‘Chilcot rocket fuel’: how government implemented Iraq inquiry recommendations

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 14 September 2018 in Feature
Feature

The 2016 Chilcot Report exposed some of Whitehall’s biggest weaknesses – the silos and hierarchies that lead to bad decisions. Two years on, the officials who led the civil service response from the MoD, Cabinet Office and Foreign Office tell Tamsin Rutter what’s happened since then

Photo: PA

Roger Hutton knows what it’s like to have 2.6 million words land on your desk and be tasked with distilling their meaning for an organisation of 200,000 people.

He was appointed director Chilcot at the Ministry of Defence shortly after the Chilcot Report of the Iraq inquiry came out in 2016. His team of 20 people began by taking around 10 days to read all 12 volumes and then decide collectively on its key messages. The report is “about four or five times the size of War and Peace in English translation, so it’s a chunky old document,” Hutton tells Civil Service World. “We had the executive summary, but we felt we had to go beyond that and understand what the whole document was telling us.”

For Hutton, there were three headline messages for the MoD: the importance of understanding what you’re getting yourself into; of exercising good foresight; and of strengthening decision-making processes. Sir John Chilcot, the former civil servant who chaired the inquiry into circumstances surrounding the 2003 Iraq invasion, found that “over-optimistic assumptions” had underpinned both the government’s decision to go to war and its post-conflict planning.


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Hutton’s next step was to take his key messages to the rest of the department and find out what everyone else thought. His team, now reduced to “a more manageable size of about half a dozen”, conducted multiple interviews, ran workshops, organised town hall-style meetings, even analysed the comment threads under Hutton’s blogposts – engaging staff on “how things were now”.

“First of all we concluded that quite a lot of things had improved since the period [covered by the report] 2001 to 2009,” he says. Then, they once again homed in on three areas they felt the MoD could build on: anti-groupthink; professionalism; and knowledge. In order to ensure the “system didn’t just repel this learning”, Hutton set about designing “tangible products” which assimilated key Chilcot messages and allowed them to live on.

Central government response

Chilcot criticised former prime minister Tony Blair for bypassing established processes and his Cabinet colleagues with regard to Iraq. Since then, many significant changes have been made. The National Security Council, the main forum for ministers to collectively discuss the UK’s national security objectives, was established in 2010 in part to address the post-Iraq realisation that better cross-government coordination of decision-making was needed in this area. It is supported by the civil service’s National Security Council (Officials), led by national security advisor Sir Mark Sedwill, as well as several sub-committees. The NSC(O) is supported by a shadow board made up of more junior staff in national security departments, who make for a more diverse bunch than the NSC(O). Shadow – or challenge – boards are increasingly popular across the civil service as a way to ensure alternative viewpoints are aired.

Post-Chilcot, the NSC launched the “fusion doctrine”, with the aim of creating a more accountable system to support collective Cabinet decision-making. It makes senior officials the “senior responsible owners” of each NSC priority and introduces a “Chilcot-compliant approach” to the strategies for delivering these priorities.

Liane Saunders, who now works in FCO but in her previous role coordinated Sedwill’s Chilcot lessons learning process from the Cabinet Office, says her team had already done some work on improvements brought about by the NSC, prior to the publication of the Chilcot Report. After its release, they identified three areas to focus on: structures and the machinery of government; knowledge management; and – according to Saunders, “the biggest insight that Chilcot had for us” – the behaviours and cultures “that develop when a system is under stress, and when it’s dealing with something that is both long-running and wide-ranging”.

She says they wanted to “elevate [learnings] out of Iraq specific”, and so they looked at some of the live situations the NSC was dealing with in 2016, to assess whether any negative behaviours identified by Chilcot were still occurring. In some cases, new structures had enforced better ways of doing things, she says. “But in other cases, we did recognise that human nature just means that people have shorthand ways of getting to a particular decision point [while working] in crisis.”

This led to the development of two tools. The first was a list of behaviours and cultures, which helps officials working on a protracted, past-paced or evolving issue to recognise “changes in the system” that can easily become “the new normal” for staff under stress but should signal the need for a change in approach.

The second was the Chilcot Checklist (see below), a guide to aid decision-making during operational planning and implementation. This was put together following research into practices used in other types of crisis situations, Saunders says. “In the aviation sector and the medical sector, checklists had become quite a good way of ensuring that when people are under pressure, they’re not just mentally going through the list, they are physically going through the list. It’s not just about box-ticking, it’s the mental process that you do.”

The civil service has taken Chilcot seriously, Saunders adds, including by appointing a network of Chilcot champions across departments in the national security family to keep advocating and embedding change. Her team has also worked with departments outside of that family, particularly with regard to the relevance of Chilcot when it comes to another long-running and wide-ranging issue with “conflicted and contested areas, and high political risk”: Brexit. The Department for International Trade, for instance, has thought about how it can adapt the Chilcot Checklist for staff under Brexit pressure.

The challenge agenda

One of these products was the MoD guide to “reasonable challenge” – a term the guide defines as “the best antidote” to groupthink in policy development. Chilcot argued that groupthink played a part in fostering the “ingrained belief” within the UK policy and intelligence community that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, despite a lack of strong evidence to support this. Hutton says that within a highly hierarchical organisation such as the MoD, empowering people to speak out about their concerns is all the more important.

The guide is straightforward: for those “receiving challenge”, it offers such advice as not taking it personally, and seeking real diversity of thought; and for those “offering challenge”, it advises being prepared to explain your logic, and raising issues in a timely manner. But its success lies in its dissemination: some senior staff have posted it outside their offices; several MoD meeting rooms are furnished with posters inviting “the challenge culture”; other government departments have asked about it – and not just the national security ones.

Hutton says the MoD also now runs “challenge workshops”, and that the guide has been “woven into” the course curricula at the Defence Academy, which provides higher education for both military and civilian staff. “We feel the challenge agenda has really got quite a strong foothold now, people talk about it, it crops up in conversations in a way that perhaps it didn’t in the past,” he says.

Under the skin of policy

In the area of professionalism, Hutton says there were already some good products out there. “One of the things I often say about Chilcot is we had lots of good things going on, but we’ve got a bit of Chilcot rocket fuel [now and] it’s enabled us to focus in on certain interventions and give them a boost,” he says.

One such initiative was the MoD’s Policy, Strategy and Parliamentary Profession Base Camp course, which provides training from practitioners in various strands of policy work. In addition, the department has introduced a rolling programme of seminars, designed to deepen people’s knowledge in their policy areas.

He also runs several immersive training modules – through the Virtual National Security Academy, the Civil Service Leadership Academy and the Defence Strategic Leadership Programme – where participants from national security departments and beyond are immersed, for up to 24 hours, in a Chilcot-related scenario. They’ve proved popular: “Instead of someone standing at a whiteboard telling them stuff, they’re immersed in the business of making the decisions themselves,” Hutton explains. “At the same time, they’ve got me there to have a dialogue with them about how their thinking is developing as the day progresses.”

The idea, he adds, is to “take this from the theoretical to something that’s very visceral” and ensure Chilcot learning is instilled in “a whole generation of senior staff”.

The Good Operation

Hutton’s work on his third post-Chilcot area, knowledge, led to the creation of The Good Operation – a pocket-sized handbook for those involved in operational policy and its implementation. The handbook is structured around the Cabinet Office’s Chilcot Checklist, and condenses learning from Iraq and other recent operations into a short and manageable “set of pointers”.

The Chilcot Checklist

1. Vision: why do we care?

2. Analysis: what is happening now?

3. Scenarios: what might happen next?

4. Options: what should we do?

5. Legal implications: how do we ensure action is lawful?

6. Policy and strategy: what does success look like?

7. Resource: what do we need to deliver?

8. Planning and doing: how should we do it?

9. Policy performance: how will you monitor performance?

10. Evaluation: is the policy working?

If you’ve got “some nagging doubt in your peripheral vision”, the handbook is designed to guide you to the people or processes that can help, he says. Thousands of copies were printed, with a pdf available online, and they’ve made their way across the MoD estate and into other departments. While he can’t comment on individual cases, Hutton says the policy makers involved in operations such as the recent airstrikes on Syria will very likely have had a copy sat on their desks.

The ministry is also “starting to look at other, [internal] digital means of retaining and sharing our knowledge”, but these are still being tested, he adds.

Constant reminders
Hutton has kept up a constant dialogue with the rest of Whitehall over the past two years, particularly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Cabinet Office – and says that “compared with the early period of the Iraq campaign, cross-government links are very much stronger these days”. But his primary focus was on what the MoD – which is unique in its scale and structure – needed to do. “We are big, so we felt we had to design a thing that worked for us while being completely open and sharing that with other government departments,” he says.

Hutton has retained the “Chilcot” part of his job title but he’s also recently been appointed director international security. He sees this as an opportunity to ensure lessons are truly embedded in a core part of the MoD. “Personally, I think the department’s done a really sensible thing by putting the person who did Chilcot into one of the roles for which Chilcot is most relevant,” he says.

Although he’s been struck by the extent to which colleagues in his new area “have Chilcot ingrained in their thinking”, he understands that transformation programmes like this one depend on constant messaging. “You can’t just put out a product and assume that everyone’s using it,” he says. “You have to remind people all the time.” And until Chilcot is assimilated into the MoD DNA, that’s what he intends to do.

Foreign Office response

Kathy Leach, head of the FCO Policy Unit and formerly Chilcot lead, says the Foreign & Commonwealth Office had already evolved its approach to conflict by the time Chilcot released his report. She points to examples of better cross-Whitehall working including the 2007 creation of the Stabilisation Unit, and the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund, which is manged by a joint secretariat located in the Foreign Office.

The report flagged the need for better policy and programme delivery skills – which FCO had also already begun to address, through its Diplomatic Excellence programme; by re-establishing its language school; and by launching the Diplomatic Academy, a formal training programme also open to other departments with faculties covering international policy skills, geographic and thematic expertise and more.

“We were therefore already well-prepared for the Chilcot Report,” says Leach, adding that they then conducted an internal review to determine what still needed to be addressed. Enduring challenges included cultures and behaviours – “being objective and honest about what we thought we could achieve in tough places, challenging groupthink and being realistic about any gap between ambition and resource” – and developing and deploying expertise in “conflict-afflicted fragile states”. These lessons were integrated into the Diplomacy 20:20 change programme, which was launched in autumn 2016 and focuses on expertise, agility and the FCO’s global platform.

The Foreign Office has also embedded Chilcot lessons, including the Chilcot Checklist, into its training offer.

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