Why the UK needs a better process for appointing national security advisers

With the appointment of Mark Sedwill, Britain is now on its fourth national security adviser since 2010. Dr Joe Devanny asks whether such churn at the top really makes for effective government

By Dr Joe Devanny

03 Mar 2017

The announcement of Mark Sedwill as the UK’s fourth national security adviser since 2010 wasn’t unexpected. It had been trailed in the press since January. But his imminent arrival highlights the short tenure of his predecessor, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, and raises broader questions about the appointment process for national security advisers.

Lyall Grant was reportedly due to retire in late 2016, then extended until some point later in 2017 although whether his ultimate April 2017 departure date represents a curtailment of that extension is unclear. Either way, Lyall Grant’s tenure will have been slightly shorter than the previously shortest-serving incumbent, Sir Peter (now Lord) Ricketts.

Mr Sedwill is the fourth national security adviser since the post was created in May 2010. Its first incumbent, Ricketts, served from May 2010 to January 2012, leaving to take a prestigious ambassadorship in Paris. Lord Ricketts’s successor, Sir Kim Darroch, is the longest-serving national security adviser, serving over three years before he moved on to a prestigious ambassadorship in Washington.

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Admittedly, neither Ricketts nor Lyall Grant departed as prematurely as Michael Flynn, who resigned after just 24 days as President Trump’s NSA. But the brevity of Lord Ricketts’s and Sir Mark Lyall Grant’s respective tenures raises the question of what best practice should look like: is there an ideal length of time in office? Should national security advisers be appointed for a fixed term, e.g. the presumed five-year term of a fixed-term parliament?

For any post, it takes time to develop the necessary expertise and relationships to perform effectively. So, should Mr Sedwill and subsequent national security advisers emulate Sir Kim Darroch and entrench the norm of serving three or more years in post? Given the seniority of the post, it is likely that national security advisers will continue to be ‘late career’ professionals, so retirement may continue to be a near-term limiting factor of their tenure.

"There would be value in establishing that Mr Sedwill’s successors should be selected via a formal, open and competitive process led by the Civil Service Commission"

But the broader point stands that too much churn undermines the continuity and efficiency of the process, especially as new brooms often like to clear out and reshape the offices they inherit, with knock-on implications for other appointments and structures.

Alternatively, should national security advisers’ tenures reflect their inextricably close connection with the prime ministers whom they serve? If so, then it should be entirely unsurprising and quite reasonable for Mrs May to want to bring in, as her own national security adviser, someone with whom she has an established working relationship. Mr Sedwill certainly fits this requirement given his overlap with Mrs May at the Home Office. He is also extremely well-qualified for the post by the breadth, depth and relevance of his career experience in national security issues.

In 2010, David Cameron could have chosen to make the national security adviser an explicitly political appointment, designating it a ministerial or special adviser type of office. This would have formalised just such a deep connection between the prime minister and the NSA, separating the post from the presumption of more formal civil service procedures for appointment. There were, however, good reasons for Cameron’s decision to opt for career officials as NSAs, not least the need to operate effectively in the Whitehall context, for which the requisite skills and relationships are more likely to be held by career officials than outsiders.

As a formal civil service appointment, the NSA ought therefore to enjoy a similar guarantee of tenure as that enjoyed by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary. There is no expectation that the cabinet secretary should offer his resignation to an incoming prime minister as a matter of course, although a failure in their working relationship may lead to an earlier retirement for the cabinet secretary.

This is effectively where we are with the emerging conventions governing the appointment and tenure of national security advisers. As the preeminent national security adviser to the prime minister and to cabinet, the adviser must enjoy an effective working relationship with both. But as a career civil service position, the adviser ought not to be subject to prime ministerial whim.

This situation could be improved by formalising and publishing the conventions relating to the appointment process and tenure of national security advisers. There would be value in establishing that Mr Sedwill’s successors should be selected via a formal, open and competitive process led by the Civil Service Commission.

As with other permanent secretary appointments, such a process affords sufficient opportunity for ministerial input, but also clarifies the structured basis on which the competition is to be conducted, including clarity about the experience and skills required of successful candidates. Another option might be to introduce a form of confirmation hearing before a relevant parliamentary committee (most likely the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy). This would be a healthy enhancement of legislative scrutiny of such an important post.

Prime ministers should have sufficient flexibility to structure the advice and support they need to succeed at the centre of government. It would be a recipe for ineffective national security decision-making if a prime minister felt prohibited from making necessary changes in personnel or process.

But open competition, overseen by the Civil Service Commission, is an effective model for selecting the heads of Whitehall departments. Whilst “managed moves” do occur, they should be the exception, rather than the rule. Perversely, this general truth is confirmed by the calamitous and contingent process that ultimately led to Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster’s recent appointment as US National Security Adviser: increased scrutiny and competition can produce better outcomes in appointment processes than reliance on the executive’s first preference.

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