As preparation for this afternoon’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee hearing, one of the papers I’m looking at the Public Administration Select Committee’s excellent report (pdf) on Who Does UK National Strategy?
The whole report is worth reading, and pulls no punches about the strategic deficit that bedevils UK policy on global risks: “the overwhelming view from our witnesses was that the UK is not good at making National Strategy and there is little sense of a national direction or purpose”. And so:
This leads us to the profoundly disturbing conclusion that an understanding of National Strategy and an appreciation of why it is important has indeed largely been lost. As a consequence, strategic thinking has atrophied. We have failed to maintain the education of strategic thinkers, both in academia and in governmental institutions. The UK lacks a body of knowledge on strategy. Our processes for making strategy have become weakened and the ability of the military and the Civil Service to identify those people who are able to operate and think at the strategic level is poor
Some of the quotes from oral and written evidence given to the Committee are positively hair raising – as for instance when an official who’d served in the Chief of Defence Staff’s office recalls being told in Afghanistan that “there’s no plan, Sir. We’re just getting on with it”.
What to do about all this? The Committee’s recommendations are very good, but especially helpful is this distillation of principles that can, in the Committee’s words, “form the basis of an agreed ‘grammar’ for a renewed strategic literacy amongst practitioners”:
i. investment of time and energy by ministers to create an ‘appetite’ for strategic thinking;
ii. a definition of long-term national interests both domestic and international;
iii. consideration of all options and possibilities, including those which challenge established thinking and settled policies;
iv. consideration of the constraints and limitations which apply to such options and
v. a comprehensive understanding of the resources available;
vi. good quality staff work to develop strategy;
vii. access to the widest possible expertise beyond government;
viii. a structure which ensures the process happens;
ix. audit, evaluation and critical challenge; and
x. Parliamentary oversight to ensure scrutiny and accountability.
Amen to all that. It’s a long way from where we are now.