Integrated defence review should bolster key civil service professions, think tank says

RUSI says investing in analytical capability 'the most cost-effective means of real change' to improve UK's risk management
The integrated review is looking at examine "how the whole of government can be structured" to meet global challenges. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images

The government should invest in bolstering its analysis and assessment communities as part of its integrated review of foreign, defence and overseas development policy, a think tank has said.

The Royal United Services Institute, RUSI – the world's oldest independent think tank on international defence and security – has argued that for the review to achieve its goals, “the most cost-effective means of real change” at a time of constrained spending would be to invest in growing and strengthening the analysis and assessment communities in government.

The review was kicked off in February and aims to examine "how the whole of government can be structured" to meet global challenges, the prime minister said at the time.

Boris Johnson said the review would “determine the capabilities we need for the next decade”, strengthen the UK’s resilience in a global context and improve its risk management.

Suzanne Raine, a trustee of RUSI who spent 24 years working for the Foreign Office on foreign policy and national security issues, has now argued that a “properly run risk management system” for the UK would require “an assessment community which received all available information, tracked trends, and knew when to flag to policy makers that a risk was growing or reducing”.

She said such reviews usually reallocate a finite level of resources, and so government must be mindful of how to make best use of those available.

“The UK’s ability to seize opportunities, anticipate risks and meet future threats and challenges could be significantly strengthened if it had a sufficiently staffed and empowered analysis and assessment capability which turned information into understanding and could communicate this effectively,” she wrote in a blog post for RUSI.

“The government could build this by investing significantly and consistently in the already-existing professional analysis and assessment community, by widening the number of departments who feed in their analysis and assessment, and by improving governance to integrate this into risk management and policy making systems.”

Raine, now an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy, was also a senior member of the UK government assessment community during her time as a civil servant.

This community comprises civil servants and functions across a number of government bodies, at the “apex and heart” of which are the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Cabinet Office Assessment Staff, Raine said. Several bodies have their own executive roles – such as the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which sets the national threat level – and departments have their own analysts.

“This makes it difficult to provide exact figures on the number of civil servants working in assessment in absolute and relative terms, but it is significantly smaller than the number collecting information, taking decisions and acting on them,” Raine said.

She argued that the government “missed an opportunity” in the last strategic defence review in 2015 to invest in assessment. The review instead recommended instead a restructuring of its governance by strengthening the intelligence analysis profession.

While the resultant work has provided “much greater confidence, common standards and training”, Raine said it “has been done on a shoestring”. There has been very little increase in headcount over the last five years, and some assessment bodies rely entirely on individual departmental contributions, which fluctuate depending on other resource and spending pressures.

“Most are understaffed and struggling with workloads. At a time when we are being encouraged to rely on science, use evidence to take decisions and listen to the ‘super-forecasters’, we are still content to take decisions, and to esteem the skill of ‘policymaking’, without being prepared to invest properly in processing and thinking about information which would inform that policymaking,” Raine said.

The upcoming integrated review must therefore invest “significantly” in the assessment community and analysis profession to equip them with “time and space to distil” input from government scientists, diplomats, soldiers and policymakers on risks to the UK.

“In a new era of discord, war, retribution, disputed elections, technological revolution, the great value of assessment is that it not only provides an early warning system but it enables the government to keep its poise,” Raine concluded.

“If it is sufficiently rich and rigorous the government will be able confidently not only to adopt new positions but to know when to stand fast and when to ignore, to distinguish between the imperative and the fake. It will ensure the best possible options can be presented to ministers.”

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