Five barriers to making effective government strategy
The public administration select committee is attempting a valuable task: trying to understand what is wrong with strategic thinking in government, and what could help it be done better. Looking back at my experience, particularly of political-military decision-making over Afghanistan, a number of problems emerge.
The most obvious, and the one for which there is the least excuse, is the lack of clear objectives.
Secondly there is short-termism: everyone knows the adage about a week being a long time in politics, but the civil service tends to be short-termist too, with individuals moving too quickly through posts to have an incentive to think long term, or the opportunity to build up expertise. In Afghanistan, the military have been limited to six-month tours: the human and institutional reasons for this are understandable, but it reinforces the wider issue.
The third problem is the lack of coherence across government. There is a narrative in the media that the British state is too strong, operates from the top down, is over centralised, and so on. There are truths in this, but that story obscures another important truth: that in terms of the relationship between the centre and the departments, the centre is weak. And yet this narrative has been influential enough for the last two prime ministers to make concessions to it, attempting to win favour with the media by talking about cutting Downing Street down to size. Those who want more strategic thinking have to put themselves on the other side of this argument. There is no guarantee, of course, that a stronger centre will be more strategic, but it's one necessary condition.
The fourth problem is the lack of time and space and support to think strategically. Ultimately this is the responsibility of politicians, who should insist on freeing up more time, and demand the right support. But you don't just need time and space: you need a supportive structure, and advice which encourages and facilitates strategic thinking. Too often, in my experience, this was not provided. Advice was often inconsistent, and suffered from a lack of genuine options, a lack of flexibility and an inability to break out of familiar patterns of thinking. Some might suggest that civil servants prefer that their ministers don't have time to think – the gently cynical view of Yes, Minister. Less cynically, it might reflect a shared failing among both ministers and officials.
A fifth failing with strategy-making across government is the tendency to focus on what is easiest to change, rather than what is most important. It is always tempting to spend time and effort on things you can directly control – where you can pull the lever and something actually happens. Tempting, but wrong if you believe that other things are actually more important.
In addition to this psychological aspect, there is an institutional truth that focus naturally follows where the money and the people are. In Afghanistan, we could assert that strengthening local governance was as important as the military effort, but when the military taskforce commander has over 5,000 troops and the lead governance adviser has fewer than five staff, when the military effort is spending billions and the governance effort has a small budget which it is struggling to disburse, then the human and the bureaucratic tendency is to follow the people and the money.
None of these problems is unique to the public sector. Before starting work in government, I spent three years working in strategy consulting, and saw many of these problems there. They tend to afflict old, large, bureaucratic organisations typical of government, but not unique to it.
Government also faces extra challenges that businesses do not. One is the closeness and relentlessness of media scrutiny.
I am a strong believer in a free press – I would not like to live in a country that did not enjoy it – but that doesn't preclude a frank assessment of its negative as well as positive contribution. The media rarely encourages strategic thinking; in many areas it reinforces tendencies which crowd it outm, and it certainly encourages short-termism. It probably thinks it rewards clear objectives, but does so only sometimes, namely where the truth is simple and palatable. It can punish honesty; and it almost always punishes complexity.
Of course, the media also rewards success. Some will argue, therefore, that even if it doesn't reward strategy directly, it must reward it in the end, since good strategy must – by definition – be more likely to result in success. This is true if all other things being equal, but often other things are not. In the real world, by rewarding success, the media often ends up rewarding luck, or opportunism, which can seem a compelling alternative to hard strategic thinking.
It will already be clear from this list of problems, that I think it is pointless to debate whether we should blame the lack of strategic thinking on the politicians, or the civil servants, or – in relation to Afghanistan – the generals. Most of the issues I have described span these different parts of government, and often affect the dynamic between them – and between them and the media.
None of this is meant to deny that ministers ultimately have to accept responsibility. They could and should demand that the process improves; in the end the strategic decisions are theirs, and they must take responsibility. But if we are interested in better decision-making in future, as well as in attributing responsibility for the past, it is worth reflecting that we've had the solutions that are traditionally demanded by the media – a wholesale change of political leadership, and a new decision-making structure, in the form of the National Security Council.
Yet, many of the problems that arose over Afghanistan have happened again with Libya. Mercifully the outcome so far is better, and as long as that remains the case, there won't be the same appetite for a public post-mortem. But for those who really want to get strategic thinking right, it suggests we still have a long way to go.