SSTG0045

Submission to Liaison Committee Inquiry on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government: the Governance System and Strategic Culture

 

Sent in a personal capacity from Catherine Day, Senior Research Fellow, and Prof. Andrew Blick, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.

 

This submission focuses on adapting the UK’s governance system so that it can leverage culture to improve strategic impact. It draws on the 20+ years’ experience that each of the authors has in central, departmental and frontline government roles; the academic study of strategy and strategic culture; and the study of the history and contemporary politics of the UK constitution. It represents the personal views of the authors alone, and not that of their employers. It focuses on three critical areas for creating an environment in which strategic thoughts and action can flourish in the UK. It relates to a Centre for Culture Advantage project that we are initiating at King’s College London.

 

Context

 

Despite progress in some areas, the UK’s governance and political systems have not kept pace with the ways in which the world has evolved. This has opened scope for systemic failure and relative decline as other states take more effective advantage of opportunities. Turning this around requires the whole system to be upgraded and strengthened to make it fit-for-purpose in the 21st century; and a more strategic culture to be nurtured in the UK as a precondition for strategic thought and action.

 

In order to achieve strategic ends in today's increasingly complex global environment, the challenge for governments is to identify and articulate shared whole-of-society objectives, then develop and sustain coordinated national endeavour against those objectives through political cycles. To that end, the questions to address are:

 

  1. Can we improve how we decide on our shared strategic outcomes as a society? How can we develop a shared sense of what the future might hold as a basis for this? What is government’s role in enabling this?

 

  1. How can we mobilise all of our national capabilities over the long term to deliver against those outcomes, sustaining effort through political cycles and clarifying roles and responsibilities across all sectors in contributing to shared, national endeavour?

 

  1. How can the UK’s institutions and governance system best be organised and resourced to support and enable the development and delivery of ‘national strategy’?

 

The challenge is fundamentally a systemic and a cultural one. There is scope to strengthen the UK’s governance system; nurture a UK culture that improves strategic thinking; and improve government’s critical contribution in each of the three areas above.

 

Key points

 

We need to adapt our systems so that we are much more capable of whole-of-government, whole-of-country, whole-of-society endeavour, that can be effectively coordinated and sustained over time in pursuit of enduring interests like security, prosperity and societal wellbeing, and to support values (or the sort of country/ society we want to be) like fairness, justice and the rule of law.

 

There are three levels on which adaptation needs to take place: strengthening structures in the government so that it is more capable of supporting strategic national endeavour; improving how we connect the government with other key actors (extending to citizens) so that it is easier to mobilise widespread effort; and instilling a culture that binds the whole operation together so that we become a nation that is better able to act collectively to secure strategic interests.

 

Looking at each in turn:

 

  1. Strengthening structures across government to better support strategic national endeavour. We have some good capabilities in government, and strengths in society, and have created significant strategic opportunities in recent years, notably in the international and national security space. The challenge is to bring those capabilities together and mobilise effort to lean into the opportunities we have created. There is a need to reconcile the constitutional principle of collective government with the tendency towards dispersal of functions and power to different departments. The most effective incentives in government are funding and structures. Here, a central Office for Strategic Affairs (or equivalent) with a Director General (DG) or Director in the Cabinet Office who is specifically mandated to strengthen cross-government strategic endeavour and capability, working with a much stronger (formalised, upskilled, routinely engaging with each other) network reaching into departments and building/ joining-up critical central capability could be transformative. To deliver this:
    1. Departments would need to be asked formally to appoint a Strategy DG/ Director or, where they have one, to adjust their mandate so that due weight is given to collective strategy. Most Departments have Strategy Directors; some have DGs. But their focus tends to be on departmental strategy and Ministerial priorities, rather than on a collectively owned and implemented 'national strategy'.
    2. Stronger routines need to be introduced so that the government is routinely thinking and acting collectively - a 'strategy cycle', supported by regular processes for horizon-scanning; deliberatively considering the implications of changes and options for action, including with those affected; and acting where necessary. There are historic examples of attempts to institutionalise such practices, including the Central Policy Review Staff, set up under Edward Heath and the Strategy Unit, established under Tony Blair, from which we can learn in this regard. There are also examples of attempts to develop national strategy, such as Harold Macmillan’s Future Policy Study in 1959, and more ambitious US attempts: President Eisenhower’s Commission on National Goals and two studies funded by Nelson Rockefeller: the Special Studies Group; and Commission on Critical Choices for Americans.
    3. Some new capabilities would need to be developed or upgraded, underpinned by a proper capability assessment. In particular, as in other sectors, the government would benefit from having a formal Strategy Function to build critical skills and expertise, training leaders and policymakers in strategy skills; developing a cadre of strategy specialists with the mindset and competence for strategic leadership; and creating the structural space for good strategy (eg releasing strategic leaders from management functions). It would also benefit from making more effective use of technology to drive delivery and of thinking now about what government will need to look like in 10, 20 and more years’ time.
    4. Central capability to drive collective endeavour would need to be strengthened. Critical central capabilities to bring together are:

        Futures, foresight and horizon-scanning. A team representing what was formerly a joint cross-government capability on this exists in Go-Science, another has been established in the Cabinet Office and many departments also have futures functions. These would benefit from being better joined-up across government and more strongly connected into the central policymaking system to drive and inform strategy;

        Monitoring and evaluation, producing data and evidence against key strategic interests, trends and indicators. The government has a solid basis for this with the Cabinet Office teams that support departmental Outcome Delivery Plans, linking outcomes to departmental objectives and a system for tracking progress. This would need to be extended;

        The ability to mobilise action and decisions when events/ indicators show that it is needed, working with the Cabinet Secretariats and National Situation Centre. Recent experience has shown that this is a consistent weakness. The government needs better overarching routines - such as an annual strategy cycle - and ability to drive action across the system, for example standing up a COBR(Strategy) when information shows that action is needed to maintain strategic direction. (Covid is a very good example of this not working well: the Covid inquiry is highlighting that experts were warning months in advance that government must act);

        Citizen engagement and the articulation of enduring UK national interests. Another weakness. The government needs better mechanisms for routine participatory engagement in strategy and policy development and delivery, and to harness/ benefit from what should be a key UK strength: the diversity of experience and expertise in wider society. The Policy Profession's leadership on 'collective intelligence' and the cross-government initiative to advance ‘participatory methods’  are examples of the type of capability that should be scaled up. NESTA has recommended a 'Citizen Engagement Service', for example. A national database of civilian subject matter expertise, elements of which already exist in some subject areas, could also be created; and

        Funding vehicles that incentivise joined-up, coherent activity to deliver strategic goals. The Integrated Security Fund and ARIA are examples of the types of vehicle that can focus and inspire more collective effort over time, subject to making sure that they are implemented in inclusive, accessible ways.

 

  1. Connecting HMG with other actors so that it can mobilise/ enable widespread effort when needed and benefit from the great strengths in wider UK society, notably in the higher education, science and technology sectors and in industry more broadly. The challenge is to strengthen accountability and develop mechanisms and routines for greater, meaningful engagement. These might include:
    1. A national institution for strategy modelled on the Office for Budgetary Responsibility - an Office for Strategic Responsibility - headed by a Chief National Strategist, comparable to the National Statistician. This could be established in legislation with a mandate to support the development and implementation of national strategy around enduring collective outcomes such as security, prosperity and societal wellbeing.
    2. The Office for Strategic Responsibility would report routinely to Parliament. This link could present Parliament with a significant opportunity to take on a role of guarantor of the strategic effectiveness and integrity of the Office and by extension the UK Government. It could use existing or specifically created committees to hold hearings, receive evidence, and report on progress, helping to build strategy into the political and national culture.
    3. In addition, both Government and Parliament should find ways to incentivise and enable cross-sector initiatives that get industry, academia and government to work together in a systematic way on strategic issues. This might include new structures modelled on initiatives like Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center; and processes such as a high-level annual National Strategy Dialogue or Conference to drive cross-sectoral engagement on key issues.
    4. Implementing the Integrated Review commitment to a broad-based Civilian Reserve as one way of providing an enhanced mechanism for more widespread, expert contributions to national strategy.

 

  1. Instilling and incentivising a strategic culture so that we become a nation that is better able to act collectively to secure strategic interests. 'Strategic culture' in this context is used to describe the collective mindset, values, and approaches that influence how a nation perceives and responds to strategic opportunities and challenges and pursues long-term goals such as security, prosperity and wellbeing. Overall, and while there are exceptional examples of joined-up working in pursuit of strategic goals, the UK's national strategic culture could generally be characterised as weak, disjointed and polarised: its domestic and economic foundations are poor and the UK’s significant strengths are often not deployed productively in the national interest. Powerful incentives to think short-term and deal with immediate issues exist in the UK system. In the UK, the best levers for achieving widespread culture shifts are legislative, institutional and political. The challenge is to better understand current strategy and culture and where it needs to shift to improve strategic impact, using the levers intelligently to steer strategic effort. To these ends, Government and Parliament should:
    1. Support and accelerate the current initiative to establish a cross-sectoral Centre for Culture Advantage in King’s College London;
    2. Lay political, institutional and possibly legislative foundations for domestic and economic strategy to complement, and provide the basis for, international and national security, climate change and other key strategies, eg an appropriate Select Committee might ask for an annual assessment of national strategy and its delivery; the Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretaries might be encouraged or required to provide such briefings to incoming Ministers etc;
    3. Strengthen Parliament’s role in encouraging and facilitating long-term thinking. In Finland, for example, the government produces a report on the future once every parliament, pre-election. A Parliamentary Committee for the Future, then considers this and tracks the new government’s success at dealing with long term issues during the subsequent parliament. This approach has been established as part of a versatile national foresight system that also includes the Finland Futures Research Centre in Turku University and has contributed to rooting strategic thinking firmly in Finnish society. Finland hosted an inaugural World Summit of Committees of the Future in 2022 intended to provide an international forum for parliamentary discussion on future policy;
    4. Consider introducing the type of institutional arrangements that have achieved, or show signs of achieving, strategic culture shifts elsewhere, including Sweden's Civic Duty legislation; Wales' Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the accompanying institutional framework; and Citizens' Assemblies which have significantly strengthened Ireland's democratic institutions and its Government's strategic impact over the last decade.

 

Conclusion

 

In this brief note, we have identified only some of the options for the pursuit of a more effective strategic culture. Our key point is that intervening at just one level or another will fail to have sufficient effect. Even with an optimal strategy system inside government, without a broader culture that mobilises wider effort, then the future security, prosperity etc to which we collectively aspire will be difficult to achieve. The approach needs to be systemic. We are happy to discuss further with the Committee if useful.