Second Submission of Evidence to the Liaison Committee’s Inquiry into Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Post-Oral Evidence Reflections.


Professor Matthew Flinders, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield


6 MARCH 2024




Strategic thinking in government

What is strategic thinking in government?


The capacity to design and deliver integrated and efficient policy, with a view to addressing mid and long-range challenges.



We discussed with you some proposed wording for a shared understanding of strategic thinking. Does this proposed wording align with your understanding of strategic thinking?


Not really. I think the wording over-complicates the topic. I would suggest “‘Strategy’ is best understood by reference to the successful integration and implementation of policy frameworks that focus on upstreaming interventions through evidence-informed long-term thinking. Strategic thinking has at least three elements:


(1) a forward focus on horizon scanning and anticipatory government;


(2) an integrative focus on ‘joined-up’ policy so that the total value of public investment is more than a simple sum of their parts; and


(3) a historical dimension that learns from history and addresses the almost complete lack of institutional memory in Whitehall.”


The hallmarks of strategic thinking revolve around connective, collaborative and catalysing capacity.


The Committee have proposed:


‘Strategy’ is best understood by reference to what it is trying to achieve: the successful implementation of government policy over time. Executing strategy, or strategising (it is more an active verb than a static noun), is the cohering over time of reality (of the challenge faced), policy (what the government wants to do about this challenge), activity (directed towards this challenge to achieve this policy objective) and resource (allocated to this activity).


I would suggest this alternative formulation –


Strategy is best understood as the collection of policies, approaches and decisions that have been selected to achieve a clear vision. While recognising the existence of uncertainties, strategic thinking is the opposite of crisis management. A clear strategy should provide clarity and anchorage in stable and uncertain times. It is therefore focused on the medium to long-term. It has a strong focus on (i) learning from history and bolstering institutional memory, (ii) successful policy integration across government, and (iii) a horizon-scanning emphasis on anticipatory government. The hallmarks of strategic thinking revolve around connective, collaborative and catalysing capacity.


What should be understood as the difference between policy, strategy, planning and implementation?


They are commonly viewed as stages in the policy-cycle (problem definition, high-level ambition, strategy, policy, planning, implementation, evaluation, etc



Which comes first: policy or strategy?


Strategy. Strategy is the broader vision of what a government is seeking to achieve and then policies are the practical tools through which the strategy is enacted. That said, it is important to understand that strategic thinking has to understand the existence of policy challenges and implementation issues if it is to be effective.



Can you explain to us what you mean by strategic scrutiny?


In the relationship between Whitehall and Westminster the dominant scrutiny system is itself not only siloed but also tends to adopt quite short-term thinking. Scrutiny is also often blame-focused – the ‘Gotcha!’ variety – and this creates defensive responses by ministers and officials. Strategic thinking is difficult. It demands open, balanced and honest discussion. It demands ‘slow thinking’. Strategic scrutiny is not just about select committees getting better at making their respective departments think in an integrative manner, it is about select committees being part of the solution and playing their own role to support ministers and departments.


Strategic scrutiny contributes to and should sustain strategic capacity (they should be seen as two sides of the same coin).



What would you say to people who insist that strategy is not possible in the modern age?


They are correct to highlight the existence of challenges but wrong if they suggest strategic thinking is not possible. I like the concept of ‘strategic scaffolding and this is what is lacking – the agile, ambitious and aligned framework of thinking that connects and integrates across government. There is an urgent need to build light touch capacity in this space. And also to distance and depoliticise some of that capacity.



UK comparative performance

What are the best examples in the UK government of successful strategy and strategic thinking?


Three examples:


A good example is the work of the Social Exclusion Unit, especially in relation to reducing teenage pregnancy. Clear success based on political leadership, dedicated focus, central position, mix of skills and perspectives, outward looking inclusive approach, and detailed analysis of the evidence.


I would point the committee to Sure Start. This is not a partisan point. I am not a member of any political party. But Sure Start was an example of bold, integrated and potentially transformative thinking that needed long-term political commitment.


The creation of a National Security Council in 2010 recognised a clear strategic capacity gap. It expanded the definition and scope of threats and risks. It created a ‘strategic scaffolding’, and was initially always chaired by the Prime Minister. A National Security Adviser at permanent secretary level ensured the connective, collaborative and catalysing thrust. The 2021 suggested the position of the NSC had changed in ways that may not be positive. [See submission by Lord Ricketts] The NSC as an internal organisation brings benefits and challenges.



What should we learn from these examples?


That there needs to be better cross-governmental ‘buy in’ to a single strategic plan that identifies the existence of basic social challenges. At the moment, departments too often work in autonomous ways with little co-ordinated strategic control. This is often referred to as the problem of ‘the hollow crown’ (i.e. a lack of strategic oversight capacity from No.10 and the Cabinet Office). The ambition should be towards creating a ‘strategic brain’ at the centre of government that has the capacity to manage a hub-and-spoke model of governance. At the moment, the Treasury is arguably the closest we have to a ‘strategic brain’ but there can often be a lack of alignment or tensions between the Treasury and Cabinet Office/No.10.


One key point that is often overlooked is that strategy is not a ‘nice to have’ issue. It is a central and defining element of good governance. Massive investment that is then suddenly terminated by the next government is wasted investment. This does raise wider constitutional questions policy-stability, cross-governmental working, cultural constraints and embedded pathologies. Leadership matters, positive successes can be achieved.



What are the strengths and weaknesses of the UK present approach to strategy and strategic thinking?


Struggling to think about strengths. The well-known strategic paradox is that the UK is generally known as a centralised power-hoarding democracy where in theory strategic capacity should be very strong. The fact that the UK has a reputation for ‘muddling through’ and implementation failure is therefore perplexing (but covid has been a spur to more long-term thinking).


Major weaknesses are well-known and include: silos, short-termism, churn, departmentalitis’, adversarial thinking, generalist dominance, etc. Policy advice and development happens in secret. No established strategy by which new prime ministers set out a whole of government strategy. Cabinet Office is weak at controlling or co-ordinating departments. Treasury wields great power to facilitate or thwart. [See submission from the IfG]



What should we learn from other countries about strategy and strategic thinking? How can we learn from this good practice?


There is a whole literature on what is called ‘positive public administration’ and ‘learning from successful policy’. There is little evidence that any of this evidence and insight has been picked up in Whitehall. This failure to focus on success is made worse by a cultural unwillingness to ‘learn from failure’. This means that the same errors are repeated. Strategic thinking and strategic policy has to come with an acceptance that the complexity ratio is high and therefore so are the chances of failure, but learning from failure is a key ingredient of strategic thinking.


A specific example of good practice would be the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy which is an independent body charged with building capacity for evidence informed strategic thinking. It focuses on contradictions and bottlenecks, problem statements and policy alternatives. It is cross-domain and sector transcending.  It can provide ‘frank and unvarnished’ advice [see submission from Lord Ricketts].


The Prime Minister’s Policy Unit did work on identifying strategic challenges it was abolished in 2010. There is no similar unit doing this sort of work at the centre of government.


An emphasis on ‘horizon scanning’ has emerged in recent years but often with a clear security focus and connected to almost non-stop reform, reorganisation and churn.




Government departmental processes

What should be the role of the centre of government in overseeing the most important strategic thinking in government?


The centre should be the ‘strategic brain’ with a focus on integrated policy-making within a wider strategic and long-term strategy. This is easy to say than to do because what makes ‘good policy’ is not always the same as ‘good politics’. But there should be capacity for the promotion of a clearer statement – at a very broad level – about the government’s strategic approach and how this is wired-in across Whitehall. The Liaison Committee might be interested to return to the work of the Performance and Innovation Unit in the late 1990s, specifically their reports on ‘Wiring Up’ and ‘Reaching Out’.


Too much flux and change in the core.



How well does the Cabinet Office and No 10 fulfil this role?


The turbulence of British politics in recent years has arguably been defined by ‘firefighting’ rather than calm and considered strategic thinking. The Cabinet Office is really a collection of units, offices and agencies that have been put there because they really didn’t fit anywhere else. The IfG is correct to suggest that it has responsibility for everything but very little real control. The role of No.10 is more interesting and potentially amenable to building the strategic scaffolding that is needed. The Cabinet Office might then take responsibility for monitoring strategic performance within the parameters of clear direction from No.10. The need for a new relationship between the Cabinet Office and No.10 should not be seen as a problem but a positive opportunity.



How does the creation, merger and abolition of government departments help or hinder strategic thinking?


This question has been asked for the last hundred years and is an area where the organisation History and Policy could furnish the committee with some excellent research and insights. There are clearly issues of scale and structure – we have had mega-departments and ‘overlords’ in the past – but to some extent a focus on institutional change is a secondary matter. The primary matter is cultural and focuses on a commitment to strategic thinking in government and a self-denying ordinance not to be tempted by short-term partisan game-playing.


That said, there could be a far stronger matrix model adopted within government whereby traditional siloes of interconnected by thematic priorities that span structures. Joint ministers or ministers for thematic topics (a Minister for Loneliness being an obvious example). So there are ways of forging more integrated structures in Whitehall but the issue comes down to the practical resources or levers that those cross-governmental ministers would have at their disposal.



Besides machinery of government changes, what also needs to change to improve strategic thinking in government?


Culture, training and support. Although there has been welcome reform in recent years it is possible to suggest that the British political culture remains quite generalist, possibly even amateurish, when it comes to strategic policy making. There is a strong whiff of ‘muddling through’ about a large proportion of British government. This may well explain why public trust in politicians, political processes and political institutions is so low. The public are strategic actors in themselves and could play a far more extensive and positive role in the development of strategic thinking. Deliberative events and participatory approaches to thinking about strategic challenges and policy frameworks could unleash a double-dynamic in the form of (1) policy thinking that was itself informed by everyday lived experience and (2) greater understanding on the part of the public about what strategic thinking was so difficult.



Developing strategic thinking by ministers and civil servants in government

To what extent are you aware of strategic thinking being developed as a core skill among by ministers and civil servants in government, and if it is how is this done?


I’m not aware of it emerging as a key skill but I am aware of the creation of the first policy campus being established in Sheffield as a centre of excellence in the training and support of policy professionals in the civil service. This in itself creates new strategic capacity when it comes to upskilling officials, engaging with successful policy insights from other countries and changing cultural frameworks. It is also critical in terms of recruitment and the talent management of future leaders within the civil service. Making sure strategic thinking is at the core of the work of the new policy campus – the co-production and co-design of strategic thinking – could be a high-gain but low-cost decision.


It’s good to see a commitment to building strategic thinking and capacity into the Policy Profession in the Cabinet Office’s submission to this inquiry. It is also clear from the submission that a lot of activity is taking place within government – generally in the post-Covid context – on building strategic capacity across government. But in some ways the Cabinet Office’s submission reflects a level of fragmentation and almost hyper-activity. It’s interesting that it ends with a note about  ‘a small programme of work being undertaken’ to explore ‘the feasibility of developing a single strategic framework for government’. The integration of all the existing activities, plans and programmes is needed to address fragmentation and deliver clarity. In making this argument I refer to Lord Rickett’s view that


‘Ministers are constantly calling for strategies on every subject, and civil servants are producing them. But a pile of uncoordinated strategies across government does not add up to a national strategy setting out the direction for the country and driving the allocation of scarce resources.’



What would be the benefits to ministers, and prospective ministers, of developing their strategic thinking skills? How might such an ambition be delivered?


The benefits of massive because just as we know more about the major societal challenges so too do we know that the most effective response is going to be to emphasise ‘upstreaming’, early awareness and preventative measures. Ministers are also generalists. Few will have strategic thinking training or awareness, most will have lots of other demands on their time and energy. Fostering a ‘strategic lens’ which lifts the focus of ministerial thinking from the short-term to mid-range and long-term issues is likely to maximise the value and effectiveness of public policy.


The slight problem is that strategic thinking does pose what might be termed a ‘credit challenge’ in the sense that today’s ministers generally want to be seen to be ‘delivering today’. This is all part of the ‘ministerialitis’ that Gerald Kaufman warned against in his book How to be a Minister. Strategic thinking therefore needs to be thought about in relation to the ‘reward and recognition’ framework that currently surrounds ministerial careers. Ambitious ministers will have to be persuaded and supported to believe that rejecting short-term political ‘wins’ in order to maintain a focus on far larger strategic priorities - the benefits of which may not emerge until long after that specific minister has left office – will be rewarded.


At a simple level, more training and support for prospective MPs and then for new ministers would be a positive step. Putting the training on and then getting politicians to engage with the training, however, are two very different things. This refocuses attention on the broader strategic scaffolding that exists around ministers. At the moment it is very weak, almost non-existent.




What are the incentives for civil servants to develop strategic thinking?


The obvious answer is ‘not a lot’ and this fairly conventional response would support this position by pointing to the generalist culture and to the high levels of ‘churn’ or movement within the civil service.


A more accurate and future-focused answer is ‘a huge amount’. In my experience mid-level and senior civil servants are keen to develop their strategic thinking capacities in order to be able to understand how their specific role fits within the ‘bigger picture’. As officials progress towards the senior civil service then strategic awareness, skills and experience is – and should – be a central element of promotion and appointment panels.


The question the committee might ask in relation to this point is – how do officials get the opportunity to range? By this I mean, to range across traditional professional, organizational and sectoral boundaries to gain insight into different skills, perspectives, priorities and ways of working. The development of ‘range’ is key to strategic thinking but I’m not convinced that enough has been done to facilitate mobility (within and beyond) the civil service.




How would you describe the present culture and behaviours in the civil service, and what needs to change to promote and embed a strategic culture?


My sense is that officials take a strong steer from their political masters – which is constitutionally appropriate – but does mean that leadership matters. In recent years the UK has been somewhat devoid of strong, stable or strategic political leadership and as a result officials have undertaken a huge amount of positive work to keep the system going. But the present culture does remain too secretive and siloed. This is not a new or controversial point to raise.


The submission by the IfG highlights the way in which publication of departmental Outcome Delivery Plans have been blocked in recent years. Commercial confidentiality and national secrecy cannot be justified in such blanker terms.


But what is the root issue?


A root issue is arguably that the policy advice provided to ministers remains confidential. Nobody therefore knows the strategic emphasis of the policy advice given to ministers, let alone whether it was correct or high-quality. In light of this there is arguably a case for revisiting the current secrecy surrounding official policy advice in order to scrutinize its strategic quality. Such a move would play a role in shifting cultures and behaviour, and would also ‘uplift’ the position of strategic considerations (lessons from history, integrative implications, long-term thinking) away from an emphasis on short-termism.


The slight concern, however, is whether such a move might politicise internal departmental relationships, and make it more difficult for select committees to adopt a positive approach to strategic scrutiny. I’m therefore slightly ambivalent on this issue but do think that policy advice to ministers is one of a small number of root issues.


A second and possibly larger root issue or challenge is this: strategic thinking which adopts a long-term approach and appreciation of complexity is inevitably difficult. Ministers may well be reluctant to support the creation of greater strategic scrutiny capacity in such an innately challenging domain. The political culture arguably needs a degree of maturity to discuss and debate strategic concerns, let alone attempt to address them. Proposals for a ‘whole of government agency’ to monitor how the UK is performing against strategic ambitions [see Rand submission] is logical in practice but may fall foul of political realities where there are political benefits to ministers in maintaining a degree of ‘strategic ambiguity’ (as a blame-buffer).


Overall, there is not enough internal and external challenge on officials to incorporate long-term perspectives into their advice (as the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, for example, achieves in relation to finance).



Foresight, horizon scanning and public engagement

In written evidence our attention has been drawn to mechanisms which governments have implemented to encourage a longer-term perspective than the current election cycle, such as horizon scanning under Jeremy Heywood. How effective has this been?


It's not been very effective because its generally been undertaken in a fairly ad hoc manner – it has not been systemically embedded in governing processes.



What more can be done to promote consideration of the long-term?


Develop a Dutch-like independent agency to feed expert advice and analysis into the centre of government. This would systemically embed horizon scanning into governing process, and also create political and public space for the discussion of sensitive issues that the government itself might be reluctant to raise.



How should the public, particularly the young, be engaged with the formation of long-term government strategy?


There are lots of ways of doing this. The Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy, for example, has innovated vis-à-vis public engagement so that communities and groups are represented within conversations and plans.



The role of select committees

In your evidence you say the key issue is cultural, and that strategic scrutiny by select committees of the strategic long-term thinking and capacity of departments would have to be undertaken as a collaborative partnership between the executive and the legislature. How do you think such a change in approach might be achieved?


It comes from concerted and clear leadership from this committee. Select committees might reflect on what ‘good’ scrutiny looks like vis-à-vis strategic capacity. As Lord Hennessy notes in his submission, select committees have generally played a reactive rather than proactive or initiating role in relation to strategic issues. Select committees are influential, they set the tone for debate and frame issues, they have the capacity to offer ‘supportive scrutiny’ in the sense of promoting a strategic-mindedness that is currently too often missing. ‘It is' Lord Hennessy writes in his own wonderful style ‘a question of state of mind, aspiration and inspiration – a game-raiser and game-changer if the HoC rose still higher’.


What I suggested in my submission was that strategic thinking was too important to be left to the government and that a new model of ‘supportive scrutiny’ in this area might see select committees adopting more of a collaborative and partnership approach to working with departments and ministers. This, in itself, would demand cultural change and a self-denying ordinance in some areas. (The potential role of select committees in the House of Lords should also not be overlooked.)




To what extent do you think having the scrutiny of strategic thinking in the ‘core tasks’ of select committees would require the government to improve?


It would be a small signal but would be unlikely to have a major impact. There is a resource/roles dimension that needs to be acknowledged.


I’m not convinced about the need for a new select committee, but do see an opportunity for the Liaison Committee to evolve towards a stronger strategic emphasis. The fact that the Prime Minister appears before it already creates a logic.


All select committees could agree to hold an annual ‘strategic review’ session in order to support their department, contribute to the discussion, and inform their own committee workplan for the next session. 



If a select committee was to look for evidence of effective strategic thinking by the departments they scrutinise, what kind of documents or statements should they be looking to scrutinise?


Prime Ministerial pledges and statements, departmental plans, etc. in essence they would be looking for a ‘clear strategic cascade’ of documents from the high-level government strategy, through to departmental plans and priorities.


What are the benefits of improving transparency over strategic thinking, and enhancing the opportunities for scrutiny?


Discussed above. Viewpoint pluralism is likely to increase the standard and quality of analysis and understanding.



Final Reflection: Opportunity not Problem


One of the main insights from reading the submitted evidence on this topic and appearing in person before the committee is that the whole topic of strategic capacity embraces a ‘deficit model’ approach. This is understandable and the broad emphasis of all the submissions of evidence I read focused on weaknesses, gaps and a lack of ‘strategy about strategy’. However, there is a ‘window of opportunity’ opening around the next election in which strategic thinking is likely to get far more attention than is generally given to this topic. It might therefore be worth the committee thinking about how it leads and frames this debate. The notion of a strategic thinking opportunity to drive public sector performance, harness innovation and increase efficiency around the successful management of major societal challenges could have a transformational impact. At a broader level, a coherent and solution-focused contribution to the debate could also help close the gap that seems to be growing between the governors and the governed.