EVIDENCE: STRATEGIC THINKING IN GOVERNMENT

Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan, June 2023

This note provides some thoughts on the challenges of UK strategy in the years ahead. It draws on experience of working on strategy in governments for a quarter of a century:

These experiences may make me biased, but they hopefully provide some useful perspectives

The UK has lost strategic capability

In the UK, and to some extent in other democracies, there has been a marked shift away from strategy since the financial crisis of 2007/8.  Time horizons have shrunk.  Political instability has become more common.  As a result there has been less demand for longer-term thinking and action from politicians, at least in most of the Western democracies.  The picture is different in some other parts of the world. Northern Europe, the gulf and east Asia have tended to retain or grow capacities for strategic thinking in government, with particularly impressive cases such as Singapore.  In the UK the weakening of strategic capacity was partly a choice, partly exacerbated by the need to divert resources for Brexit planning, and partly shaped by the political instability of 2016-22.

One result of this is a striking loss of both capacity and memory in the centre of government.   Although there are able people working across Whitehall with the word capacity in their titles, their numbers are relatively small, and there is little shared method.   With a few exceptions like the Integrated Review, there have been no attempts at broader strategic exercises like the strategic audits done in the 2000s.  

Moreover the collective memory of the civil service is quite atrophied.  Those working on policy issues are often simply not aware of previous work done in similar spaces.  As documented in a report I commissioned a few years ago memory has, paradoxically, deteriorated at a time of digitisation[ii].   This results in some problems reappearing – from street homelessness to jumps in economic inactivity – and others remaining unaddressed – from productivity to mental health.

Cross-cutting effects of the loss of strategic capability

The biggest impacts of this loss of strategic capability are felt around particular challenges.  But there are also some cross-cutting effects.

One is a failure to modernise public finance tools, which have not been adapted to current priorities.   A symptom of this is that while spending on physical infrastructures is treated as an investment, with analysis of returns on investment over decades, spending on people is still treated as an annual expense, even though people now tend to last longer than physical infrastructures. This impedes more strategic approaches to early years support, healthcare, R&D and more, and the use of data and other tools to systematically track the links between spending and impacts.

A related failure is the weakness of general intelligence functions in domestic policy, without overall responsibility and skills to synthesise the many sources of intelligence (data, evidence, tacit knowledge etc) needed for government to act.  This was documented in a study done late 2022 analysing how governments around the world organised intelligence through the pandemic.[iii]

Strategy has also not been helped by the dismantling of the UK’s civil service training system.  Although there has been some professionalisation of a few functions (eg major projects and procurement), training in strategy (and some other key skills) appears to have largely disappeared. It is notable that no other country has chosen to follow the UK’s route and dismantle a coherent civil service training system with a series of contracts to commercial providers.

Finally, successive recent governments have not rethought how best to organise the centre of government, other than in very ad hoc ways, an issue that is critical to strategic effectiveness. There have been few proposals and even less debate about their merits.[iv]

None of these problems can be solved by the Whitehall civil service alone.  Rather they require political leaders who care about actions and results over longer time horizons than 1-2 years, civil service leaders with a full grasp of the needs and the options, and active engagement of collaborators beyond central government, from local government and devolved administrations to universities, civil society and business.


[i] ‘The Art of Public Strategy: mobilising power and knowledge for the common good’, Oxford University Press

[ii] https://www.nesta.org.uk/report/can-government-stop-losing-its-mind/

[iii] https://theippo.co.uk/how-governments-used-intelligence-decision-making-covid19-pandemic/

[iv] See for example https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/rewiringthebrain.pdf