priorities for action and which feeds directly into decisions about resources.

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

Strategic thinking on the UK’s role is not undertaken in a vacuum by a single person or institution. The collegiate approach of the coalition Government, based on proper consideration of issues in and through a series of interlocking cabinet committees, is designed to ensure that we keep in mind the contribution of and interaction between different policies so that they together advance our strategic aims.

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

While the Government plays an important role in developing strategic thinking, there is thinking that cities and regions, businesses and civil society are actively involved in leading, enabling and delivering, in particular as a result of the devolution of policy-making to local levels. It should be for Local Authorities to work out their own strategies. The introduction of locally elected mayors, elected police chiefs and neighbourhood planning are giving more power to people and putting communities in control.

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?

The Civil Service exists to support the Government. Government Ministers collectively decide which policies to pursue, and the Civil Service adapts to support these. Within central Government, strategic thinking is a core part of the learning and development programme for Civil Servants. There is an informal network of strategists across Whitehall, which meets regularly to promote information sharing and identify opportunities for joint work.

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?

We agree with the Committee about the importance of learning lessons from how international partners approach strategic thinking and policy across government. We regularly look for opportunities for where we can best engage with other countries to share expertise and develop joint thinking.

Following the publication of the SDSR, and as outlined in our interim update to the Committee in July, a new UK/US Joint Strategy Board has been established, which will provide an opportunity to share and jointly formulate strategic thinking on national security issues with the US.

There is an informal international network of strategists working at the centre of Government, covering over a dozen countries. This includes the Centre d’Analyse Stratégique in the Prime Minister’s Office in France, Strategic Policy and Implementation in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Australia and the Office of Strategic Affairs, Crown Prince Court Abu Dhabi. Whilst the work of these units will vary according to the local context, they typically provide support on cross-cutting issues and help incubate new ideas.

December 2011

Prepared 20th April 2012