Decision-making in Defence Policy - Defence Contents

3  The ultimate goal

The necessary characteristics for decision-making

51. 'Decision-making' is the act of identifying the alternatives available, and choosing between those alternatives based on the values and preferences of the decision-maker.[103] Decision-making is notoriously prone to psychological bias, and it is, therefore, essential that rigorous structures are put in place to challenge and improve individual decisions. Decision-making in defence has a distinctive need for clarity, because it is entrenched in a three-tier level of decision-making: strategic, operational and tactical, with different tiers of decisions typically made at separate levels of the organisation.

52. Once high-quality, relevant information and evidence has been gathered, effective decision-making in defence is dependent on three further inter-related elements. The first is who makes the decision. In the case of defence policy, the leading decision-makers are the Prime Minister, Secretary of State (SofS), Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) and other military and civilian figures (an outline of their decision-making roles is set out in the box above).[104] Individuals have the ability to change the direction of discussion, according to their interests, priorities or force of character. The personal qualifications, experiences and attitudes of the decision-maker (including the needs, preferences and values of that individual) are vital. General Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, former Chief of the Defence Staff, stressed the significance of personalities in decision-making, exclaiming that "personalities really do matter". He emphasised the importance of "the selection of the right person," and said that it was vital to ensure that decision-makers possess "the right background and the right temperament".[105] So too does their education and training, and since tactical competence is different from strategic wisdom, separate education and training is needed for these different types of defence thinking.

53. Second, is the process used to make that decision. A consideration of process examines the structure of the organisation in which that decision-maker operates. In the case of defence, this might be through the Defence Board, the National Security Council (NSC),[106] or other committees of the Civil Service. The box below shows the current decision-making structures within the Government and Civil Service that relate to defence.[107] The 'process' of decision-making in turn relies on having the right procedures or methodologies for decision-making, the right organisational design, and sufficient high quality and up-to-date information (decision-makers would need to be aware of the costs and benefits of taking a particular decision).

54. The Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, insisted that:

    Decision-makers need to be well informed. I know where all our units, ships and aircraft are, and I know their state of readiness. I know where we are in budgetary terms, and in terms of the expenditure of each command. We know that and see it on a systematic, monthly basis. If I did not have that, coming from a business background I would certainly feel a bit more unsighted.[108]

55. Finally, there is the question of whether the option finally chosen was decided through a process of rational, logical consideration of the risks and alternatives available. Were appropriate options identified? Was there a logical, rational deliberation on the options? Were alternatives ranked on the basis of their costs and benefits?

The key expectations: criteria for decision-making

56. Our case-studies in decision-making on UK operations in Helmand Province in 2006, and decisions on the procurement of the aircraft carriers, suggest there were problems in all these areas. In summary, our evidence suggests the following:

1)  Expertise included in deliberations, including the input of relevant knowledge and intelligence

57. In both cases there was an absence of detailed, reliable and proven evidence-based advice. Policy analysts did not put together their advice by seeking out and including the knowledge of experts in the field. Where experts provided advice, this was often ignored, or set aside, without justification.[109]

58. In neither case did decision-makers appear to be sufficiently informed, skilled experienced and able to admit where they had gaps in their current knowledge. They were not historically and culturally informed and aware of lessons learnt from previous programmes or campaigns. They appeared to lack the necessary education and experience in strategic thinking. We believe that Ministers should be encouraged and supported to spend much more time in operational theatres, with a broad range of contacts, including local civil society, in order to develop their feeling for ground realities.

2)  Accountability and responsibility, including evidence of an auditable trail for decisions made

59. The decision-maker, who was responsible for allowing actions to happen, based on their preferences, was not identifiable. Ministers, who were accountable to Parliament, were not able to justify where they had delegated responsibility. It was difficult to trace where, how and when decisions were made, as well as how they were amended over time. As Major General Elliott has argued:

    there should be transparency about who has taken the decision […]. There has to be public accountability that that decision has been taken. I suggest that much more formal orders should be given and that there should be an auditable trail as to how those things went down.[110]

3)  Structure

60. The structure of decision-making at the Ministry of Defence, did not allow for a clear chain of command, or provide an appropriate route for the flow of information, including between departments. This may be a particular challenge for the MoD as it deals with so much classified information, but is still necessary. As Lieutenant General (retired) Sir Robert Fry, told us, in Afghanistan and Iraq:

    there was a military chain of command that went from the Prime Minister to the Chief of the Defence Staff to the Chief of Joint Operations and into the deployed forces in the field. That was entirely clear and it worked well within the military dimension. What I think failed, and failed signally, was the ability to combine that with all the other instruments of national power which should have been part of a co-ordinated strategy.[111]

61. In Afghanistan, the chain of command was further complicated through having a theatre commander in Afghanistan who was generally an American. Lieutenant General (retired) Sir Robert Fry told us that "Therefore, what you had was an American campaign within which you had a British implant. This created all sorts of complications".[112]

4)  Ability to challenge

62. The advised information on which decisions are made did not appear to be sufficiently open to debate and challenge from within the Ministry of Defence, involving, where appropriate, other Government departments, and outsiders such as academic commentators. Ministers themselves did not appear able to challenge military advice.

5)  Long-term thinking, including a focus on strategy

63. Decision-making did not seem to take into account the long-term needs of the UK. This led to unanticipated costs in the future that would have been unnecessary, had a long-term strategy been identified at the outset.

64. In summary, we did not find in relation to Helmand or the carriers that decisions were made by the right people, within efficient and supportive structures, with rational assessments of the costs and benefits of the available options. The Government has since been relatively frank in conceding that there were serious problems in the decision-making in both cases. The Secretary of State, Rt Hon Michael Fallon, for example, has said that Government was "not being properly recorded or prepared and was all very loose and haphazard".[113]

65. But the Ministry of Defence appears to argue such problems are now in the past, because of two key changes since 2010: the Levene reforms and the introduction of the National Security Council. The Secretary of State, for example, argued, that the introduction of the NSC, had brought "real structure" to decision-making.[114] It is to these reforms that we now turn.

103   Robert Harris, Error! Bookmark not defined.,June 2009,, accessed 22 February 2015 Back

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105   Error! Bookmark not defined. [Lord Richards] Back

106   The National Security Council will hereafter be referred to as the 'NSC' Back

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Prepared 26 March 2015