Liaison Sub-Committee

‘Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government’

July 2023


Submission of Evidence from

Professor Matthew Flinders,

University of Sheffield.



  1. The UK undoubtedly faces a range of serious, immediate and long-term strategic challenges. These require joined-up cross-governmental thinking within the UK, and collaborative engagement with international actors. Some of these challenges are longstanding (employment, productivity, social deprivation, climate change, cost of living, social care, etc.) while others are more novel (such as those emerging from technological advances like nanotechnology and artificial intelligence). Nevertheless, what has changed in recent years is not the existence of major strategic challenges but the emergence of an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous governing environment. It is this shift in context which is arguably as important as the existence of numerous significant challenges. To recognise this contextual shift and to consider the development of strategic capacity in government this submission of evidence makes three main points:







Strategic Capacity and Strategic Scrutiny


  1. Any consideration of strategic thinking in government’ needs to begin by teasing apart two issues that are often and easily conflated: strategic capacity and strategic scrutiny. The former is a concern for government and revolves around the identification, management and effective resolution of major strategic policy challenges. The hallmark of these challenges is likely to be that they raise fundamental issues of public concern that cannot be addressed by any single department of state and may involve working beyond existing policy paradigms or governmental structures. Strategic scrutiny, by contrast, focuses attention on the support structures through which ministers, officials and advisers are held to account for their decisions in terms of identifying, managing and resolving major strategic policy challenges.



  1. The inclusion of the term ‘support structures’ vis-à-vis strategic scrutiny is critical. As a great body of academic research has revealed, the day-to-day parliamentary scrutiny of ministerial departments by select committees is generally viewed by ministers, officials and their advisers in adversarial terms. Ministerial responsibility to parliament is therefore largely linked to the distribution of blame (rather than credit or praise) which, in turn, tends to produce a ‘tin hat mentality’ on the part of governmental witnesses (i.e. candour is limited, information provided on a minimal basis). There is no doubt that select committees have a role to play in promoting, supporting and overseeing the strategic capacity of government but this is likely to require the development of new processes and a more mature set of scrutiny relationships.




Capacity to Cope


  1. Several years ago the then Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook, insisted that ‘good scrutiny, made for good government’ and in many ways the topic of strategic thinking in government and in parliament provides a fresh foundation for that assertion. The underlying challenge however is one of structure, process and culture. The foundations of the Whitehall model and the Westminster system of government are siloed and fragmented. The vast majority of select committees mirror Whitehall departments and, as a result, the governmental challenge of producing ‘joined-up policymaking are to some extent mirrored by the challenge faced by parliament in delivering ‘joined-up scrutiny. There are, of course, cross-governmental committees like the Environmental Audit Committee or the Public Accounts Committee but these are to some extent thematically limited in terms of their scrutiny bandwidth. The strategic scrutiny challenge is, however, more complex than a focus on structures will allow. There is a strong temporal dimension to the challenge in the sense that government policy thinking is generally framed within relatively short-term electoral cycles that militate against long-term thinking.



  1. And yet to say that administrative structures are siloed and government considerations generally short-term is hardly a novel contribution to the discussion. In this context two additional considerations merit attention. The first is a focus on what might be termed strategic statecraft or simply ‘capacity to cope’. What’s interesting about this focus on statecraft is that governments - especially in recent years with volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous governing environments – tend to spend more time firefighting as they lurch from crisis-to-crisis (Brexit, Covid, cost of living, Ukraine, etc.) which reduces the political space for more strategic thinking and the proactive management of challenges. The paradox being that a government’s capacity for calm, evidence-based, long-term thinking is often reduced at exactly the moment it needs stronger strategic statecraft capacity. This flows into a second focus on knowledge flows and information, and the harvesting and synthesis of different forms of relevant knowledge. This is a critical point. Strategic thinking demands an ability to engage with and understand different forms of knowledge from the more formal types of ‘scientific’ evidence or data to more diffuse but no less important forms of tacit, experiential knowledge or ‘everyday’ lived experience. What the government generally lacks - and that forms of strategic scrutiny might help provide - is the space and structured serendipity through which strategic capacity can be developed.




Cultural Change


  1. The second half of the twentieth century was littered with attempts to build strategic policy-making capacity. Examples include the creation of the Central Policy Review Staff, the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit and even the Policy and Innovation Unit. The June 2021 ‘Declaration on Government Reform’ was published in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis and represents the latest statement on building ‘capacity to cope’. ‘We will make sure that the teams devoted to overcoming the most complex public policy challenges are drawn from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, fostering originality and system-wide approaches’ the declaration states ‘We will use ‘red teams’ and outside secondees to challenge conventional thinking, requiring that policy options be presented showing how radical alternatives have been evaluated and considered’. In December 2022 the government published a new ‘Resilience Framework’ which was itself underpinned by the creation of a new Resilience Directorate in the Cabinet Office, and the latest National Security Risk Assessment is due to be published later this year.





  1. With this commitment in mind, it might be useful for the sub-committee to review the work of three specialist units or structures within Whitehall. The first is the Future Policy Network which consists of thirteen teams from across government who bring specialist areas of expertise, long-term thinking and innovation into policymaking. The second is the Government Office for Science’s Futures and Foresight Team which helps the government develop policies that are more resilient to future change. The third is the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology which advises the government on the opportunities and risks that science, technology and disruptive innovation present, using horizon-scanning to highlight issues about research and science capability, innovation and the economy, health and quality of life, and sustainable development and resilience.



  1. The role of supportive strategic scrutiny vis-à-vis these three structures might explore not just what each element does on a day-to-day basis but more importantly how these structures are cross-complementary and aligned with the new Resilience Directorate in the Cabinet Office, and how they ensure that their insights flow into government policymaking. What this focuses attention on are the issues of porosity and absorption (i.e. the flow of strategic insights across the policymaking landscape, and the ability of those insights to permeate down and through governing structures). This matters because previous innovations in relation to building strategic capacity have very often failed to secure ministerial attention. This reintroduces the pathology of short-termism, reflects a failing of strategic statecraft, and underlines the lack of incentives that exist for ministers to focus attention beyond immediate electoral priorities.



  1. Select committees undoubtedly have a role in incentivising ministers to focus on serious strategic issues and this could be reflected, for example, in a revised set of core tasks. These were last updated in 2019 and although ‘Policy’ is highlighted as the first core area for committee scrutiny the text accompanying this role is fairly perfunctory and could be revised to emphasise ‘horizon-scanning, disruptive thinking and key strategic challenges.’ Select committees set their own agendas and are therefore free to shift the balance of their inquiries towards a stronger emphasis on strategic policymaking. This would reflect both continuity and change in the role of select committees and would represent an important step in the forty-year history of the ‘new’ select committee system towards ‘strategic scrutiny’.



  1. The key issue is, however, arguably more cultural than procedural or institutional. Strategic scrutiny by select committees of the strategic long-term thinking and capacity of departments would have to be undertaken as a collaborative partnership between the executive and the legislature. The defensive ‘tin hat’ mentality would have to be replaced by a more open and transparent ‘sun hat’ mentality whereby departments (ministers and officials) felt able to acknowledge the inevitable existence of uncertainties and trade-offs, and where select committees resisted the temptation to utilise such honesty for party political point scoring. This is the cultural challenge that presently forms a barrier or blockage to linking supportive strategic scrutiny with enhanced strategic capacity. Overcoming this barrier or blockage might be seen as an opportunity for positive innovation with select committee activities and inquiries adopting new methods of engagement and mutual learning. New forms of informal engagement between the committee and department(s) might foster trust and understanding, while externally commissioned ‘challenge reports’ might provide a focus for shared committee/department investigations. An emphasis on shifting from an adversarial culture to one based on a supportive strategic scrutiny could go a long way to building consensus between the main political parties which, in turn, could facilitate the early identification of challenges and stable long-term policymaking to address them. There are points in the electoral cycle when governments are likely to be more amenable to strategic reflection and challenge, just as there are reasons to support the official opposition with constructive strategic scrutiny. Better scrutiny of strategic thinking by Parliament will contribute to better strategic thinking within Government.





Concluding Thoughts



  1. The Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly focused attention on strategic capacity in government. How the various units and networks that are charged with some element of horizon-scanning fit together, and whether their insights trickle-down to effect departmental thinking and policymaking is an issue deserving further supportive inquiry. What role select committees can play in offering constructive challenge and strategic scrutiny is a question that has never really been asked before. The issue of systematic scrutiny in the sense of how committees can explore issues that range across departmental lines is an issue that has been discussed many times. But the topic of strategic scrutiny is slightly different in the sense that although issues may be ‘super-wicked’ (i.e. not within the remit of a single department or level of government) they also possess a future-focused element of inevitable uncertainty. Innovations like the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales and the Commission for Future Generations in the Republic of Ireland embrace an acceptance of the need for long-term thinking plus the design and delivery of forward accountability. The Network of Institutions for Future Generations provides expertise and knowledge regarding international best practice, while the recent creation of a civil service policy hub in Sheffield provides a new national resource for training and supporting officials in relation to strategic challenges.



  1. At the core of this submission of evidence is an emphasis on strategic linking. The role of select committees being one of catalysing, connecting and collaborating. Catalysing an initial and sustained focus on long-term strategic capacity. Connecting in the sense of ensuring that the various centres of excellence in relation to horizon-scanning are themselves operating as an integrated whole. Collaborating in the sense of identifying international best practice and identifying opportunities that could help enhance strategic capacity in the United Kingdom. The collaborative role is now particularly important in a post-Brexit context. With this emphasis on catalysing, connecting and collaborating in mind it is important to highlight the role and potential value of the select committees in the House of Lords. These have traditionally been thematically orientated in order not to replicate the departmentally related structure of select committees in the House of Commons. It may well be that select committees in the House of Lords are for a number of reasons better suited to adopt a focus on strategic capacity and long-term thinking in government. At the very least, they may offer an as yet under-acknowledged collaborative capacity. Lord Bird’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill (July 2022) which includes provisions to establish a Commission for Future Generations for the UK and a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Future Generations reflects an emphasis on catalysing, connecting and collaboration that could be built upon.




Matthew Flinders

July 2023