Call for Evidence

Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government


Author – Robert Hall

This is a private submission. It is based on my work over many years in both the public and private sectors on risk, security and resilience. My last full-time position was an Executive Director of Resilience First Ltd. I also held a part-time position as Project and Research Co-ordinator for the National Preparedness Commission. In both roles, I was actively engaged in the work of business and the government on resilience strategy. I am also the author of ‘Building Resilient Futures’ (ISBN: 9781035812622).


Sir Lawrence Freedman wrote in the Preface to his book on strategy that ‘Everyone needs a strategy.’ [1] He continued, ‘Having a strategy suggests an ability to look up from the short term and the trivial to view the long term and the essential, to address causes rather than symptoms, to see woods rather than trees. Without a strategy, facing up to any problem or striving for any objective would be considered negligent.’ Few would disagree with the eminent professor’s view.

On the downside, the term has become ubiquitous and is readily attached to any desirable end. As a result, it has lost some of its potency: there is the danger of semantic satiation. This dilution is true as much in politics as in the private sector. Strategy is all too often mentioned in speeches and papers but rarely applied in its full, meaningful context. This is because of bias, misunderstanding, misappreciation, groupthink, etc. Even if the vigour of the term has diminished, Leon Trotsky reminds us that while ‘you may not be interested in strategy strategy is interested in you’.

A plethora of discrete strategies has been published and are owned by the government. A small sample could include the Biological Security Strategy, the Cyber Security Strategy, the Net Zero Strategy, the Energy Security Strategy, and the International Development Strategy. These examples contribute to shaping the UK’s place in the 21st century international order, while balancing security and prosperity.


The purpose of this document is to answer many of the questions posed in the Call for Evidence using the government’s published two Integrated Reviews and one Resilience Framework as the basis for comment. It will concentrate on security and resilience regarding the UK’s position in the world, one of three designated focal points in the Call for Evidence. 


The government’s Integrated Review (IR2021) was a valuable, overarching look at security, defence, development and foreign policy in a global world out to 2025. It was short-lived as a Refresh (IR2023) was commissioned 18 months later, largely because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With more aspirations than deliverables, and with a shrinking, unidentified capacity to implement, one could justifiably conclude that both Reviews lacked strategic thinking, particularly if, as Freedman’s writes, a strategy is ‘about maintaining a balance between ends, ways, and means; about identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods available for meeting such objectives’. Certainly, the reviews cannot be seen as strategies by this definition.

While a strategy needs to be fluid and revised in a turbulent environment, having too frequent major changes can undermine the central objectives and intended long-termism of a strategy. Furthermore, a shortish time horizon simply does not allow the effective introduction of resources that may have long developmental cycles e.g. technologies, equipment, training, etc.

Part 4 of IR2021 introduced the notion of resilience. The inclusion was novel and ambitious. Further comment was largely missing from the 2023 revision. Resilience has a growing importance as modern systemic risks cannot be completely repulsed without elements of both mitigation and adaptation – the essentials of resilience.

Rather than a National Resilience Strategy as promised in IR2021, a UK Government Resilience Framework (UKGRF) appeared without fanfare some two years later. The retitling gave the impression of a lowering of priorities, a charge dismissed by government. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy raised this and other valid questions about the Framework through oral questioning of external experts.[2] (A separate critique of the issues is referenced.[3])

Enhanced Scope and Scale

The last time the UK had a grand strategy was in the Second World War: it simply directed all forces and resources to achieve unconditional surrender of the enemy. Such an all-embracing objective is hard to achieve in peacetime. Nonetheless, we are facing a new war on many fronts. They are of international scope and scale e.g. Russian expansionism, Chinese authoritarianism, Islamic terrorism, mass migration, resource depletion, pandemics, etc, not forgetting that existential risk, climate change.

In response, we need to develop an overall vision for the future of the country – a grand strategy – that not only describes briefly the challenges and opportunities but also sets out the intended direction of travel in a broad, holistic way that political parties and the population can hopefully adopt. The current five pledges of the two main political parties go some way but do not provide the impetus and motivation that a grand vision demands. The apparent disconnect or separation between existing reviews and strategies does not lend itself to shaping a grand strategy in a coherent way.

The key questions are: what the holistic plan should look like and how to get the politics and population aligned behind it? With relatively short electoral cycles placing the emphasis on short-term political gains over wider long-term benefits, coupled with an attitude of ‘Not in My Term of Office’ (NIMTO), it is doubly hard to create a plan that has both sustainability and consensus but not impossible. As a former lead minister has suggested, a National Resilience Act, for instance, along the lines of the Climate Change Act, would cement policies on that subject and place statutory obligations that could last more than one Parliament.[4]  

While the assemblage of risks is growing in number and strength, only part of the answer lies in better risk assessments as articulated in a revised (classified) National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA). This and the published (unclassified) National Risk Register (NRR) would benefit from a strategic overview and wider public participation and academic input. Both registers should be achieved through agreement of the main parties and should consider vulnerabilities (classified) as well as risks. Accountability and oversight – the third of three traditional lines of defence – should be provided by Parliament.

Pandemics have been consistently at the top end of previous registers but the response was inadequate when Covid-19 appeared. Moreover, focusing on known risks omits those potential ones. A five-year time horizon in the NSRA/NRR (for non-malicious risks: two years remain for malicious risks) is probably too short; 10-15+ would be better. This demands better horizon scanning and early warning systems in place.

While causes and contingency planning for them are worthy of analysis, it would be beneficial to concentrate preparation on generic consequences across a wide range of challenges, recognising that we may fail to anticipate fully the next crisis. Enterprise risk management should therefore become enterprise resilience management. Resilient responses to one risk can often be valid for others. The prospect of concurrent and inter-connected challenges, with cascading impacts, makes this approach even more pertinent.         

Improved Stewardship and Fewer Silos

Governance of strategy thinking on security and resilience needs to be strengthened. While there have been some welcome minor moves to tighten resilience and contingency planning – £22.5m over three years for Local Resilience Forums (LRFs), two new structures (the COBR Unit and Resilience Directorate) in the Cabinet Office, and a planned UK Resilience Academy, for example – the thrust remains on a Lead Government Department model to cover all phases of emergency planning, response, recovery and risk assessment.[5] Such a model remains a siloed approach that will not necessarily avoid duplication or improve overall responsiveness.

With many threats crossing departmental boundaries and requiring external assistance, it would be better to have a single, key ministry and senior minister devoted to national security, safety and resilience. Other countries have this arrangement. Our approach should not be centred on the Cabinet Office which is busy with other tasks, especially in an COBR-managed emergency. An empowered body modelled on the Office for Budget Responsibility or the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, but for resilience, would be a second-best solution.

Political leadership needs to be strengthened with better education and training on key topics, ideally undertaken before appointment but continued throughout tenure. Public confidence in pronouncements by subject experts over politicians is a case for a more robust communications policy as well as more involvement in the design and execution of strategy. Communications, both top down and bottom up, need to incorporate feedback loops. In resilience, for example, the government has established a UK Resilience Forum but it has met only three times in the past two years and has only one business-wide representative body, the CBI.  Too often, the top believes it knows best and there is little to be gained from the bottom, other than implementation; empowerment is lacking.

For good stewardship, leaders should act as transient caretakers, responsible and accountable for the wellbeing of an organisation which does not belong to them and which they need to pass on in better shape than they received it. It involves thinking in terms of outcomes rather than simply inputs and outputs.’[6] This approach applies to all organisations at all levels.

Strengthened Social Capital

The term ‘whole of society’ was a feature of IR2021 and was used deliberately to encompass all elements of national life and wealth generation. Together, if harnessed, the elements can provide both resilience and sustainability for the long term. 

We must identify the full implications of the term in both policies and applications. It will demand organisation and resources and considerable effort if it is to be ready ahead of any national emergency. It will require the national mobilisation of assets, not simply in the low numbers (a few thousands) of volunteers and reserves as at present but in large numbers (many hundreds of thousands) to match the potential scale of the task.

In the pandemic, more than 750,000 initially volunteered to help the NHS. Such numbers may be required again but need to be registered, organised, motivated, trained and ready in advance. They would be a force multiplier when official numbers are limited and declining. For this to occur, there needs to be a social contract with the wider society so that rights are matched with responsibilities, and national life preserved. There is no clear government organisation or appetite to engage with the population beyond the established 42 LRFs in England and Wales working on the principle of subsidiarity.

One key element in the equation is the role of business. While reviews and frameworks acknowledge and encourage partnerships with the private sector, the practical reality is that plans are not put into practice for actions to happen proactively. A Select Committee report echoed this sentiment but even so heard from only four mainstream business witnesses out of a total of 85.[7] As business owns around three-quarters of the CNI, has the largest logistical network in the country and intelligence network outside, is on the front line in delivery, and largely wants to help, it is disappointing that more is not made of these valuable contributions on an equal footing, and exercised.

The opportunity to formalise the wider private-sectors contribution in the statutory quinquennial Post-Implementation Review of the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) in 2022 was disappointing. Moreover, emphasising civil contingencies risks omits other domestic, financial, organisational or social risks and militates against looking at systemic and interconnected risks.

Any social contract should also involve the voluntary and charitable sectors, ethnic communities, religious groups, trade unions, NGOs, schools and households, etc. The introduction of thousands of mutual-aid groups across the country in the pandemic provided a way for individual volunteers to meet the needs that suddenly arose in their communities. An expanded and resourced Reserve Force, as well as a much-reinforced Staff Corps, could greatly help. Regular, brief training between all bodies would help bond together the public and private sectors; education in resilience should start in schools and colleges. The proposed UK Resilience Academy would be the place to begin the dialogue between all parties.

Better Models

Other countries have out-paced the UK on security and resilience, especially in mobilising their home assets. Certain Baltic and Nordic countries are examples, no doubt conscious of the threat on their doorsteps. Finland’s reserves, for instance, are considerable for the size of the population: they are bound by ‘The Security Strategy for Society’ (2017) that sets out the general principles governing preparedness across all administrative branches.[8] Sweden has a ‘Total Defencepackage, with regular communication to the whole population. This approach is not seen as alarmist.[9] Both countries invite businesses into discussions and in planning.

The antipodean countries have long had a sound approach to resilience capabilities in the face of their experience of natural disasters. Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (2011) recognises a whole-of-nation approach through communities, accepting shared but not equal responsibilities.[10] New Zealand’s National Disaster Resilience Strategy (2015) is a clear and succinct document with three priorities, each with six objectives to achieve over ten years.[11]

The Ukrainian National Resistance Strategy (2022) is based on a law On the Fundamentals of National Resistance. It outlines the three pillars of Ukraine’s national resistance concept, namely Territorial Defence Forces, irregular resistance warfare units, and military training for the civilian population.[12]

Way Forward

The UK is undoubtedly improving its security and resilience posture. Yet, we have allowed ourselves to become second-rate players on an important global stage, and at a time when the world is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Ukraine’s response, both civil and military, to Russian aggression has been a model of national resistance and resilience. We need to build on their lessons and apply them to other pertinent challenges that may be existential and systemic. This requires a grand strategy for security and resilience.

The government does not have a strong record of identifying strategic risks and vulnerabilities, as well as realising strategic opportunities – Covid-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Brexit are examples. There is often a top-down attitude of government knowing best, with others required to fall into step. However, today’s challenges will need a new approach, based much more on developing resilience in the population and installing ‘translational leaders’ who can seamlessly work up and down and across organisational boundaries, connecting with groups who might otherwise be excluded and translating goals between constituencies.

Select Committees could do well to expose the gaps and chase the solutions. They need to emphasise the holistic and encourage the removal of silos. They should pursue the search for the general medication rather than analyse the individual symptoms. They need to engage more with business (beyond saying so) and highlight the real benefits that the private sector can bring to contingency planning. Efforts to generate a true whole-of-society approach will pay dividends when the next crisis strikes, as it surely will.


Robert Hall

30 August 2023



[1] Freedman, Sir Lawrence. Strategy: A History, p. ix, Oxford University Press, 2013.


[2] Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. Letter from Committee Chair and Government Response.


[4] Letwin, Sir Oliver. Witness Statement to Covid-19 Inquiry.

[5] The Roles of Lead Government Departments, Devolved Administrations and Other Public Bodies, Cabinet Office, 18 August 2023.

[6] Andrews, Sir Ian. Operational Resilience: A Guide for Non-executive Directors, Resilience First, 2021.

[7] House of Lords Select Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning, 3 December 2021.

[8] Persson, E. Whole-of-Society Preparedness: Finland’s approach, National Preparedness Commission, 7 October 2021. society-preparedness-finlands-approach/

[9] Objectives for Swedish total defence 2021–2025. 20212025/ In 2022, a new structure for Swedish civil defence and crisis preparation was announced. There is a Minister whose portfolio is civil defence: he has an all-encompassing responsibility and is the Deputy Minister in the Defence Department.

[10] Australian National Strategy for Disaster Resilience.

[11] New Zealand’s National Disaster Resilience Strategy. strategy-summary-version/

[12] Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, 29 June 2021.