Can government change its culture of short-termism? Bernard Jenkin on barriers to strategic thinking and promising signs

Sir Bernard Jenkin speaks to Suzannah Brecknell about how governments can, and must, up their game when it comes to strategic thinking
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By Suzannah Brecknell

12 Mar 2024

Among the many definitions of “strategy” floating across books and the internet, one in particular feels apt for government officials. It comes from Stepping Stones, a 1977 report prepared for Margaret Thatcher as she considered how to get the Conservatives into power – and what to do if they got there.

“Strategy can be defined, for practical purposes,” the report says, as “the careful thinking which we wish we had done two years ago, but don’t have time to do today.” 

It might be comforting to think that the challenge of balancing long-term thinking with immediate issues is nothing new. But this insight also demonstrates the uphill struggle faced by those who want to break the cycle of short-term thinking.

Sir Bernard Jenkin has been trying to get government to think and act more strategically for at least 14 years. In 2010, as newly elected chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (now the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee), his first act was to launch an inquiry called Who Does UK National Strategy?”

Back then, Jenkin told CSW he thought the report would be “pushing at an open door”. But, sitting down with us in spring 2024 to discuss another inquiry he is chairing into the topic, he recalls that the report was “roundly dismissed” by the new coalition government.

“David Cameron actually said to me, ‘Oh, you’re very keen on strategy, aren’t you? I prefer to remain flexible,’” Jenkin says. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s your strategy. Why not write down a concept of how this works? Then we could discuss it.’”

In a bid to support such a discussion, PASC published a report two years later considering whether strategy could emerge in government even if it was not being consciously developed. The committee would go on to carry out several more inquiries on the same theme during Jenkin’s near-decade at its helm.

Now chair of the Liaison Committee – which could be described as a “supergroup” of all the other select committee chairs and which can quiz the prime minister – Jenkin’s latest foray into the subject is through a sub-committee launched last year to consider how select committees can improve the way they scrutinise strategic thinking in government. The sub-committee’s inquiry is ongoing – hearings began on the day CSW went to press, with former cabinet secretary Lord Sedwill and former defence secretary Lord Robertson giving evidence. Its findings will include both recommendations for government and for committees themselves.  

Jenkin remains optimistic that things can change, saying: “There is a much, much wider dialogue going on between individuals and groups in the senior civil service about strategic thinking. And there is a much more open mind among ministers and the opposition. There is an awareness of the need for more capability and governance to grapple with big, cross-departmental issues which require long-term implementation – not to get completely swamped by the day-to-day political pressures or the short-termism that has affected governments since 2016, for obvious reasons.”

The question that he hopes the Liaison Committee can help to answer is how to embed that approach “institutionally, procedurally and culturally... it’s a far deeper question than just fiddling with some machinery or changing some procedures, but I’d say we’ve got a far more open door than we had”.

What are some of the challenges the committee is exploring, and how could they be addressed? One problem PASC identified back in 2010 is a lack of understanding in government about what strategy and strategic thinking actually are. 

Many people confuse having a plan with having a strategy, Jenkin suggests, rather than seeing strategy as something that shapes your plans. While strategy “involves a lot of planning,” there is more to it than that, he explains. It is a “process and a mindset”, and it cannot be fixed in stone – or PDF. “You might produce a strategic concept, which is a snapshot, but you don’t have a strategy unless you keep adapting it.”

It is also common for government to produce documents which fail to meet another key element of strategy: matching aspirations to capabilities. In this sense, Jenkin says, government makes it hard for parliament to scrutinise its strategic thinking because it’s operating “in a way that sort of obscures strategy”.

“Take the Integrated Review Refresh,” he continues. “It’s beautifully written, very comprehensive, but there’s about two pages on implementation. And it’s all premised on there being money. Well, there ain’t no money, so where’s the strategy?”

A fundamental step, therefore, would be to improve the understanding of strategic thinking right across government, and to build greater capability to do it. This might be through a formal strategy function, as suggested in written evidence by Catherine Day and Andrew Blick, academics at King’s College London’s Department of Political Economy.

Other evidence calls for the creation of a school for government. Lord Robertson argues this should train not only senior officials but also MPs so they “learn the shared language, doctrine and skills of leadership and strategy.”

Even with skills in place, many of the structures and processes of government mitigate against a strategic approach, such as siloed departments and a weak centre of government. But there are areas of good practice – the Vaccines Taskforce and National Security Council being cited as two mechanisms which facilitated a more strategic approach. So beneath the structural challenges lies the question of whether ministers actually want to take a more strategic approach – for if they did, there would be ways to encourage it.

As former national security adviser Lord Ricketts notes: “The prime minister and senior colleagues need to create the climate for civil servants to do genuine strategic thinking. This means ministers making clear that they are interested in longer-term issues, and are open to difficult advice and unfamiliar new ideas.”

Since the role of the Liaison Committee is to consider matters relating to the work of select committees, the inquiry will of course also focus on the role of parliament and its committees, as well as including recommendations for government.

“I think one of the things I’ve learned is that committees have far more influence if they’re thinking about forward accountability, rather than retrospective accountability,” Jenkin says.

Committees should be looking at what is happening now, rather than just considering what has already happened. “Then you can think about what is going to happen next and how any problems could be addressed, as well as considering how the government will account for that,” he says. “Rather than saying, ‘Here’s what you did wrong, and we’ll line you up against the wall for it.’

“It’s helpful to ask questions like, ‘So, this has clearly not gone as well as hoped, what do we learn from this? And how are you going to implement those lessons?’ I’ve seen the impact those questions have on officials in particular. It suddenly feels like they’re being understood and listened to, instead of blamed. Blame is a very disruptive process.” 

Returning to the topic of scrutinising strategic thinking, he suggests that government can often “fend off any scrutiny of the longer term”, which is frustrating to select committees who usually want to take a long-term view. 

As well as exploring structures or systems which would improve long-term thinking in government, the inquiry will consider how scrutiny could be more joined up.

A final challenge for the sub-committee’s inquiry will be to ensure select committee scrutiny of strategic thinking reflects the increasingly cross-departmental nature of both the challenges faced by government, and the strategies it creates to address them.

Committees themselves follow departmental structures but there are precedents for joint inquiries, and Jenkin says there are other models that allow for “readier collaboration between committees”. 

He points to the parliamentary scrutiny which took place after the collapse of construction and managed-services firm Carillion in 2018 as an example. Several committees conducted inquiries on various aspects of the collapse, but there was also a joint evidence session held by the Liaison Committee in which committee chairs could question ministers together. 

The role of parliament could be key in helping to open that door, which Jenkin has been pushing at for so long. As Lord Hennessy notes in his evidence to the committee, there have been many attempts to improve strategic thinking over recent decades, but parliament’s involvement would be a new ingredient in helping to find that “strategic grip”. It would be a “game-raiser and game-changer”, he says, if the select committees could acquire “a participatory and stimulating function” in driving a strategic approach in government.

This could be through a parliamentary Committee of the Future such as already exists in Finland, where it has responsibility for scrutinising a Report on the Future published by government once each parliamentary term. The report includes not just an outlook based on cross-departmental foresight work, but an exploration of possible solutions to key challenges. The committee tracks how government is responding to these long-term problems.

Or it could be through a new NAO for strategy, as suggested by former permanent secretary Jonathan Slater. This would subject strategy to the same scrutiny as matters of value for money, he says, arguing that: “If parliament wants civil servants to produce long-term, evidence-informed, cross-departmental strategic work, the thing that would make the biggest difference is to subject this work to the cold light of day.” 

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