Maybe there is some hope of 2nd Tier thinking emerging amongst UK politicians….?
I was greatly heartened yesterday to hear Bernard Jenkin, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme call for strategic thinking to create a “deep and sustained analysis of what kind of country we want to be in 10 or 20 years time.”
Jenkin, Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), was being interviewed about the Committee’s report, ‘Who does UK National Strategy?’, published mere hours before the first part of the Government’s Strategic & Security Defence Review.
The Committee’s report suggested there was a tendency for Whitehall to “muddle through”. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were cited as examples where there had been a lack of over-arching strategy.
The report also warned that the UK’s capacity to think strategically had been undermined by assumptions that its national interests are best served by its relationship with the US and economic links within the European Union – “Uncritical acceptance of these assumptions has led to a waning of our interests in, and ability to make, national strategy,”
Unfortunately Foreign Secretary William Hague attempted to make political capital from the report, saying it showed a “chronic lack of strategic thinking in Britain’s foreign and security policy” in recent years. In other words, it’s all Labour’s fault! Perhaps Hague’s response was inevitable, given the fractious relations between the Coalition Government and Ed Milliband’s increasingly left-leaning Opposition; but I could have hoped for better from a politician who has often displayed a high complexity of thinking alongside rough and ready practicality.
In spite of Hague’s rhetoric that: “Under this government there is a proper mechanism for the bringing together of strategic decisions about our security, defence, diplomacy and development, after years of ad-hoc thinking and poor decision- making.” – he was given only guarded approval by Jenkin in his Today interview. Jenkin acknowledged Hague’s vision in foreign policy but lamented that very little was being done in Whitehall to make it effective.
The need for strategic thinking
Bernard Jenkin is a rather controversial character. A seemingly-tireless self-promoter who got hurt in last year’s parliamentary expenses scandal, he wears his convictions on his sleeve (limited integration with the EU, anti-proportional representation) and appears to expect everyone else to treat them as the only sane option. Nonetheless, he is absolutely right about the need for strategic thinking and the tactical way in which he has exposed the lack of it without overtly undermining the Coalition Government smacks of a certain brilliance.
While the remit of its report is defence, the PASC yesterday caught the whole of Whitehall in its sights: “We welcome the new Government’s aspiration to think more strategically, but when we tried to find out who actually does UK National Strategy, virtually all the evidence we took suggests the answer is ‘no one’. Ministers are in danger of announcing a Strategic & Security Defence Review that is anything but ‘strategic’. Whitehall has fallen out of the habit of strategic thinking. Different departments think about strategy in different ways, often at cross-purposes.”
In his Today interview, Jenkin expanded on this: “…we’ve lost the art of strategic thinking…. There needs to be much better cross-departmental working. For example, the Treasury, their strategy is clearly deficit reduction but it’s not the only strategic imperative facing us….”
A key element in Jenkin’s brilliance has been to say all the traditional assumptions should go under the microscope and to call for truly radical thinking which takes into account the resources available. For example, he told Today: “If we’re going to have to live in a much smaller envelope, how do we completely reorganise the way we do defence? Instead it’s been about Okay what do we have to cut?”
This very much reflects my Cameron & Clegg: where’s the Vision? Blog when I wrote: “…what kind of Britain do Cameron and Clegg want us to become? Do they know? And, if they do, when are they going to tell us?”
The Big Society sounds like it might actually result in effective taking up of some of the slack as the public sector is shredded in the coming years…but what will the Big Society look like? What kind of people are expected to inhabit it?
When Jenkin asks, “…what kind of country we want to be in 10 or 20 years time?” – he’s going along very similar lines.
Having the capacity for strategic thinking
That David Cameron and Nick Clegg, together or separately, have yet to articulate a vision of transformed Britain beyond the most woolly philosophy, may not just represent the difficulty in bringing together 2 very different political traditions. It may also reflect a lowered capacity within government to develop strategic thinking.
As Jenkin told Today: “You need the research and assessment staff who are going to do the analysis and assessments…. There used to be… a six-month course at the Civil Service College for strategic thinking. Now there is a one-week module. It’s that kind of reduction in the importance of strategic thinking that’s being denied.”
It’s perhaps telling that the minister who most completely has a vision for his area of responsibility and who had the arguments so well prepared he managed to get the key points through the Treasury’s slashing was Iain Duncan Smith. His Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank, outside of the Whitehall malaise, has been researching and proposing options on social policy reform for years. Duncan Smith has had the benefit of substantial strategic thinking resources.
While the CSJ undoubtedly has a PURPLE/BLUE ‘family values’ bias in its fundamental assumptions about how society should work, there are clearly GREEN empathies both in the unrelenting distaste for poverty that underpins everything it does and in the way it connects up with so many charities. That it could guide Duncan Smith into preparing for a totally different way of thinking about welfare demonstrates the radical, daring thinking Jenkin calls for right across Whitehall. Again, one might well attribute 2nd Tier thinking to Duncan Smith and his team who have included the likes of psychologists Rod Morgan and Lawrence Sherman and maverick Labour MP Frank Field.
The cuts…from the BLUE vMEME or 2nd Tier thinking?
As the country braces itself for the most savage spending cuts since the early days of the Great Depression, there is no doubting the need to cut the defecit. Labour will say they’re much too soon, much too broad and much too deep – but Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were starting to head in a similar direction before their election defeat (if not at the same frantic pace!).
The question, to me, is: are we just cutting, cutting and cutting – driven by the BLUE vMEME’s drive to do ‘what’s right’, regardless of the human cost – or is there a vision for the shaping and reshaping – social construction – of a different kind of, hopefully better society. If it’s the latter, then it needs to come from 2nd Tier thinking – the kind of dazzling, daring thinking that’s comng from the CSJ.
Unfortunately, as Jenkin indicates, it seems highly unlikely that kind of thinking is widespread in Whitehall. It needs to be.
In his interview, Jenkin at one point was savaged by Today regular James McNaughtie for seeming to suggest that he was advocating the training and development of strategic thinkers at a time when Whitehall was meant to be cut back. Jenkin denied that he wanted to create a new department as such but, as with the report, advocated an investment in the development of training and resources in strategic thinking.
Jenkin, again, is right. If we cannot develop – re-develop? – longer-term strategic thinking, then we risk being limited and trapped by myopic short-termism.