Call for Evidence - Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

Dr Christopher Featherstone, Submission to the Commons Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government.

October 2023


I am an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, the University of York. My research focuses on UK foreign policy-making, scrutinising the role of individuals within the process of making decisions.

This submission draws on my research on how and why the UK made the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and my ongoing research on UK government lesson learning from the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. This research draws on extensive archival research, analysing the documents used by decision-makers in the process, and in-depth interviews with these decision makers. I am in the process of developing this research for publication as a book, however, there are key insights from this research that can inform the work of this Sub-Committee.

This submission comments on two of the key areas where the committee asked for comments:

In doing so, this submission will start by making recommendations on how No. 10 and the Cabinet Office can lead on strategic thinking across government departments, serving as both a hub for strategic thinking and to develop strategic thinking capacity. Following this, the submission will outline the need for lesson learning in strategic thinking, outlining recommendations to increase committee oversight of existing decision making procedures, and recommends a new procedure for this lesson learning activity.

Recommendation 1: The Role of the National Security Council

The National Security Council (NSC) was itself established in response to lessons identified in the decision process that led to the invasion of Iraq. The creation of the NSC was one of David Cameron’s first actions in office, and each subsequent Prime Minister has largely maintained the ministerial and official composition.

The NSC is accompanied by the position of National Security Adviser (NSA) and the National Security Secretariat (NSSec), giving the NSC strategic planning capacity. The NSSec has a staff of around 200 individuals, split between five directorates: the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Foreign Affairs, Security & Intelligence, the Office for Cyber Security and Information Assurance (OCSIA), and Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) UK (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: National Security Secretariat Organogram, 1 August 2010. From Who does UK national strategy? PASC October 2010. (From Devanny, J. Harris, J. 2014. The National Security Council: National security at the centre of government. The Institute for Government).

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The first recommendation this evidence will make is to add a sixth directorate, “Directorate of Strategic Planning” to the NSSec. This directorate would have a dual purpose. Firstly, the directorate would have the purpose of coordinating strategic planning activities across departmental divides. Secondly, the directorate would review strategic planning across all departments, both reviewing strategy as it is made, and overseeing departmental reviews of their strategic planning.

This proposal builds directly on the lessons from the decision to invade Iraq, lessons to which the creation of the NSC responded. Of the flaws in decision-making that my research and the Iraq Inquiry highlighted, one of the most significant was the lack of coordination in decision-making across the UK government. In the government response to HC 656: Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry, the government claimed that the creation of the NSC and NSA (with the accompanying NSSec apparatus), means that:

It is inconceivable today that we could take a premeditated decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging discussion in the National Security Council, on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, with decisions formally minuted. (HC 656: Government Response).

However, this argument that similar decision-making flaws are inconceivable, is largely based on the capacity of the NSSec to propose and prepare planning papers, and keeping minutes of meetings. By enabling this newly created “Directorate of Strategic Planning” to review departmental strategy planning, the potential for plans to be untested/under-tested is further reduced.

Further, in acting as the hub for coordinating strategic planning in government, and also reviewing these planning procedures, the proposed “Directorate of Strategic Planning” would function as another check on limited planning or departmental closed-mindedness. Further, this check would also act prior to these papers being presented to the NSC, preventing a transfer of these limitations. For example, in the investigation of the decision to invade Iraq, Sir John Chilcot reported:

It was not clear which person or department in the Ministry of Defence was responsible for identifying and articulating such capability gaps. But it should have been.

By reviewing the plans as they are developed, the proposed “Directorate of Strategic Planning” would identify failures in planning responsibilities such as this.

This recommendation will enable the NSSec to coordinate cross-departmental planning, building links between planning teams and establishing responsibilities for components of plans and the plan as a whole. As such, failures in planning coordination such as those highlighted by the Iraq Inquiry would be less likely to occur. The Iraq Inquiry found that at the start of the Iraq War, the government had not “established mechanisms within Whitehall which could coordinate and drive post-conflict reconstruction” or “allocated responsibility to any department or unit for planning and delivering the UK’s contribution to post-conflict reconstruction”.

The Defence Committee’s report on the inquiry into the UK withdrawal from Afghanistan highlighted similar coordination flaws, although between different departments than were highlighted in the Iraq Inquiry. In the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the lack of coordination occurred between the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) and the Home Office. Whilst the absence of senior FCDO leadership at the time of the withdrawal surely exacerbated the impact of this lack of coordinated planning, the similarity with the findings of the Iraq Inquiry highlights the pervasive nature of these flaws in inter-departmental planning and strategy. Given the government’s actions to learn the lessons from the experience of the Iraq war, the similarity in the coordination failures demonstrates the enduring and pervasive nature of these procedural flaws.

By creating the “Directorate of Strategic Planning”, the Cabinet Office would remove the requirement to establish such a coordination mechanism in response to particular crises, rather the mechanism would be operational and ready to react to policy challenges as they arise. In combining the oversight of within department planning and oversight of inter-departmental planning, the “Directorate of Strategic Planning” would also be able to help coordinate lesson-learning on good practice in strategic planning.

Crucially for this committee, by establishing a “hub” to review strategic plans and the planning processes, this can then be combined with Select Committee oversight of the strategic planning activities, and established strategic plans across government. The Liaison committee, or a sub-committee from the Liaison Committee, would be able to question the Director of the “Directorate of Strategic Planning”, reviewing processes, the effectiveness of their oversight, and in times of public attention on planning failures, report on the lessons to be learned.

In performing this coordination role, the “Directorate of Strategic Planning” would therefore be able to address several flaws identified in UK strategic planning. As mentioned, interdepartmental planning coordination was highlighted as a key failure by the Iraq Inquiry, highlighting the impact of failures in coordinated planning on UK post-war reconstruction plans. In the Report of the Iraq Inquiry’s own words, they found “No evidence that any department or individual assumed ownership or was assigned responsibility for what might happen after the invasion”. From their exhaustive examination of the evidence, the Iraq inquiry clearly highlights that the lack of clarity in responsibility for strategy in post-invasion reconstruction in Iraq led to a lack in strategic planning.

Creating the “Directorate of Strategic Planning” would share the responsibility for coordinating planning between and across departments between staff within departments, and a central strategic coordination “hub”. The primary intention of creating this “hub” would be to help facilitate the coordination of strategic planning, providing oversight of how responsibilities are shared and delineated. However, if flaws of obstacles arise in coordinated inter-departmental planning, the directorate will also be able to highlight this lack prior to policy implementation.

Figure 2. National Security Secretariat Organogram, with Directorate of Strategic Planning.

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Recommendation 2: Lessons from the Iraq Inquiry

The second recommendation here draws on my research on the UK decision to join the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the lessons highlighted by the Iraq Inquiry. Sir John Chilcot highlighted the importance of collective Cabinet decision-making, a recommendation drawn on by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) in their Ensuring Proper Process for Key Government Decisions: Lessons Still to be Learned from the Chilcot Report” report. The PACAC found that should the Cabinet Secretary find the rules of the Cabinet Manual on the scrutiny of important decisions are not being followed, and the Prime Minister ignore their advice, the Cabinet Secretary’s only choice is to resign. As such, the PACAC recommendedthat the Cabinet Secretary should be able to ask the Prime Minister for a written ministerial direction to ignore the normal decision-making process, in the same way accounting officers can ask Ministers for a written direction if they want to ignore civil servants' advice on the proper use of public money”.

As the Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, commented after the publication of the report, "In 2002 Tony Blair promised George Bush that "I will be with you, whatever" committing the UK to war in Iraq without consulting the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, let alone the rest of the Cabinet. Fifteen years later there are still no safeguards in place within the Government to prevent a Prime Minister acting so recklessly again. Our proposal is modest, and has the support of many former senior Civil Servants. We expect the Government to consider it seriously."

This recommendation can be further developed to improve scrutiny of government strategic planning. This committee could reinvigorate this recommendation. Firstly, these officials should be able to send this written instruction to this Committee to invite their oversight. Secondly, by enabling the Liaison Committee to call on such Senior Officials to give evidence to the Committee, should a flaw in process or mechanisms be highlighted to the Committee. In doing so, flawed processes can be raised with the Committee for scrutiny, requiring ministers to explain and defend the processes, necessitating a response in the conduct of government decision-making.

By formally establishing this mechanism for senior officials to highlight poor adherence to Cabinet decision-making procedures, the Government would demonstrate positive engagement with formal decision-making rules and scrutiny. Further, this would demonstrate engagement with lesson-learning within Whitehall, as this recommendation from the Better Government Initiative was initially proposed in response to the Iraq Inquiry’s findings, and was recommended by the PACAC more than once.

The government rejection of this recommendation, as mentioned above, stated, “It is inconceivable today that we could take a premeditated decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging discussion in the National Security Council, on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, with decisions formally minuted.” (HC 656: Government Response). A key means for this Committee to reinvigorate government thinking on external scrutiny of decision-making procedures and encourage positive engagement between Ministers and Committees is to require the government to justify and explain this response.

This form of dismissive response to a recommendation to increase government accountability and parliamentary oversight is indicative of a culture of dismissing concerns for process and checks and balances. Requiring the government to publicly defend this position in front of this Committee would be a strong response to this culture.


This evidence has made proposals addressing two of the areas where this Committee intends to make recommendations:

              how to improve strategic thinking in government;

how Committees can deliver effective scrutiny of strategic thinking;

The first proposal is to create a new “Directorate of Strategic Planning”, new machinery of government to develop new strategic plans, coordinate inter-departmental strategic planning, and review strategic planning processes within and between departments. The second proposal is to reinvigorate a recommendation from the PACAC, that the Cabinet Secretary and senior officials should be able to ask for written instructions to ignore the normal decision-making procedures in the Cabinet manual. These officials should be able to send this written instruction to this Committee to invite their oversight. Further, by enabling the Liaison Committee to call on such Senior Officials to give evidence to the Committee, should a flaw in process or mechanisms be highlighted.