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Royal Academy of Engineering Response to Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

1.      Introduction

1.1    The Royal Academy of Engineering is the UK’s National Academy for engineering and technology, providing independent advice on the complex challenges facing society.


1.2    The Academy is in a unique position to convene a diverse range of engineering expertise, given connections to government, industry, academic and other national academies both in the UK and overseas, to help policymakers navigate complex policy challenges and provide independent advice. For example,


1.2.1           Through access to networks: including, through our leadership of the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC) we have a direct route for policymakers to rapidly access the most useful expertise, experience and advice from every facet of the engineering profession. 

1.2.2           Maximising potential of engineering: an increasingly diverse and growing area of UK strength that has the potential to tackle parts of our daily lives and drive solutions to our greatest challenges.


1.3    We are submitting evidence to the Liaison Sub-Committee inquiry on the question of additional machinery of government needed to support strategic thinking and strategy-making and delivery (section 3). We have focussed our submission on responding to this question due to its relevance to the Academy’s areas of expertise and existing work.


1.4    In addition, we refer to the three case studies identified; the UK’s net zero commitments whilst achieving energy security, AI-driven economic growth while managing the impact of AI on the labour market and the safety of humanity and the UK’s place in the 21st century international order, while balancing security and prosperity (sections 4,5 and 6) to further evidence the validity of our recommendations.


1.5    The Academy would be delighted to provide further evidence to support this inquiry. If you have any questions about this submission, please do not hesitate to contact the Academy via publicaffairs@raeng.org.uk. 

2.       Key messages

2.1    Key to the implementation of effective strategic thinking and complex societal challenges is the ability to look at the problem through a systems lens.


2.2    At the Royal Academy of Engineering, we employ a systems approach through our strands of work to tackle this complexity. This approach is used to understand the wider system that a decision or intervention affects, encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing across sectors, and using that understanding to align the actions taken across government, private and civil sectors to achieve sustainable change.


2.3    Through the Academy’s policy work on some of the most complex policy challenges facing society, for example, Decarbonising Construction, Sustainable Living Places and Low Regrets Decision Making we have demonstrated that decision makers need to take a systems approach to navigate this complexity.  


2.4    Taken from our existing work, the Academy recommends the following steps to enable government to be more effective in their strategic thinking:


2.4.1           Leverage systems approaches and engineering expertise to address complex problems and support decision making (see specific recommendations in Section 3.1).

2.4.2           Promote cross-sector collaboration required to support strategic thinking and strategy-making and delivery.

2.4.3           Implement a systems approach to enable decision makers to make the necessary strategic decisions to achieve net zero by 2050.

2.4.4           Establish central frameworks and principles for AI whilst recognizing the need for individual regulators to undertake sector-specific work.

2.4.5           Consider and apply principles for pursuing strategic advantage through science and technology more broadly to support strategic thinking in government.

3.       Question: What additional machinery of Government, knowledge and skills are necessary to support strategic thinking and effective strategy-making and delivery, both within individual departments, and how strategy and strategic thinking can be sustained by building consensus between the main parties?


3.1    To better support strategic thinking in Select Committees, we recommend systems approaches be embedded across government. Specifically through;


3.1.1           Opportunities to develop knowledge and application of systems approaches through training and education.

3.1.2           Providing access to practical and technical support for experts in systems approaches.

3.1.3           Further exploring government’s readiness to apply systems approaches for instance, understanding characteristics of decision-makers and organisational factors that may inhibit interest and uptake of systems approaches.


3.2    Systems approaches, underpinned by engineering expertise, can help navigate complex challenges across many fields that involve interdependencies and unknowns.


3.3    Systems thinking is a framework for seeing interconnections in a system (a set of elements or parts interconnected in such a way that they produce their own behaviour over time), and a discipline for understanding the relevant aspects of the whole system – the ‘structures’ that underlie complex situations[i].


3.4    Systems approaches is an umbrella term to refer to the range of different techniques to apply principles of systems thinking and determine what is needed to create and maintain a system that is fit to deliver its intended purpose.


3.5    Even though systems approaches are informed by engineering thinking, they do not solely deliver technical solutions; rather, taking a systems approach ensures the alignment of technology, processes, interactions and policy to overcome complex, evolving and pressing challenges[ii].


3.6    Applying systems thinking and approaches in government can support effective strategy along with dynamic and fast-paced decision making[iii]. They promote cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary collaboration in the process of policy formulation by taking proper account of the crucial linkages between issues generally treated separately within different specialisations and scientific and institutional “silos”[iv]. This is where a systems approach can be valuable in identifying where certain activities could influence the system as a whole[v].


3.7    Further benefits of systems approaches when embedded comprehensively across individual policy teams to support strategic thinking include: 


3.7.1           Understanding complex policy challenges.

3.7.2           Maximising the outcomes achieved.

3.7.3           Avoiding or minimising the impact of unintended consequences.

3.7.4           Aligning policy objectives, delivery teams, regulations and stakeholder engagement.

3.7.5           Managing uncertainty, risk and opportunity[vi].


3.8    Other governments have successfully applied systems approaches to policy, for example, in Aotearoa, New Zealand, systems thinking has been deployed in concert with indigenous Māori knowledge approaches to address complex place-based health and wellbeing issues[vii]. Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, and Iceland have also applied systems approaches to initiate change. Learnings suggest systems approaches can stress ownership, involve key people, and create neutral spaces for discussion, fostering effective action. They're crucial for tackling complex issues, framing debates, measuring outcomes, and improving public services efficiently. [viii].


3.9    The launch of the GO Science introductory systems thinking toolkit for civil servants[ix] represents a positive first step in enhancing systems capabilities in UK government. While they equip civil servants with valuable tools to address complexity, it’s vital to further integrate these approaches across government to enhance strategic decision-making, collaboration, and holistic policy development, through fostering a systems-thinking culture.


We now present a number of case studies to illustrate the value of systems approaches to real world problems.

4.       Case study – the UK’s net zero commitments while maintaining energy security


4.1    The Academy has a strong track record of  policy advice on the complex challenge of achieving a just transition to net zero through a systems lens[x]


4.2    Achieving the target of net zero territorial emissions by 2050 will involve simultaneous transformation of several vital, interconnected infrastructure systems: from transport and housing, to energy and manufacturing. It requires developing whole new industries to maturity and supporting sweeping societal, cultural, behavioural and structural change. Importantly, it will also require coordinated, achievable action across all parts of society and government, with urgency and ambition[xi].


4.3    Government faces the challenge of designing and implementing policy across all economic sectors, and dynamically responding to changing conditions faster than political timescales have done so historically. This is an immense task, but an achievable one given the right approach[xii].


4.4    The advice from the Prime Minister’s Council on Science and Technology’s report Achieving net zero carbon emissions through a whole systems approach[xiii] sets out how a rigorous systems approach will reveal the effects that policy decisions in all areas of government will have on net zero, enabling decision-makers to understand how different policies interact and influence the transition of the whole economy towards net zero’.


4.5    It also asserts that a systems approach could enable the required leadership to drive concerted changes across all areas of the economy safely and productively. It sets out ideas for structures to achieve the complex information management and evidence gathering needed to inform this next level of decision making to shepherd the UK through the transition to net zero. Through both clear leadership and a shared system framework, system approaches can help align and guide decisions taken across organisations and sectors based on shared understanding of agreed pathways and expected outcomes. Such planning and frameworks for change could provide the balance of adaptability and stability to increase investment confidence to enable decarbonisation at the pace required while maximising the positive outcomes for society, ensuring a just transition, and reducing risk to infrastructure and economic productivity[xiv].


4.6    At the Academy, we are advocates for the application of systems approaches to realise this ambition. As explained in Section 3, taking a systems approach will enable decision makers to make the necessary strategic decisions to achieve net zero by 2050 in a socially just manner by helping them to:


4.6.1           Manage the complexity of decision making across multiple linked economic sectors and policy siloes.

4.6.2           Take a bigger picture view to the complexity of the policy challenge presented by achieving net zero by 2050.

4.6.3           Collaborate and communicate effectively with other stakeholders across industry, policy and civil society engaged in achieving this ambition[xv].


4.7    Within the NEPC response to BEIS Select Committee Inquiry into Net Zero Governance[xvi], we outlined key messages and recommendations related to governance structures for achieving net-zero in the UK. To summarise, the document outlines the need for comprehensive governance and rigorous scrutiny to achieve the UK’s net-zero emissions.


5.        Case study - AI-driven economic growth while managing the impact of AI on the labour market and the safety of humanity


5.1   The NEPC work on safety and ethics of autonomous systems[xvii] looked across sectors at the risks and benefits of systems that make informed decisions for themselves in complex environments. These often AI-driven systems create similar ethical challenges across sectors, for example avoidance of harm, fairness, transparency. However, different sectors will have different needs depending on the context of how autonomous systems will be developed and deployed.


5.2    Recent developments in AI present significant opportunities to grow in the UK economy, bring better quality jobs and improve public and private services. To effectively balance the risks and opportunities there is merit in establishing strategic frameworks and principles centrally. However, given the breadth of applications of AI and AI-enabled systems there will still be a need for individual regulators to play a sector specific role

6.      Case study - The UK’s place in the 21st century international order, while balancing security and prosperity


6.1    The government’s ambition to pursue strategic advantage through science and technology, as part of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy[xviii], necessitates strategic activity that reaches across departments.


6.2    The strategic advantage through science and technology approach is, in part, a response to geopolitical instability. As examples, the war in Ukraine, evolving China relations and the COVID-19 pandemic have all challenged the UK’s resilience. This is all against a back drop of rapidly advancing science and technology. These are enhanced by global collaboration and growing accessibility of science and technology knowledge. These complex and interconnected changes are challenging long held norms, revealing vulnerabilities and presenting potential threats and opportunities. This necessitates the need for a broad approach to national resilience to protect security and address societal, economic, and environmental challenges. Simultaneously, we need to be prepared and ready to grasp opportunities to increase well-being, quality of life and prosperity. Science and technology touches all of government.


6.3    The Academy has undertaken work that sets out why pursing strategic advantage through science and technology is essential, a vision for achieving it; and where radical change is needed[xix].


6.4    We define strategic advantage as science and technology being harnessed purposefully to achieve defined outcomes for security, prosperity, resilience, international influence, and people and environment, with the aim of conferring comparative advantage for the UK. Understanding and managing inevitable tensions and trade-offs, principles intrinsic to a systems approach, are integral to the strategic advantage approach.


6.5    We identified six principles for deeper consideration when implementing strategic direction in pursuit of advantage, that can be more broadly applied to other scenarios that require strategic thinking. Of these principles, the below reflect how underpinning ideas of systems approaches can be applied:


6.5.1           Long-term – long-term strategic direction, longer-term budgets, durable institutions and stability to enable the R&I system to deliver and provide confidence for businesses to thrive.

6.5.2           Connections and networks – a ‘connect and convene approach’ that engenders a sense of ownership and commitment, with improved interfaces between government and business and optimised role for the networks and organisations that aid permeability such as public sector research establishments and catapult centres.

6.5.3           Coherence – coherent and sustained strategies that align actions across regulation, funding, infrastructure, skills and government’s convening power will be needed. Countries around the world are pursuing joined up approaches to promote growth in priority sectors, like renewable energy generation, semiconductors and green transport, to help them become world leaders in these key industries8. Coherence requires extensive engagement and alignment across government departments and agencies, and extensive industry input. Lack of coherence is a weakness of the UK’s system – engineers and engineering companies find strategic engagement across UK government organisations frustrating, fragmented, and not joined-up.

6.5.4           Action – interventions that accelerate progress towards outcomes and deliver results from strategies.


[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/systems-thinking-for-civil-servants/toolkit

[ii] https://raeng.org.uk/media/wwko2fs4/final-report-engineering-better-care-version-for-website.pdf

[iii] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/systems-thinking-for-civil-servants/toolkit

[iv] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/879c4f7a-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/879c4f7a-en

[v] https://raeng.org.uk/media/5h0hlmkj/policy-sustainable-living-v11.pdf

[vi] https://incoseuk.org/Documents/zGuides/Z7_Systems_Thinking_issue1.1_web.pdf

[vii] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11213-023-09644-0

[viii] https://oecd-opsi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Systems-Approaches-to-Public-Sector-Challenges_Working-with-Change.pdf

[ix] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/systems-thinking-for-civil-servants/toolkit

[x] https://nepc.raeng.org.uk/net-zero

[xi] https://nepc.raeng.org.uk/media/b4jpdttw/net-zero-a-systems-perspective-on-the-climate-challenge-final-nepc.pdf

[xii] https://nepc.raeng.org.uk/media/b4jpdttw/net-zero-a-systems-perspective-on-the-climate-challenge-final-nepc.pdf

[xiii] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5f3d1c51d3bf7f1b1ea28e73/cst-net-zero-letter-30-january-2020.pdf

[xiv] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5f3d1c51d3bf7f1b1ea28e73/cst-net-zero-letter-30-january-2020.pdf

[xv] https://nepc.raeng.org.uk/media/b4jpdttw/net-zero-a-systems-perspective-on-the-climate-challenge-final-nepc.pdf

[xvi] https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/43111/pdf/

[xvii] https://nepc.raeng.org.uk/autonomous-systems

[xviii] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/integrated-review-refresh-2023-responding-to-a-more-contested-and-volatile-world

[xix] https://nepc.raeng.org.uk/media/zxte0gxb/strategic_advantage_through_science_and_technology_the_engineering_view.pdf