Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government: Liaison Committee Call for Evidence


Evidence submitted by Dr. Keith Dear (biography here), in a personal capacity.

Why I am submitting evidence: As a former Expert Advisor to the Prime Minister on Science, Technology, Defence and National Security in 2020, principally advising on the Government’s Integrated Review (published 2021), I have personal experience of Government strategy-making. As an 18-year regular Royal Air Force Intelligence Officer, and now 601 Squadron RAF Reservist leading on Science & Technology, I have been consistently engaged in defence and national security decision-making at all levels. I have been a life-long student of strategy through academic study of history, politics, international relations, war studies, psychology, and most recently business, always turning the academic to the practical, on deployment, in Whitehall, and globally; first in defence and national security, then with the macroeconomic and Grand strategic view from No10, now in business.

As a citizen I care deeply about the success of our country in overcoming the many challenges it faces. As a former colleague of many of those in Whitehall struggling valiantly to succeed on behalf of citizens within a system that often limits their ability to do so, and striving to reform a system that I do not believe can be reformed without fundamental changes to the structures and incentives within it, my hope is that this evidence might aid them in their efforts. At a minimum, I hope to spark debate that might improve further on the advice herein.


Strategy is the means by which companies and countries succeed or fail over time Short-term and sometimes significant success can be achieved through chance and good tactics. The short-term matters in the short-term: many ideas fail because the teams behind them spend too long thinking about the long-term and not enough getting on with what needs doing now. But sustained success requires good strategy. The UK’s recent failures, declining productivity, increasing wealth inequality, struggling public services, very public foreign policy, defence and security setbacks, are suggestive of sustained failure in national strategy.

But this problem is not new.

In 2011, Parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee expressed its frustration with HMG’s response to criticism in its October 2010 report entitled Who Does UK National Strategy?, writing:

The central contention of our Report is that Government has lost the capacity to think strategically. The burden of expert evidence we received was that short termism and reaction to events predominate in recent Whitehall practice. The ability to articulate our enduring interests, values and identity has atrophied. Strategy is too often thought of as a plan for action or a document rather than a process which needs to be articulated constantly and updated regularly. … The Government’s response suggests that there are fundamental confusions about terms, no agreed definitions and hence at present none of the prerequisites for constructive engagement with the analysis in our Report. (emphasis added)

Thirteen years after the PASC’s report, it is unclear to what extent any of this has improved. Criticism of Whitehall’s ability to create and deliver strategy continues in Parliament on the 2015 SDSR, on Syria, on the 2018 NSCR and Modernising Defence Programme, in the 2022 Joint Committee on National Security Strategy’s criticisms in its review of The UK’s National Security Machinery, as well as among respected academics, think-tanks and the media. This may not do full justice to innovations like the Chilcot Checklist[1] and Fusion Doctrine. But it is notable that similar frustrations are often expressed within Whitehall and at all levels. No-one seems to think we have this right.

In 2021, HBR asked Why do so many strategies fail? The article contained many important suggestions. But a 2017 HBR article had answered the question accurately and simply in its title1: 

Many Strategies Fail Because They’re Not Actually Strategies. 

We observe that strategy is not well understood. There are many guides, a review article in HBR in 2015 identified 81 distinct frameworks. But their length and complexity often create more confusion than clarity. But definitions are like signposts, they tell you which way to go. Without one, strategy practitioners are lost in Babel-like confusion, and can go in whichever direction they want, in whatever manner they want, and call it strategic.

The problem in Government has been as much that it isn’t sure what strategy is, and so dissolves into debate over competing definitions, or dismisses the need for them at all.

A starting point for discussion should be for Government to clearly define, and publish, what it means by Policy and Strategy. Both are loaded terms weighted with individual and organisational attachment and interest. Neither the Committee nor the public can hold a government to account for failing to deliver something it cannot define. One suspects this is, in part, why no such definition exists.

Definitions are essential if those involved in strategy-making are to communicate and understand one another. There are two alternative approaches to ensuring this common understanding. - One is to have an authoritative body which, after careful thought and consultation, issues an approved definition for each key term and imposes that definition on everyone, so that everyone uses the term in the same way in every discussion. Periodically, the authoritative body will review the definition and amend it to ensure that it fits changing circumstances.

The alternative is to accept that people/groups have different definitions and to insist that everyone defines their term precisely before any discussion starts.

Committees should take this approach in scrutinizing Whitehall strategies and policies, and when interviewing those providing evidence to committees. The Liaison Committee might also usefully publish a proposed definition.

Definitions serve a number of purposes, which might be neatly distinguished in two groups. The first is to add clarity in communication, coordination, and in guiding action. The second is to advance individual or organizational agendas. The Committee should ensure that whatever definition is selected, avoids the unnecessary diversion of creating a new definition itself. There is no need. Strategy is at least old as the term itself, Strategy, from Strategos, in ancient Greek. It has been shaped since by many authors. Those offered in this document are derived from Clausewitz, Freedman, Mintzberg and others, and the intellectual debt can be readily attributed and referenced, should the Committee require a more academic submission.


  1. Grand strategy is the means by which countries pursue their long-term national interests.
  2. Strategy is the art of ‘getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest possible’ or more succinctly, the art of ‘creating power’.
  3. Power is ‘the ability to get things done’.
  4. Policy is… Oxford English Dictionary. Policy.
    1.           A principle or course of action adopted or proposed as desirable, advantageous, or expedient; esp. one formally advocated by a government, political party, etc. Also as a mass noun: method of acting on matters of principle, settled practice. (Now the usual sense.)
  5.                               From which, the Committee is invited to consider that:
    1.      Policy is defined as the elaboration of clearly actionable ways and assigned means, into formalized detailed, practical action – a policy might be both written definition of precisely what is to be done, by whom, when, where, and how, as well as the creation of the system from centre to those physically undertaking required actions, to empower, monitor, organise, order, regulate, control and hold accountable.
  6. The nature of strategy is:
    1. Competitive. Strategy exists only in the presence of competition. i.e. achieving competitive advantage. Herein is the fundamental distinction of strategy from policy and plans.
    1. Relative. If it is ‘competitive’ it must be relative – strategy thinks about power not just in absolute terms, but relatively.
    2. Recursive. Strategy must think in recursive terms if I do X, China is likely to do Y, therefore, etc.
    3. Iterative. A constant process of “playing the game” and balancing ends, ways, and means.
    4. Asymmetric. Seeking to match strengths against weaknesses, capabilities to opportunities.
    5. Opportunistic. Strategy should exploit or create opportunities.
  7. Forms of Strategy. Strategy might be said to come in five identifiable forms:
    1. Strategy as an Approach or Style. A guiding conceptual framework, such as maritime or continental strategy, the choice of offensive or defensive, as unilateral or multilateral. Where concepts are a description and response to ‘what matters and how the world works’. A style of strategy refers to how we develop our mental models of strategy: Putin is said to hone his team’s strategic abilities by making them play the Asiatic game of Go (notably not the much less complex Chess). It can aid analysis of other’s strategies, and thus development of our own, to understand the style they apply.
    2. Strategy as an Activity or Process. A constant process of balancing [a nation’s] aspirations against its objectives and its resources. As things change in any of these three, so one or both of the other two need to be altered to maintain coherence.
    3. Strategy as planning. Using a deliberative and formal process to set goals and chart how to achieve them (aligning ends, ways, means). Strategy as planning anticipates challenges along the way. It results in a document, a plan (sometimes referred to, unhelpfully, as ‘the strategy’) constantly referred to and iterated. But, the document is not the totality of it; it should include organisational, process and systems design – at the outset, for how to conduct the planning, on designing the system to implement the strategy including the feedback loops and clear identification of who is accountable for what, and throughout the ongoing adaptive strategy process.
    4. Adaptive strategy. Focuses on sensing changing realities, adapting plans, structures and process in response. Its starting point is the assumption that the future is neither forecastable not controllable.
    5. Emergent strategy, or strategy in practice, is the reality of strategy, what emerges in the clash of wills, wants, and ways, the p/Politics, of individuals and organisations. It is feature, not a bug, of strategy. Strategy must account for p/Politics and personalities. Good strategy considers how best to shape what will emerge in both the creation, and implementation of planned and adaptive strategy. Strategy shapes what emerges through the design of systems, structures and processes that seek to make incentives explicit, and ensure they are, insofar as possible, aligned around desired outcomes.

    None of these are in tension, or contradictory, even if they overlap. The Committee could usefully refine, discuss and accept each as a first step towards being able to scrutinize Government plans and activities for evidence of something that might amount to a strategic approach.


Beyond definitional confusion, the five primary issues limiting effective strategy-making in Government are:

  1.           Short-termism & reacting to events; we need to improve our ability to plan for specific anticipatable contingences and improve the speed and coherence of reaction to unexpected events, especially exploitation of opportunities; and ensure a strategic understanding so that the tactical responses are coherent and contribute to the strategic goals.
  2.           The absence of coherent, clear systematic structures for both creating & implementing strategy; from the perspective of nationally orientated outcomes, as opposed to departmentally.
  3.           The inward-looking, incurious tendencies of much of our machinery of government that limits it ability to think strategically.  This is driven by:

(1) Departmental-centric incentives, which limit the ability to coordinate over mutually supporting activities that might achieve strategic synergies to the extent that at times it is actively suppressed;

(2) mistaking seniority for expertise, limiting the ability for challenge, the use of evidence and logic to resolve disagreements, and for bottom-up coordination and problem resolution;

(3) a promotion system that rewards wordsmithing and internal politicking over achievement;

(4) churn – a lack of continuity in role;

(5) the continued ‘cult of the gifted amateur’, where deep expertise is neither encouraged nor rewarded, and management is seen as something that can picked-up along the way, not a specialist skill requiring education, training and continuous professional development;

(6) the related reliance on individual integrity – expecting individuals to put their own interests, career and departmental interests second to the national interest – ignores human psychology.[2] Where we sit tends to determine where we stand. What we need is systemic integrity, that explicitly aligns incentives around outcomes.

(7) the absence of clear SMART – Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Time-bounded – objectives and outcomes, that can be tracked against results. Too often we see rather vague assertions of intent or aspiration. Or statements of intended inputs (£XXBn), or at best vague intended outcomes. The absence of SMART objectives reduces accountability and thus removes any need to think strategically.

  1.           A System that Runs the People. The biggest challenge is in the question of authority. In 1986, WW2 US Air Force General Bernard Schriever was tasked by the US President to find out why the US was no longer turning its research leadership into competitive advantage. He concluded: ‘The system is running the people’. Our challenge is similar. It wasn’t that the Pentagon and the US Science & Tech Ecosystem lacked good people to run the system in Shriever’s day. Nor that they could not see the problems. But it was the system and process that was now accountable, responsible and where power was invested. Not the people. Consequently, it was a system that could not reform itself.
  2.           The separation of policy/strategy and ‘delivery’. This unhelpful distinction is widespread in Whitehall, where ‘policy specialists’ are the prestigious seniors, wordsmiths cleverly crafting statements and ideas for Ministers and publication, presiding over junior staff who have to translate this guidance into something that can be implemented – or worse, where ‘delivery’ is owned by an external agency or quango. Such a situation breaks the feedback loop that enables learning – someone is to blame further down the hierarchy, if something goes wrong, it is not the wordsmith’s fault. It reduces accountability. It corrodes the system, strategic thinking, and the people within it. Those crafting the strategy need to being doing so with those they will work with to deliver it ‘in the room’, the words reflecting not just the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of strategy, but the ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘where’. Indeed in business it is often said that strategy is the how, if you don’t have that, you haven’t got a strategy. Hence the difficulties if you delineate strategy and delivery as separate functions, exacerbated if you make wordsmithing more prestigious than results.

The UK’s recent successes – the vaccines taskforce, the nascent progress in the Government’s AI taskforce – are notably efforts run outside the existing system, by people from outside the existing system, freeing them up from the constraints imposed by the factors described above. When Warren Buffet notes of businesses that turnarounds don’t turn he is pointing to how difficult reform is when those tasked with it are products of the same system. In looking at the UK’s Grand Strategy, and its multiple subordinate strategies, the Liaison Committee should look as much for process and business model innovation in the structures that create and implement the strategy, as at the plan itself. They might also look to the ‘who’ of strategy. Ideally, those leading it and responsible for the results would be identifiable, to reduce the risk of the system running the people, and would have the credibility, credential and track-record to give confidence in their ability to achieve the stated outcome.

Perhaps the most useful service the Liaison Committee could provide is a short, succinct, checklist for all Committees to use in scrutinising Government policy for evidence of a truly strategic approach. Every Committee report might have a strategy scorecard, and written assessment of whether the strategy, policy or plan defines its terms and is what it claims to be. Over time, such persistent evaluation might itself begin to change the incentives of Ministers and Civil Servants, by seeking to highlight just how many of our strategies are not actually strategies, with the aim that this is no longer regarded as acceptable until such time as failed policy is scrutinised in retrospect.


[1] The Chilcot Checklist is designed for policy staff to ‘help you think more broadly about your issue, and who you might need to involve in it in order to ensure that the widest range of options is available to support decision-making’. To do so it offers a checklist of 10 points. Similarly, the NSC’s 5-Step process (the “NSS anaconda”) – (1) UK Interests & Objectives, (2) Situation, (3) Outlook, (4) Comprehensive Strategy, (5) UK Catalytic Contribution is helpful. However, it describes a process for rapid policy planning. Neither is a guide to strategy-making.

[2] As the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has described in his book Deceit and Self-Deception humans evolved to deceive themselves to better deceive others, and the biggest lies we tell in life are often the one’s we tell ourselves. In short, the motivations behind our own beliefs and actions are often opaque to us. Therefore it is not criticism of individuals within our system to note that they too are likely vulnerable to this universal human weakness.