Give top civil servants power to stop another Iraq "disaster", say ex-perm secs

As cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood prepares to face MPs' questions on the Iraq Inquiry, the Better Government Initiative – whose members include former departmental chiefs – calls for new way to let senior officials raise their concerns

By Matt Foster

14 Sep 2016

Senior civil servants should be given the power to go public with their concerns to avoid another Iraq-style foreign policy disaster, a heavyweight team of former top officials has said.

Earlier this year, Sir John Chilcot published his long-awaited report into the build-up, execution and aftermath of the controversial 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Among its findings, Chilcot found that then-prime minister Tony Blair's cabinet was frequently sidelined in the run-up to the war, and that key departments did not share information or provide adequate assessment of the risks of invasion. 

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In a new report, the Better Government Initiative – whose members include former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, the ex-Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Richard Mottram and former departmental chiefs Sir Leigh Lewis and Dame Ursulla Brennan – says the build-up to the Iraq war was characterised by "muddled objectives, decisions drawing on assumptions and intelligence that turned out to be false, confused strategies, inadequate risk management and faulty and inadequately-resourced execution". 

And they criticise an "overcentralised" system of decision-making "dominated" by Blair "with the support of a small group around him".

"Cabinet was given updates on diplomatic developments and had opportunities to discuss the general issues but the number of occasions on which there was a substantive discussion of the policy was very much more limited," the group says.

The BGI – which is publishing its analysis on the day cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood (pictured) prepares to face questions from MPs on the lessons learned from the Iraq invasion – says the top tier of the civil service should be given a duty to flag their concerns when a prime minister chooses to ignore the cabinet committee system.

At present, the system of requesting a "ministerial direction" – the formal process by which a departmental chief puts their concerns in writing – only covers objections to spending decisions on value for money grounds.

But the BGI says there is a "strong case" for a similar process allowing officials to inform MPs when they have been "instructed to depart from the processes for the conduct of business set out in the Cabinet Manual and supporting documents".

"The periodic disastrous consequences of largely untrammelled prime minister power – whether, for example, in the cases of Suez or Iraq – suggest the issue needs properly to be addressed" – Better Government Initiative

The group says the cabinet secretary should be given an "explicit responsibility" to ensure "that the machinery of government is conducted in accordance with the principles set out the Cabinet Manual", with any prime minister or government wishing to sidestep the committee system being required to "transparently amend the published Cabinet Manual and address the case for change in parliament".

"We do not underestimate the difficulties this might involve for relations between officials and ministers and its impact would depend on whether parliament had an appetite to take such issues seriously," the group says. "But, as for the power to seek a direction on financial and value for money matters, it might act as a constraint on the most egregious abuses of accepted standards of conduct of business."

They add: "We recognise too that some may argue that the way government is conducted is ultimately a matter for the prime minister, and the role of officials is simply to do what they are told. This is not, however, the principle that underpins the handling of public money in this country: the directions procedure allows officials to register their dissent and bring it to the attention of parliament. The periodic disastrous consequences of largely untrammelled prime minister power – whether, for example, in the cases of Suez or Iraq – suggest the issue needs properly to be addressed."


The BGI's intervention comes after Stephen Lovegrove, the current perm sec of the Ministry of Defence, revealed how his department was looking to learn lessons from the Chilcot findings.

"In pressurised, volatile situations we all know that organisations tend to default to comfortable ways of working, and Chilcot amply demonstrated the dangers of that," Ministry of Defence perm sec Stephen Lovegrove

Lovegrove said that, in the wake of the "sobering" report's publication, he had set up a team "led by a senior civil servant and working with military colleagues" to compare the situation described by Chilcot with the MoD's current operations to "make sure we do better in future".

"In pressurised, volatile situations we all know that organisations tend to default to comfortable ways of working, and Chilcot amply demonstrated the dangers of that," Lovegrove wrote on GOV.UK.

"For example, do we query our analysis of the world in which we operate strongly enough? Do we enable our people to challenge received wisdom? Are we good enough at thinking ourselves into the future? Do we check and double-check our strategies rigorously enough? Are we sufficiently diverse to embrace a range of perspectives in our decision-making? How adaptable are the various cultures within government?"

Partly as a response to concerns over Iraq, the UK's national security apparatus was overhauled by David Cameron when he took office in 2010. That included setting up a dedicated National Security Council to improve coordination between departments and provide sharper strategic focus on security issues.

But The BGI's paper questions whether Cameron's 2010 reforms alone are enough to ensure that there is no repeat of the Iraq experience, saying that subsequent interventions in Libya and Syria cannot be judged "an unalloyed success, even allowing for the innate difficulty of the problems to be tackled".

"As in the Iraq experience there remain questions over whether these new structures are properly resourced and whether the government has the understanding required to develop, implement, and refresh effective strategies as opposed to engaging in tactical problem-solving," they say.

Lovegrove said he felt the NSC was helping Whitehall to "do things in a pretty coherent, collaborative way" – but stressed that there was "absolutely no room for complacency".

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